Payback time

Migration of elites

It might be an interesting detail for a US President who has come up the Civil Rights ladder. The role caste politics in India has played in boosting Indo-US ties in recent years. The dynamics in the connection are somewhat awkward to explain, and are a theme for another article.

The Indian diaspora that went out to colonial plantations as indentured labour in the 19th century were all lower caste. But the one that went to the US since the ’70s were overwhelmingly upper caste.

Caste politics brought in its train a system of reservations in education and government jobs. Excellence, in other words, was being challenged by other social considerations because electoral politics had opened doors to burgeoning egalitarianism.

Entrenched class and caste elites (to accept socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s thesis) which had recycled themselves for centuries, saw themselves being replaced, in phases, by new classes/castes in the foreseeable future.

This began to happen in the ’90s. Don’t forget Mandir-Masjid politics coincided with the opening of the economy post cold war when Washington became the world’s most magnetic capital.

A steady stream of Indian students had begun to populate American universities since the early ’70s after the numbers going to Britain dropped. These universities were anathema during the colonial period: Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah were all creatures of British education.

Jayaprakash Narayan always had a complex because his father-in-law could only send him to Wisconsin. Britain remained the favoured destination for the recycled elite up to the ’60s. Three years at Cambridge or Oxford in those days cost no more than Rs 10,000.

The labour government under prime minister Harold Wilson took up ‘decolonisation’ seriously: British Councils were close down. There were few British scholarships. Meanwhile, the Indian elite ran out of money.

This was the turning point. US universities opened up their campuses to Indian students who, if they had ability, also had access to full scholarships. What began as driblets were regular streams by the late ’70s to ’80s. Indians with American degrees obtained in the ’70s are today in key positions in India.

This flow of Indians to the US coincided in the ’90s with the surge in ‘reservations’ in north India. Fearing total status reversal on account of reservations, the elite began to park their wards in the US, first through the university system then permanent residence and Green cards. Others joined the exodus.

High-ranking connection

There was hardly a prime minister who did not have a son, daughter or close relative in the US. Could other members of the cabinet have been far behind?

It would be interesting to have the following data: children of foreign service officers above the rank of joint secretaries, secretaries to government at the Centre, senior members of the armed services, senior journalists, whose children are studying or working or are the citizens of the US. They are not a negligible glue in Indo-US relations.

A large section of the Silicon Valley, large number of CEOs, and such like Indian success phenomenon are mostly post-Mandal happenings.

What Britain lost out in the ’60s has of course become America’s gain. But that is not all. It is this Indian diaspora which has powerful links in New Delhi and works as a strong binding factor.

There should be logical sequence to this trajectory. More educated and therefore upper caste Indians should be looking for pastures in the US. But will they? Joseph Stiglitz and others of his ilk who see the US economy in ‘Freefall’ (Stiglitz’s book) are painting the US in such lurid colours, that we may soon see US-bound Indians a diminishing commodity.

Bill Clinton’s famous three words, “the economy, stupid”, may give way to Barack Obama’s two words “Jobs, stupid”. This may be payback time. And here too, US faith in Indian talent appears to be paying off. Indian companies in the US are already employing 60,000 Americans. The wheel may well be coming full circle. More and more Indian entrepreneurs are examining profitability of investments in the US.

Obviously business newspapers will obtain a few headlines on Indian business outsourcing $10 billion in the US. Studies done by businesses on how outsourcing, in a roundabout way, ends up generating jobs will make for op-ed pieces. The expectation is that restrictions on ISRO, AEA, DRDO will be lifted, allowing them to do business with US firms.

Incidentally, talking of caste churning and how it differs from the Civil Rights movement which prepared the ground for Obama to be where he is, the differences between his educational reach and the home spun cunning of caste leaders, Salman Khurshid is just the right man to educate the visiting president on this as on Moghul history. Obama will certainly go back with a copy of ‘Sons of Babur,’ Salman’s maiden effort as playwright.

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