Sanjaya Baru | US does a lot for India, but India too does a lot for US

What the bilateral trade figures do not reveal is the transfer of wealth from India to the US through the export of talented Indian migrants

Ask not what the United States does for India, ask what India does for the United States. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought to have paraphrased that famous line from John F. Kennedy during his recent interaction with US President Joe Biden. In media reports of the virtual meeting between the two heads of government and the 2+2 meeting between the defence and foreign ministers of both countries that followed, the focus has largely been on how the United States can and does extend strategic support to India. It is helpful to remind ourselves and the US every now and then that India too has long extended strategic support to the United States.

Too much is made of the merchandise trade deficit of $23 billion that India enjoys with the United States. Former President Donald Trump and his administration’s trade representative made quite a fetish out of quoting it. The US seeks to wipe this out by doubling its defence sales to India from the present level of $21 billion, at the expense of several rival suppliers, especially Russia.

What the bilateral trade figures do not reveal is the transfer of wealth from India to the US through the export of highly talented Indian migrants. Indian brain power fuels the engines of education, research, innovation, corporate management and the services economy in the United States — all fields that give the US a global edge over its rivals and peers. As recently as in 1990, the total number of Indian migrants to the

US was estimated to be 450,000. By 2020, this was over 2.7 million.
Till the turn of the century economists viewed this migration as a “brain drain”. Over the past couple of decades they have come to view the Indian global diaspora as a “brain bank”. Whatever form this brain power takes, the fact remains that this Indian talent has contributed positively to all the countries hosting it. This “brain power” is India’s investment in the development of those host countries. One need not take a moral or political view of this phenomenon, whether it is good or bad, but one must quantify it and understand in what way India’s society and economy have contributed to the development of the countries that are receiving such talent.

In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited the Nobel Prize-winning American economist Milton Friedman to study India and offer his advice on its economic development. While Friedman made himself unpopular with Nehru by suggesting that the Planning Commission be wound up and the public sector be privatised, he made one prescient observation that ought to have been taken more seriously. The United States economy grew, Friedman wrote in a 1955 note to Nehru, because it had vast natural resources at its disposal and sucked in labour power from across the world. India has limited natural resources but a vast pool of people. Invest in your people, he suggested, and they will be for India what land and natural resources were for America.

It is one idea that has failed to capture the imagination of successive generations of the Indian political and intellectual leadership. Of course, India has invested in its people and many of them fuel the engine of growth. But compared to the vast pool of people available, the educated and skilled remain a limited set.

Worse, from this pool of talent, a sizeable number migrate to the developed world, mostly to the United States. It is, therefore, time for India to define the two-way relationship in a more balanced way, quantifying not just what the US does to support India’s rise but also what India and Indians do to support America’s global dominance.

India certainly needs the United States, not just for the guns, ships and jets that it can sell and the intelligence it can share, but for all the new technologies it can give access too. The United States also needs India, not just as an ally against China and a provider of low-cost defence personnel and services in this part of the world, but as a source of highly talented manpower that can ensure America’s global dominance in information technology-enabled businesses.

The US-India strategic partnership has often been viewed through the prism of third parties, and they are relevant to a certain extent. In dealing with the China-Pakistan axis, India has found its relationship with both Russia and the US to be helpful.

However, the US-India partnership also stands on its own legs precisely because it is a two-way street. This fact is not adequately appreciated, indeed generally not recognised, because it has not been quantified. What exactly has been the contribution of 2.7 million people of Indian origin to sustaining US global power?

Milton Friedman thought that population can do for India what natural resources did for the US. The irony is that the best of Indians are doing for the US what Friedman had hoped they would do for India. Of course, we in India must take full responsibility for this.

The out-migration of talent has both a pull and a push dimension and there is no point blaming individuals. The question to ask is what can more India do to retain its talent so that it can fuel the country’s development.

The problem of out-migration of talent has been accentuated in recent years by the shortage of opportunities at home as well as by domestic social and political trends. In my book India’s Power Elite: Class, Caste and a Cultural Revolution (2021) I show how the “secession of the successful” has accelerated in the past five years. The turn that domestic politics is taking may contribute to a further acceleration of this process.

The beneficiaries will be the countries of the Anglosphere — the United States, Britain Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

The government may be able to do very little to prevent this migration, and indeed it is doing a lot to make educated young Indians want to leave the country, but it can at least try and quantify it so that the host countries are aware of India’s generous contribution to their global dominance.

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