Looking Back and Taking Stock

By Samar Saha, Iwin, PA

e-mail:  samar_k_saha@yahoo.com

Samar SahaGrowing up in India in the 1950s, it was hammered into our brains that Indians and India were kept down by the ‘White’ rule and could flourish only under self-rule. To a young mind this seemed self-evident then. The ruthless colonial exploitation for the mind and wealth of the disunited India by the British and European Whites were the reason of our downfall.  People who were dear to us painted a dream of how things would change when we had won our freedom, and how we, the young ones, would make that change happen.

This message came from respected freedom fighters – both of the violent and non-violent kinds – and teachers, historians, journalists, and our elders. Gleaning over statistics and historical anecdotes in my teen years, I was convinced.  The 1950s was a decade of hope and dream.

Fast forward the calendar to 1970. I stopped in Bombay and spent a few days with my radical but intellectually brilliant school friend Umesh Dutta, on my way to New York with my green card in my pocket. Strangely, I was not exactly sure why I was leaving India.

My buddy was a researcher working in a prestigious institute. He was totally at a loss as to why I gave up my good job in a British company to go to an ‘uncivilized’ White country called the USA.  His parting words at the airport were, “Write me back if they still lynch Negroes on the street of New York.”  I never wrote back anything.  Slowly he faded from my memory.

I met Umesh this year after nearly forty years. Umesh searched me out on his own. I flew to Austin, Texas, and spent a few days at his son’s place.  Time had taken its toll. He is mellowed now compared to the radical he was. Now he lives in Mumbai in retirement.

I could still see that flash of brilliance in his eyes.  We finished the elaborate Thai dinner his daughter-in-law had made for us while relentlessly talking about our recollections of the past and our current state. He abruptly said with the patented twinkle in his eye: “I sum up India’s performance during the last 40 years in one sentence, Samar!  Indians have succeeded in countries ruled by Whites, but failed in their own.”

He continued: “India would have been the USA or Britain if our elders were smart enough.”  There was a dreadful silence as we finished our drinks without any further talk. I was thinking, “I dare not stop this guy now.  He’s on a roll and I must hear him out.”

We sat out on the deck in the comfortably cool Texan chill of the late evening and my friend continued.  “The harsh reality is that Indians have succeeded in countries ruled by Goras (Whites) in America, Britain and in other places, but failed in their own. Those who stayed back are pulled down by a disgraceful system that fails to encourage merit or talent, fails to allow people and businesses to grow, and keeps real power with politicians and their cronies. When Indians go to the Gora countries where there is a better sense of fair play and openness, they conquer the summits once occupied only by the Goras.”

He cited examples and I quietly listened.

•      Rono Dutta is head of United Airlines, the biggest airline in the world. Had he stayed in India, he wouldn’t have a chance in Indian Airlines, the only government-run airline then. Even if the top job was given to him by politicians, the trade unions would have ensured that he could never run it like United Airlines. Vikram Pundit was the CEO of Citigroup till recently, which runs Citibank, one of the largest banks in the world. Granted, Vikram Pundit was abruptly and unceremoniously fired by his chairman. Still, on his watch, the company turned around. 

•      Rana Talwar in his 40s is the head of Standard Chartered Bank, a large multinational bank in Britain. Had he been in India, he would perhaps be a branch manager in one of the government-owned banks — maybe an area manager — taking orders from politicians to give loans to politically favored clients.

•      Lakhsmi Mittal is the biggest steel baron in the world. India’s socialist policies kept the domestic steel industry government-owned. Mittal went to Indonesia to run his family’s first steel plant there. Once freed from the shackles of India, he conquered the world.

•      Subhash Chandra of Zee TV is now a global media king, one of the very few to beat Rupert Murdoch in his game. He could never have risen had he been limited to Doordarshan, a TV monopoly of the Indian government.  He used satellite TV to beam programs in India from Hong Kong. Once he escaped India, he soared.

•      Arun Netravali became the president of Bell Labs, one of the biggest R&D centers in the world with 30,000 inventions and several Nobel Prizes to its credit. Had he been in India, he would probably be struggling in the middle cadre of Indian Telephone Industries. Now, Microsoft has an Indian CEO; and Carnegie Mellon’s President is Subra Suresh, who headed the prestigious National Science Foundation.  Silicon Valley alone contains over 100,000 Indian multimillionaires.

“How many examples do you want, Samar? And you ask — why Indians in India are in such a mess?  I’ll tell you why.  It is our system rooted in history. We carry historical seeds of corruption in our veins. We cannot function within the rules of law.”

Umesh was indeed on a roll. I could not stop him even if I wanted to. He was very perceptive.  He continued.

“These Indians who have soared in the White-ruled West are the peak of the pyramid. Beneath these peaks, Samar, I see thousands and thousands of Indians educated in India and the US who have made imprints as dedicated doctors, professors, researchers, engineers, and mid-level managers in small and large hospitals and corporations. And some are running their own businesses.

“When Britain left India in 1947, India was the most advanced of all colonies with the best future. Today with a per-capita Gross National Income of only $1550, it is in 127th position among 180-plus countries in the world.

“Politicians say that is because of population explosion and poverty. But poverty is not the main problem. If the government was focused on good schooling and healthcare for all, and the infrastructure in the first 30 years after Independence in 1947, we could have managed poverty, and the population would not have exploded. We were 300 million in 1947. Remember Samar, education is the best contraceptive ever invented. Now India ranks near the bottom in the United Nation’s Human Development Index, but high up in Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

“And the rule-based society we inherited from the British is today in shambles. Instead only money, muscle and influence matter.

“At independence we were proud of our political leaders. Today, everybody knows they are scoundrels and criminals. They have created jungles of laws in the holy name of socialism, and used them to line their pockets and create patronage networks. No influential crook ever suffers. The Mafia flourishes unhindered — they have political connections.  The sons of politicians behave as if they’ll inherit their parents’ mantle. Talent cannot take you far in that environment.

“We are reverting to our ancient feudal system where no rules apply to the powerful. The British brought the abstract concepts of equality before the law. Sixty years later, citizens wail that India is a lawless land – the equivalent of the American Wild West in the East.”

I could not resist smiling at his colorful, insightful imagery.

“I have heard of an IAS probationer at the Delhi Training Academy pointing out that in India before the British came, making money and distributing favors to relatives was not considered a perversion of power. It was the very rationale of power. A feudal official had a duty to enrich his family and caste. Then the British came and imposed a new ethical code on officials. Indians in power today, even as they are imitating everything Gora, ask, ‘Why should we continue to choose the British codes and rules, now that we are independent?’

“The lack of transparency and perverting of rules at every opportunity are why talented Indians cannot rise in India. The Neta-Raj with cronies and retainers remains intact despite the economic liberalization.

“But once talented Indians go to rule-based societies, they take off. In those societies all people play by the same rules, more or less, all have freedom to innovate without being strangled by cliques and cronies.

“This, then, is why Indians succeed in countries ruled by Non-Indians, and fail in their own. It is the saddest story of the century. Be Indian but NOT in India.”

My friend finally stopped.  We rose up as the air got chillier outside. It was sad to see this train of thought in a radical patriot in his autumn years. He was totally disillusioned.

“But then again, Umesh, how come some Indians in India became billionaires?”  I asked.

It was past midnight. He was exhausted after this cathartic torrent. He said, “That will be on another day when you come to my home in Bombay.  Till then you keep searching the answer for yourself.”  ♦

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