India makes a power point”, triumphantly announced a Times of India headline when Hyderabad-born Satya Nadella was named the CEO of the software giant Microsoft, evoking its “Power Point” programme. The “India-on-the-move!” euphoria replicated the sentiment that another caption conveyed some years ago: “India, beauty superpower of the world, wins the Miss Universe crown!”
Wide-eyed reporters exuberantly recounted Nadella's school days and his love for cricket, pastries and comic-book heroes. Corporate analysts declared: “India has clearly emerged as the talent machine that is consistently churning out global CEOs”.
They cited Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), Anshu Jain (Deutsche Bank), and Laxmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal). Some attributed their success to high technical skills and capacity to work “in difficult situations”. Another commentator exhorted Indians to learn from Nadella, “put their differences aside and start helping one another.”
This breathless self-congratulation exposes the middle-class Indian's willingness to read the success of a handful of non-resident Indians (NRIs) as proof of the Indian nation's collective virtue and merit. Worse, it betrays a pathological urge to win the West's approval on terms unrelated to Indian society's well-being.
Several points arise. First, the NRIs in question are undoubtedly clever, talented, shrewd people who compete in the Western world. But they are Indians only in biological origin; most are foreign nationals. Their success has no positive consequences for India, and shouldn't be celebrated.
Nadella's appointment was reported very differently in the US. The New York Times mentioned India in just one line in a long article—solely with reference to his educational background.
Second, many business-oriented NRIs decided to migrate to the US—and thus secede from India—for a materially better life after having gained disproportionately from their privileged Indian background and highly subsidised quality education. Nadella, an Indian Administrative Service officer's son, went to a privileged school.
Third, lionising people like Nadella legitimises the US's “star system”, which generously rewards CEOs but severely underpays workers. America's CEO-worker differential has risen from 195:1 to 354:1 over 20 years despite the CEOs' recent under-performance (see www.ips-dc.org/reports/executive-excess-2013).
Fourth, some Indian-CEO-led US companies are downright unethical or engage in questionable practices. PepsiCo has greatly harmed people's health globally by promoting junk food. Deutsche Bank indulged in rampant financial speculation, and helped trigger the global Great Recession. Microsoft is an ugly monopoly. Their CEOs should be punished, not lionised.
However, so blinded is the Indian middle-class by Indian-Americans' success in business and politics that it ignores 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 also ignores success-stories gone sour, like those of Rajat Gupta and Mathew Marthoma, convicted for securities fraud and insider trading.
This is not to condemn all US-based NRIs. Many play a worthy role in the academic world and the professions and contribute richly to the social and natural sciences. Many, like Amartya Sen—not to speak of other social scientists—have retained their Indian citizenship and are an important part of India's intellectual conversation.
By contrast, NRI businessmen no worthwhile contribution to Indian society despite their great wealth. Indian-Americans, our Diaspora's wealthiest group, and the US' richest ethnic community, only have a minuscule share in remittances from migrants, estimated at $71 billion, the highest for any developing country, including China.
Two factors impel middle-class Indians to lionise Indian-origin CEOs. One is the “merit” fallacy: true merit is only rewarded in the West. The second is a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the developed countries and White people.
Here, privilege is confused with “merit”. A person born in a highly educated upper-caste family will have a totally different universe of knowledge, social contacts and elite acceptability compared to underprivileged people—and access to information about the availability of study courses, tutorial institutions, career options, professional advice, etc, which most Indians cannot even dream of.
Privilege has a cascading effect and overpowers talent. There is no universal, omnipresent entity called merit which is a hold-all 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 driven by prejudice as the discredited, unscientific, even racist “Intelligence Quotient” idea.
Real merit cannot be measured by competitive examinations, however fair. What these grade is speed, ability to anticipate limited kinds of questions, and familiarity with the techniques of answering them, besides doing rapid calculations.
A majority of India's successful candidates in IIT and medical entrance tests and civil service examinations pay lakhs of rupees to learn these techniques—because they have the money. So much for “merit”!
Acquiring such skills is not the same thing as comprehension of principles, or ability to engage in non-linear thinking, to innovate, or be original. Some of these qualities are desirable in varying ways in different professions. It is a pity that India has allowed its higher education institutions and civil services to be filled by relatively rich upper-caste people who possess such manufactured merit.
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 the Indian leadership's 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.
To imagine that such “achievements” can hide or excuse India's failures to root out widespread poverty or female foeticide, reduce gang rapes and punish communal atrocities, is to indulge in dangerous self-delusion. Like nuclear weapons, Nadella cannot provide a shortcut to the Great Power status that India's elite craves.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.