How This Economic Powerhouse Is Redefining Global Business
Author: Rafiq Dossani
Pub Date: November 2007
Your Price: $24.00
Page Count: 304
India: Not What It Seems
ONE NIGHT IN THE LATE 1970S, while attending a student-faculty mixer at Northwestern University's business school, a fellow Indian student and I, fresh off the boat, met a young assistant professor. Derek Smith was himself fresh off the boat to Chicago's shores, but from North Carolina. After a while, when we felt comfortable (a generous flow of wine undoubtedly helped), he remarked, "Boy, you two speak real good English!" Taken aback, I was about to retort, "Well, Indians have been speaking English longer than you Americans!" only to be upstaged by my friend's quicker response, "Some day, you will, too!"
With that one sentence, the good-natured Professor Smith, whose comment was made as a friendly gesture, probably deduced that Indians (1) speak good English, (2) are quick-witted, and (3) have prickly egos. A western diplomat dealing with India during the Cold War years might have concluded similarly. As diplomat Howard Schaffer has noted about the early years of India-U.S. relations, "Washington usually (had) unproductive relations at international forums with Prime Minister Nehru and his assertive and talented Indian colleagues. . . . For many Americans, India seemed to make a practice of biting the hand that might have fed it."1 Despite constant American attempts to bring India onto its side of the Cold War with generous offers of aid, Indian diplomats regularly rebuffed the United States for no apparent reason other than that the United States seemed patronizing.
Indeed, from an outsider's viewpoint and for many insiders as well, India has for decades seemed to be more preoccupied with its external image than with mustering the will, resources, and collaborations to succeed. There were, of course, isolated successes of global partnerships. A notable one was the Green Revolution, a program for introducing high-yielding cereal crops in irrigated areas. This solved the problem of food security for the urban middle classes but was more than offset by the continuance of deep rural poverty (see Chapter 13). Overall, the outcome was stagnation. As one journalist remarked, "Every time I come back from India, people ask me how India is changing. My reaction is, so far, the same: The phone system is better, the roads are worse, and not much else has changed."
More than thirty years have passed since my encounter with Professor Smith. Since then, (particularly over the past decade) the West has come to know India, but only somewhat. Nowadays, when they interact over the wires or on their home turf, westerners are impressed with Indians' professional skills, technological experience, legal knowledge, and the like. Attracted by lower labor costs, this leads many western businesspeople to consider outsourcing work to India. Yet, when they step off the plane for the first time, often their first instinct is to wonder why they did not take a flight to China instead.
A businessman from Oxford, England, visited Chennai (the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu) some years ago to see if he might set up a copyediting shop. His first reaction upon exiting the airport was that he felt hot. It was over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). And it was 3 A.M. The smells of the big Indian city, teeming with people even at that hour, were his next sensations, and they were not pleasant. At that point, he felt like telling his chauffeur to turn back.
However, as the days passed and he met the same professionals with whom he had conversed by phone from Oxford, he realized that a depth of talent was at hand. It made sense for him to set up shop in Chennai, where he now employs 500 copy editors. Apart from their skills, he notes appreciatively that the state bureaucracy neither discriminates against him nor for him. There are no expectations in return for doing business in Chennai. He prefers this to some other parts of Asia, where the infrastructure is specially tailored to foreign investors, but in return the foreign firm is expected to transfer skills or provide subcontracting work to local businesses. And, no surprise, these expectations are usually negotiated through a "must-have" local partner.
And yet visitors to India, as their visits increase in number, usually return home not just impressed but also distressed. Both emotions are caused by how little they really know the country. For instance, many businesspersons returning from Mumbai, the country's commercial center, report that the quality of professional skills excites them even as the slums attached, barnacle-like, to every high-rise building upset them. It is quite different from a visit to China, where the overwhelming impression is of a country united, self-reliant, and uniformly hard at work—and moving ahead as a result.
It is very difficult to get a handle on India because it is a land of heterogeneities and contradictions that are complex enough for anyone, not just an outsider. For example, a first-time visitor to Chennai is sure to be surprised at a uniquely Tamil phenomenon: giant fifty-foot cut-outs of politicians dominate the main thoroughfares of the city, and such politicians inspire nearly godlike devotion.
Even more interesting: These politicians come from lower castes and are representatives of parties that are composed of and supported by lower castes. It is proof of the state's progress against a long history of caste discrimination. Symbolically, it is as if the upper castes, after decades of oppressing the lower castes, must acquiesce to passing by at the feet of the lower castes as they drive through Chennai's high street, Anna Salai.
This is a fascinating development given the general failure of public action and politicians to remove caste separation in the rest of India. It was one of the first things that the businessman from Oxford observed about Chennai. Yet, had he visited some of the more rural areas of Tamil Nadu state, he might then have been particularly distressed by the common phenomenon of the two-glass roadside café. In such a place, since untouchables are outside the Hindu caste system, they cannot drink from the same glass as a caste Hindu. Therefore, separate glasses are kept for the two groups.
This seems inexplicable considering the cut-outs of lower-caste politicians, until one understands that Tamil Nadu leads the way in a disturbing recent development, that of majoritarianism (see Chapter 2). Majority groups (in this case, castes at the lower end of the caste system) have been uniting to ensure the exclusion of other groups (in Tamil Nadu's case, both the upper-caste Brahmins and the untouchables) from civic and political life. So an outsider's cursory glance would reveal the triumph of lower-caste members, but a deeper look reveals a more complicated picture.
Similarly, the perception of poverty is misleading. A much-quoted World Bank statistic is that 80 percent of Indians get by on less than two dollars a day—and 35 percent on less than a dollar. These figures make it appear as though India is a nation mired in deep poverty. The image it projects is of a country where rural labor is mostly landless and indebted, and urban labor is mostly involved in primitive services such as housecleaning and driving the cars of rich employers. Yet this, like many statistics, hides as much as it reveals.
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