“Wow!” I said when news flashed that one more Indian, Parag Agrawal, from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) had been appointed the CEO of Twitter, a global technology behemoth that is shaping opinions, politics and the lives of people around the world. Is this a cause for joy? Did the hearts of Indians swell with pride? Indeed. Which parent won’t rejoice at such an achievement? Is there any alma mater which will not be proud of students like Mr. Agrawal?
A mass exodus
Yet, there was something troubling, a vague disquiet about this achievement. Can India rightfully bask in the reflected glory of those who left its shores and rose to the very pinnacle of their profession in a foreign land? Is this not the U.S.’s achievement? Is it not the fertile ecosystem of the U.S. that helps spot talent and allows people to rise to the top? The U.S. has its dark spots but it holds a promise to millions, even penniless immigrants, that they can achieve their wildest dreams if they reach there. It is this America of opportunities that has beckoned millions of migrants over two centuries — not just Indians but people from every nook and corner of the world.
Mr. Agrawal’s journey has been similar to that of many Indians before him who we have admired over the years. Many CEOs are from the IITs and other well-known engineering colleges. After graduation, they headed to the U.S. and graduated from great universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Cornell. Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), Sundar Pichai (Alphabet and Google), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Arvind Krishna (IBM), Ivan Menezes (Diageo), Vasant Narasimhan (Novartis), Punit Renjen (Deloitte) and Ajay Banga (Mastercard) are some of those who rose to the pinnacle of their companies. There are thousands of successful techies in smaller companies who also migrated to lead a gilded life.
Technology dominates our business and life. Those who lead tech companies are the new rock stars and demigods of the modern world. They have eclipsed the old-world magnates of steel, oil, and automobiles — men like Paul Getty, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. But there are also other Indian migrants who have distinguished themselves in the U.S. in the fields of management education, science, medicine, and economics, among others. The number of leading physicians in medical schools and hospitals, investment bankers, and professors in academia boggles the mind. But the loftiest stars among them are the Indian-origin Nobel Laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics who pursued their higher education in the U.S. and settled there.
The troubling question is, why do our brightest minds fly to the West soon after graduation and mostly to the U.S.? The exodus from our premier institutions started in the late-1960s when private sector companies were few and there were few good jobs available in staid public sector undertakings. The government provided only a few hundred coveted positions each year in the Indian Foreign Service, Indian Administrative Service, and Indian Police Service. The rest joined revenue and allied services and lower-level grades which offered security and sinecure.
The exodus continues. Even as we fellow Indians feel a sense of pride at the prosperity of the Indian community in the U.S., we cannot but help feel a tinge of sadness too. India, even after over seven decades of independence, is mired in poverty and inequality while our most gifted head for the West.
When Non-Resident Indians — accomplished economists, scientists or CEOs — lecture India on what it should do to become a developed economy or how it should achieve equitable growth to alleviate poverty, there is a widespread feeling that they have lost their rights to give us such advice, even if it is sincere and well-intended, as they don’t live here. We who live here have to fight our battles and our injustice and make India a better place.
An insecure diaspora
But there is another lot of Indians too, millions of ordinary ones, largely in the U.S., who, cut off from their moorings and culture, turn inwards by building temples and forming regional as well as religious associations. This is an insecure diaspora which is not fully assimilated into the adopted westernised society and also alienated from its Indian roots. These NRIs have become more and more jingoistic and find false pride in spreading fake messages about ancient Hindu mythology — messages that Indians invented plastic surgery or rocketry or airplanes much before the West — and exhorting Hindus in India to be proud of their heritage and religion and guard against becoming a minority in their own nation. In doing so, they forget that they themselves are a minority in an alien land. At times like this, we feel a tinge of shame.
Seshadri Kumar, an IIT graduate from Bombay, with an MTech and PhD from the U.S., who returned to India, wrote recently in The Wire that it is not surprising that a “dozen of the top CEOs in the world come from a country with 18% of the world’s population.” He wrote: “So forgive me if I don’t join the celebrations. But you know who should really be proud. The Chinese. Because Chinese people did not need to go to the U.S. to rise to the top. They were able to create success stories for themselves sitting in China. And unlike Indians, who are merely CEOs of companies founded by Americans, like Google, Microsoft and Twitter, the Chinese entrepreneurs founded world beating companies in China – Alibaba, Tencent, Didi, Xiaomi, Great Wall Motors, Huawei, ZTE, Foxconn and many others. When Indians do that, I’ll join the party.”
That should wake up policymakers. What is India doing wrong? The greater glory is not in training engineers to become CEOs in the U.S. but in enabling a conducive ecosystem in India that creates world-beating companies and in building institutions that can produce Nobel Laureates. How can India create a climate that will prevent its best minds from going to foreign lands? The U.S., a nation of immigrants, is a capitalist, market-driven democracy. China is a communist country that has embraced capitalism along with authoritarianism and snuffed out freedom. Both have built a great economy and eliminated poverty. Which of these should India emulate? How can it progress while preserving its diversity and vibrant democracy? Should we not feel remorse that we have failed our youth who do not see a future here and fly to the U.S. after graduation? Shouldn’t we reflect about our own migrants and minorities and about their status in our society? Perhaps India is poor not because of a lack of resources or want of talent but because of its policies, polity and politics.
G.R. Gopinath is farmer, soldier and entrepreneur