Millennium Post

Bringing Nadella down to earth

Bringing Nadella down to earth
‘India makes a power point’, announced a front-page headline of a leading national daily with triumphant finality when Hyderabad-born Satya Nadella was named the CEO of the global software giant Microsoft, referring to the company’s well-known ‘Power Point’ programme. ‘India on the move!’ and ‘India raises [its] toast’, exulted other major papers.

The euphoria replicated the sentiment that another celebratory caption conveyed some years ago: ‘India, beauty superpower of the world, wins the Miss Universe crown!’ The exuberance continued for days: ‘Hyderabad overjoyed, friends elated’, as wide-eyed reporters recounted Nadella’s school days, his engineering education at Manipal and his love for cricket, pastries and comic-book heroes.

In a more serious vein, corporate analysts declared: ‘India has clearly emerged as the talent machine that is consistently churning out global CEOs’, citing success stories like those of Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), Anshu Jain (Deutsche Bank), Ajay Banga (MasterCard) and Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal).’ Some attributed these to Indian CEOs’ ability to think ‘logically’ (as if other CEOs don’t!), their high technical skills and their capacity to adapt to and work ‘in difficult situations’.

Another commentator celebrating Nadella’s success said: ‘That an Indian can lead the world’s top software company is an important milestone for Indian-Americans and for America. But the larger message is for India itself: imagine what Indians can achieve at home if they put their differences aside and start helping one another.’ Voila, all our problems will vanish instantly! This view is fashionable: the same Indians do much better abroad because we stifle them at home.

What this crass self-congratulation and nationalist hype exposes is the middle-class Indian’s willingness to suspend critical judgment and read the success of a handful of individual non-resident Indians (NRIs) as a tribute to the Indian nation’s collective virtue, merit and accomplishment as a ‘talent machine’. Worse, it betrays a pathological urge to win the West’s approval on its terms, which have nothing to do with the reality or well-being of this society.

Several points are in order. First, the NRIs in question are undoubtedly clever, talented and shrewd people who know how to compete in the Western world. But they are almost as far removed from India as their foreign-origin colleagues. They are Indians only in biological origin; most have become foreign nationals. NRI businessmen’s success has no positive consequences for Indian society, and shouldn’t be celebrated here at all.

The contrast between India and the United States in the way Nadella’s appointment was reported is telling. In contrast to the breathlessness with which his Indianness was emphasised here, The New York Times mentioned India in just one line in a long article on him – solely with reference to his educational background. The rest of the article was devoted to his professional career.    
 
Second, many business-oriented NRIs consciously decided to migrate to the US – and thus secede from India – for a materially better life there after having gained disproportionately from their privileged social background and access to good-quality, highly subsidised education in India. Thus, Nadella, an Indian Administrative Service officer’s son, went to a privileged private school.

Such education opens up opportunities of awareness, contacts with equally privileged peers, and access to higher education which most Indians cannot even dream of. This cascading effect of privilege arguably overpowers inherent talent or merit. People who emigrate abroad ought to be made to repay what the Indian government has spent on educating them.

For instance, the government spends about Rs 16 to 20 lakhs to educate students for a BTech degree from our Indian Institutes of Technology. But the IITs bill students just Rs 2 to 2.5 lakhs for the course. Ages ago, there was a proposal to recover the difference from graduates who migrate abroad and effectively subsidise US corporations. This has never been done. Third, by celebrating the achievements of people like Nadella, we legitimise the US’s unique ‘star system’, which over-generously rewards CEOs but severely underpays workers. The CEO-worker differential in the US has risen from 195:1 to 354:1 over the past 20 years. This is doubly obscene given that the exchequer subsidises CEOs with tax breaks despite their own recent under-performance.

Fourth, some of the US companies in which Indian CEOs have flourished are downright unethical or engaged in questionable practices like speculation. PepsiCo has done immense harm to people’s health globally and in India by promoting junk food. Deutsche Bank indulged in rampant financial speculation, contributing to factors which triggered the global Great Recession. Microsoft has created an ugly monopoly. Their CEOs should be deplored and punished, not lionised. The less said about the unethical practices of Anil Aggarwal’s Vedanta Group or Arcelor Mittal, the better. And yet, many in our media see no irony in celebrating the recent achievement of a combined business turnover of $350 billion by ‘top-10 Indian-origin’ CEO-led companies – a sum that exceeds the value of India’s annual exports. This speaks of a perverse, not healthy, reality.

However, so blinded are we by the successes of Indian-origin Americans in business and politics that we ignore the downright reactionary role of people like Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who changed his name and religion to conform to the US Right’s expectations. It’s another matter that besides CEO success stories like Nadella’s, there are also people like Rajat Gupta and Mathew Marthoma, who have been convicted for securities fraud and insider trading.

This is not to condemn all NRIs, especially those based in the US. Many play a worthy role in the academic world and the professions and have contributed richly to the social and natural sciences. Many, like Amartya Sen – not to speak of other social scientists—have refused to surrender their Indian citizenship and remain an important part of India’s intellectual conversation.

Such academics must be demarcated from NRI businessmen, who make no worthwhile contribution to this society despite their great wealth. Indeed, Indian-Americans, the richest group in our Diaspora, and the most affluent of all US ethnic groups, only have a minuscule share in our remittances from migrants, estimated at $71 billion, the highest for any developing country, including China. Our balance of payments would be in deep trouble without the remittances.
Two factors impel middle-class Indians to lionise Indian-origin CEOs abroad. One is the ‘merit’ fallacy: true merit is only rewarded in the West – as it should be everywhere, but isn’t. The second is a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West and White people.

Here, privilege is confused with ‘merit’. A person born in a highly educated savarna (upper-caste) family will have a totally different universe of knowledge, social contacts and elite acceptability compared to underprivileged people – and wholly different access to information about the availability of study courses, tutorial institutions, career options, professional advice, etc.

There is no universal, omnipresent entity called merit which is a hold-all substitute for such disparate things as mental agility, depth of comprehension, mathematical talent, analytical abilities, or flair for noticing connections between apparently dissimilar things. This notion of merit is as vacuous and as driven by prejudice as the discredited ‘Intelligence Quotient’ idea whose application to rate different social, ethnic or national groups hierarchically has been proved unscientific, even racist. Real merit cannot be measured by one-day competitive examinations, however fair.

The second phenomenon, of hankering for recognition from the West is even more pernicious, but deeply rooted in our colonial past. It originates in racist prejudice against people of colour and the assumption that White people are inherently superior and more talented or gifted. This is a load of nonsense and speaks of the Indian elite’s low self-esteem.

It is in such self-esteem and lack of confidence in our own ability to launch a collective social project of equal citizenship, equal rights and equal access to basic services for all that the hero-worship of the Nadellas is rooted.

IPA
Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai

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