I am sitting in a roomful of white people and NRIs bleached white by their green cards and PIO cards. They have made quite an art of telling us what’s wrong with our country. True, much is. But I don’t buy their story (that’s also the RSS story) that Indians are God’s chosen people.
How we fare in India or anywhere depends on the socio-economic eco-system. We have all kinds of NRIs. The British NRI usually has a brown collar lowbrow job or is a small trader. Some are NHS doctors. The American NRI is often a highly paid, qualified professional. But despite the differences, they have one thing in common. They think they are a special people who have earned the right to lecture us. They must thank us we’ve kept India a free country with the patience to listen to them.
I recently received an email on the lines of: "We’re flourishing in the US and Britain. But those who stay in India are pulled down by an outrageous system that fails to reward merit or talent, fails to allow people, businesses to grow… Once Indians go to white-ruled countries, they soar and conquer summits once occupied only by whites." There is an essential truth in this.
Typically, such self-laudatory messages, which list people like Indira Nooyi, Sunder Pichai, Satya Nadella and others who are lauded on their fleeting visits to India, don’t mention S. Chandrashekar, Hargobind Khurana, V. Ramakrishnan and Amartya Sen, all Nobel laureates who have brought India much honour.
Other nationalities to do well in America. George Soros is Hungarian. Steve Jobs was the son of Lebanese immigrants. Then there is Barack Obama, son of a Luo tribesman from Kenya, arguably the best POTUS in recent times. Now we also have Kamala Harris, a heartbeat away from the US presidency.
Boris Johnson is the grandson of a Turk and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar is the son of a Mumbai doctor married to an Irishwoman. People of Chinese origin have won the Nobel eight times. US scientists of Japanese origin have won five science Nobels. Even Pakistan has a couple of Nobels. It’s not just Indians who are special. What is special are the societies and systems that allow talent and genius to flourish.
This success of some Indians overseas has led to a certain NRI mentality that makes them believe they have answers to all our myriad problems just because they have done "well" overseas. They forget they are not as special as the societies that give them a better shake in life. They think they are successful as they have realised a Western lifestyle and Western incomes.
Our political and bureaucratic leaders too seem to be considerably impressed by these "achievements" and the annual fests hosted by the government to laud our NRIs is typical of this mentality. We don’t seem to realise that NRIs and PIOs can’t do much and actually do very little to benefit India. They have few investments in India and our investment in them is still far greater.
Most of the MNC FDI in India is by resident Indians who round trip illegally ferreted out wealth from foreign havens. The biggest investment some NRIs make in India is by investing in high interest-bearing NRI deposits in Indian banks. Most simply borrow from US banks at low rates and make a good pile each year on the interest differentials. The problem is such funds now constitute a huge Damocles sword that by being able to take flight fast is a constant threat to our house of cards — Aadhaar, PAN, debit and PIO included.
Of the $450 billion-odd foreign exchange reserves now, over $150 billion are reckoned to be the combined contribution from the Indian diaspora via deposits. Remittances are about $70 billion — mostly from our less privileged NRI brethren who toil in the most adverse conditions in the Middle East, Africa and other hard places to support their families in India. The NRIs who talk at our Pravasi Bharatiya melas hardly remit any money back home, but they talk a lot telling us what we should do.
Some of them forget India adds a dozen billion-dollar companies each year and at last count we had over 250 of them. Indians head almost all of them. An Indian today is the head and major owner of the world’s second-biggest mobile telephony company here in India.
Indians can do well and do well in India. They send up rockets to the moon and Mars, perform heart transplants, design satellites, splice genes, write code and so many things considered at the edge of the new frontiers of technology. And they can do this far more frugally than anyone else. The Mars orbiter cost us just Rs 450 crore, or about $73 million, and Isro succeeded in its very first attempt. There is one thing that gives the NRI a leg up.
The educated NRI, some of them, are mostly better educated. The Western university system, particularly the American, is the foundation of their collective superiority and achievement. The emphasis on self-learning and research makes them special. I would even say that an average US state university offers a better quality of education than our elite institutions like IITs and IIMs, and the koi hai colleges of our big cities. The quality of faculty, libraries and research facilities are far superior. What makes our elite institutions elite is the quality of the student population. They are winnowed from millions by the world’s most ruthlessly competitive system. Even the beneficiaries of reservation are better than the general average. Rightly, we take the foreign-educated a bit more seriously. Once, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar exasperatedly asked me what I had learnt at Harvard? And what did I learn that I didn’t know before? I told him that I learned a foreign degree makes big people like him take me seriously. To that he replied: "Wo tho sahi hai!"
There’s a lot that is wrong with India. We can and should be doing much better. Nevertheless, India’s per capita GDP has grown six times over in the past two decades. It has grown annually at about seven per cent since 2000. Its GDP in PPP terms is the third-largest in the world, and many Western financial institutions, like Citibank and Standard Chartered Bank, forecast it to be the world’s largest by 2050. That’s just thirty years from now.