Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Nadella as Microsoft CEO: A slap in the face for Indian system

Nadella as Microsoft CEO: A slap in the
face for Indian system

Editor's note: This article was first published
when Satya Nadella was appointed CEO of
Microsoft. In light of his visit to India, we are re-
publishing the article.
Is the appointment of Satya Nadella a feather in
India's cap or a slap in the face for the Indian
While Indian newspapers were over the moon
about Nadella's elevation, with some justification,
there is another side to the story we need to
consider: why is it that India's tech and other
geniuses flower only in the US or Silicon Valley?
Why is it that every India-origin person to win a
Nobel after independence in the sciences is not an
Indian citizen any more? Hargobind Khurana won
the prize for medicine in 1968, Subrahmanyan
Chandrasekhar for physics in 1983 and
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan for chemistry in
2009. All of them flowered only because they left
India, and not because they were Indians per se.
They left India behind.
In fact, Ramakrishnan was downright rude when
Indians called to congratulate him in 2009. He
said: "We are all human beings, and our
nationality is simply an accident of birth.” He
also complained about "all sorts of people”
writing to him and "clogging up my email box .
It takes me an hour or two to just remove their
While his immediate reaction may seem churlish
to us, underlying it all is the real issue: our
"Indian” successes abroad have little to do with
the fact that they are Indian. They succeed
because they abandoned India.
We need to ask ourselves: why does our system
kill future heroes, while the US helps raise even
ordinary Indians to iconic levels? It would not be
out of place to mention that it is well-nigh
impossible for 99 percent of Indian aspirants to
get admissions even to an IIT or IIM, but it is far
simpler to get into an Ivy League institution. If
you don't get into an IIM, you try Harvard.
The short point: our system is designed to keep
people out, not get them in. The true value of an
IIT or IIM is not the intellectual capital they
produce, but their filtering expertise – which
keeps all but the superlisters out of these
institutions. When the people entering the
institution are the best among the best, they will
shine no matter what the quality of faculty or the
Perhaps this comes from our caste system, where
castes try and keep others out, but we are stuck
with this system of exclusion .
Our system encourages talkers rather than
doers. We think this makes us "argumentative”
and democratic, but what this actually makes us
is obstructionist rather than problem solvers. Our
politics is about name-calling and running others
down, not about doing something yourself. A
Narasimha Rao and a Vajpayee who achieved
something are voted out; a UPA-1 which did little
beyond distributing taxpayers' resources is voted
This is one reason why we celebrate the rare
achievers so highly: TN Seshan, who armed the
Election Commission with real teeth, Vinod Rai,
who made CAG a household name, and E
Sreedharan, the former boss of the Delhi Metro.
And yet, we find the political class carping about
them and calling them dictators.
This is also the reason why we prefer autocratic
rulers rather than democratic ones: we know we
talk more than we act. To get things done, we
prefer an autocrat to rule over us rather than
exercise self-discipline as democrats. All our
successful political parties are one-person shows.
The latest heading in that direction is BJP – which
was all talk and no achievement for 10 years in
opposition till Narendra Modi came along and was
lauded for being a doer.
If leaders emerge from our system, it's due to a
historical accident. As Ramchandra Guha points
out in his book Patriots and Partisans, if Lal
Bahadur Shastri had lived five more years,
Indira Gandhi would not have been PM and
Sonia Gandhi would still be a housewife .
We are risk-avoiders rather than risk takers.
This is why we prescribe endless paperwork and
bureaucracy for simple things like opening a bank
account or buying a mobile phone connection. A
terrorist would have used an untraceable mobile
number – after which every Indian buying a
mobile will be put through hoops to prove he is a
bonafide consumer. This does not catch any
terrorist, but the idea is for officials to avoid the
risk that fingers will be pointed at you saying you
did nothing to prevent terrorism. So orders will
be issued to tighten the system and make things
worse for everybody.
A scam will happen somewhere. Suddenly files
stop moving in every ministry. Forest clearances
will take ages – or never happen. The risk of
being seen as doing something wrong is great.
And so the buck is passed to someone else in the
Sonia and Rahul want to be seen as do-gooders.
So the dirty work of reform will be handed over
to Manmohan Singh – who is another risk-
avoider. He will do nothing and allow the A Rajas
to loot the exchequer rather than do his job.
Doing nothing is safer than asking tough
questions of his babus or ministers.
The BJP and other opposition leaders know that
populist laws like the Food Security and Land
Acquisition laws will damage the fiscal balance.
But they too avoid risks by keeping quiet when
wrong laws are passed.
As a people, we are risk-avoiders as well. We
know the IITs and IIMs are the way to big jobs.
So when our kids want to become artists or
cricketers, we tell them to forget it and study for
IIT-JEE or CAT, never mind your own passion.
Our engineers stop being engineers and start
coding; they then opt for doing an MBA and
become lousy man managers. Meanwhile, our
engineering companies are starved of engineers.
We are simply unable to tolerate success. If
Modi talks about a Gujarat model, everybody has
to bring it down. If Rahul claims his
government's biggest achievement is the RTI,
everyone will belittle it. If Chidambaram claims
high growth as UPA's success, the Left will say
this growth is not helping the poor. If we say
poverty has reduced, others will say it hasn't. If it
has, our definition of poverty must be wrong.
We celebrate mediocrity, rather than
excellence. Our system kills initiative rather than
engender it. We want pliable yes-men and non-
achievers around us, not non-conformists and
people with ideas of their own.
Our successes are more the result of accident
than real effort. The 1991 external bankruptcy
forced us to reform and liberalise. Manmohan
Singh's reformism ended with that accident.
Another accident made him PM in 2004, but he
did little to use this chance to reform further. We
are paying the price for his risk-aversion.
A Satya Nadella, who is from Manipal , would
never have made it big in India since he is not
from the IITs. But even IITians don't flower much
in an Indian corporate or academic environment;
they leave India and prefer working with foreign
If Satya Nadella had remained in India, he would
probably be working as a coder in Infosys or TCS.
Earning a high salary no doubt, but an unlikely
candidate for CEO.

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