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When 'national pride' trumps obvious questions

December 22, 2021 14:10 IST

Should we not stop uncritically celebrating NRIs' elevation without regard to what kind of companies they are getting to run, and the nature of their products or business practices, asks T N Ninan.

IMAGE: Parag Agrawal, Twitter's new CEO. Photograph: Parag Agrawal/Twitter

One cannot blame successful people for being successful people.

But is it time to stop uncritically celebrating every time an Indian-born techie gets to head a giant corporation overseas without regard to what kind of companies they get to run, and the nature of their products or business practices?

Or should national pride trump such questions?


But first give credit where it is due.

One has to acknowledge the achievements of those who make the hike from India to a new country with a different culture, qualify for prized degrees at storied universities, and then work quickly up the corporate ladder to reach the top when still in their 40s, or (in the case of Twitter's Parag Agrawal) even earlier.

Whether it is genes, Indian school and technical education, knowledge of English, or a culture of hard work, these are people who had what it took to get past whatever colour or cultural barriers may have stood in the way.

To be sure, the US is a largely meritocratic society and Silicon Valley even more so.

Still, it would have been especially hard for a woman like Pepsico's Indra Nooyi, given her double-shift.

So the real achievement is that first-generation immigrants prospering in this fashion is not a surprise any longer, though the media still gets excited every time.

Perspective also helps. If an Indian's success abroad is some sort of vindication of the mother country, three Africans currently head international organisations: The World Health Organization, World Trade Organization, and International Finance Corporation. No Indian does.

The Chinese could potentially have had a bigger presence in Corporate America, given that there are many more Chinese students in Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses at US universities.

But most of them have headed back home. Some have built Chinese companies to compare with America's Facebook, Amazon, and the rest, though of course behind the protective Great Wall of China -- something no Indian has managed as yet.

All the more reason why there is a question or two to be asked of these very worthy NRI champions about their companies' endless controversies: Billion-dollar fines over monopolistic practices, tax dodges, free-riding on other people's content, and playing footsie with dodgy political elements -- so much so that some of these companies are seen as threats to open societies.

Questions arise also about companies that peddle food products that are bad for health, and contributors to the financial crisis of 2008.

In this larger framework, does it really matter that it is Indians, and not people of some other ethnicity, who are running some of these companies?

To her credit, Ms Nooyi led the charge for changing Pepsi's product range possibly because she was smarter than others in seeing how the link between unhealthy food and health would gain salience.

As an aside, there is a delicious story (told in a recent Foreign Policy article) about Pepsi's celebrated CEO Don Kendall buying 17 Soviet submarines plus some surface naval ships in the 1980s, to ease access to the Soviet consumer market.

These vessels were bought for being shipped to the junkyard, not fighting a war (though Kendall did instigate the CIA-organised coup in Chile, in 1973), but the joke was that Pepsi owned the world's sixth-largest navy! Talk about business ingenuity.

To return to the original point, if we are to celebrate first-generation NRIs, the time has come to balance it by asking questions.

And while we are about it, to focus also on those who excel in less conflicted fields like public policy or academics.

Not just the growing list of Nobel Laureates but first-generation immigrants like Neeli Bendapudi, chosen to be president of a leading American university, Gita Gopinath, named No 2 at the International Monetary Fund, and Rishi Sunak, touted as a future British prime minister.

Increasingly, people of Indian origin sit across the table from Indian representatives and negotiate on behalf of some other country, or single-handedly bowl out India's cricket team!

Soft power comes in many forms, and its NRI corporate variant may be among the more questionable.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

T N Ninan
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