Ruled By Class Privilege and Manufactured Merit

BY PRAFUL BIDWAI

‘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 well-known ‘Power Point’ programme. ‘India on the move!’ exulted other major papers.

This euphoria replicated the sentiment that another caption conveyed some years ago: ‘India, beauty superpower of the world, wins the Miss Universe crown!’ For days on end, wide-eyed reporters exuberantly recounted Nadella’s school days, his engineering education and his love of cricket, pastries and comic-book heroes.

Corporate analysts ponderously declared: “India has clearly emerged as the talent machine that is consistently churning out global CEOs”, citing the examples of Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), Anshu Jain (Deutsche Bank), and Laxmi 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 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…imagine what Indians can achieve at home if they put their differences aside and start helping one another.” This echoed a fashionable view: Indians do much better abroad because we stifle them at home.

This crass, breathless self-congratulation exposes the middle-class Indian’s willingness to suspend critical judgement 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. Worse, it betrays a pathological urge to win the west’s approval on terms which have nothing to do with the wellbeing of Indian 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 Indians only in biological origin; most have become foreign nationals. Their success has no positive consequences for India, and shouldn’t be celebrated here at all.

There’s a telling contrast between India and the United States in the way Nadella’s appointment was reported. The New York Times mentioned India in just one line in a long article on Nadella – solely with reference to his educational background. The rest 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 background and highly subsidised quality education in India. Nadella, an Indian Administrative Service officer’s son, went to a privileged private school.

People who emigrate abroad should be made to repay what the government has spent on educating them – about Rs 2 million for a degree at the Indian Institutes of Technology, which charge them only one-tenth as much. Ages ago, there was a proposal to recover the difference. It was aborted.

Third, celebrating the achievements of people like Nadella legitimises the ‘star system’ in the US, which generously rewards CEOs but severely underpays its workers. America’s CEO-worker differential has risen from 195:1 to 354:1 over the past 20 years. This is doubly obscene: the CEOs get tax breaks despite their own recent under-performance (for details, see www.ips-dc.org/reports/executive-excess-2013).

Fourth, some of the US companies in which Indian CEOs have flourished are downright unethical or engaged in questionable business practices. Some beverages have done immense harm to people’s health globally by promoting junk food. Banks have indulged in rampant financial speculation, of the kind that triggered the global Great Recession. Companies like Microsoft have created ugly monopolies. Their CEOs should be punished, not lionised.

However, so blinded is the Indian middle-class by the successes of Indian-origin Americans 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 Martoma, convicted for securities fraud and insider trading.

This is not to condemn all NRIs or those based in the US. 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 refused to surrender their Indian citizenship and remain an important part of India’s intellectual conversation.

By contrast, NRI businessmen and CEOs make no worthwhile contribution to Indian society despite their great fortunes. Indeed, Indian-American businessmen, the richest group in the Diaspora, 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 rewarded in the west, as it should be. The second is a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the west and white people.

Privilege is here 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, and 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, Microsoft and Nadella too offer no shortcut to the Great Power status that India’s elite craves.

-the writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi

-courtesy: The News International