Preface: This a subject on which I have wanted to share my views, particularly with the business fraternity for a while now, but nowadays we fear everything ‘said’. Finally today, 24.5.2017, an article in HT titled “India open to foreigners if they are white” by Harry Stevens http://paper.hindustantimes.com/epaper/viewer.aspx prompted me to just go ahead and add my related experiences to this whole ‘R’-hash that has been so much in news and open debate
Decades ago, I added some bit to my education and found work in a US shipyard. The highlight of my youth’s first ‘landlubber’ job amidst a still vibrant blue collar America was to be recognized as a man with “brains’ just for being an Indian and ‘them’ could be from US, Africa, EU or anywhere for that matter. Indians and the Chinese find highest merit from the Universities to highest rungs of professionalism. In the Sci-fi movies too, the final launch is never complete without a Indian and Chinese tapping on keypad vigorously and looking intelligently at the virtual monitor, even as the hero is always American (lol?). Along with the “smartie” quips I got from Americans back then for my public school English, there were those pungent and irritable queries like “hey, you from India…wow! Ummm…do they have roads out there?”
Even before that as a debutant marine engineer on ships it was my good fortune to land in New York as my first port of call only to be welcomed at a local Pizza parlor by this teenage punk who respectfully says “hey, you just came in today, so how did you learn to speak English so soon?”.
I have been part of some decent delegations to trigger business ventures in Africa and Latin America and always found immense respect by the people anywhere in the world, many still on my Facebook. Even as a young business development executive in India handling the Swiss and Germans to set up business JV inside of India at the time of India’s “opening up of economy” (every government “opens” it up now and then, again and again; but this was about early ‘90s). In last decade, so many times a proud African youngster in the government or a development bank executive have welcomed me simply for being from India and many owed their education to a Mr. Ramamurthy or Ms. Vidya from India; not to forget that IITs have a quota for African students doing Ph.D who return back to their country at quarter of the salary we ‘smarties’ get, now that we are “the Expats” who are rapidly getting marginalized under a African Bloc quota which gives preference to hire local people. Remember, we said all that to the Germans and British whom we went to receive at airports back in the nineties? Now we just dispatch Ola or Uber to them, right?
But as for my message, there is an entirely divergent message coming to me from the clients and ownerships who have hired me in past and are still certainly my potential bread possibilities in future too. Many like them are headed for the African Development Bank (AfDB) meet called by PM in Gujarat sometime around this week itself. I am sure the recently highlighted Greater Noida episodes with people of African origin, a superimposing China on a new ‘silk route’ along our borders are events that will only add to a growing wave which carries potential to wipe out historic pluses enjoyed by Indian business and social impact of Indianness deeply embedded in the ‘dark’ continent. It surely impacts my kind of Indian soldiers fighting economic battles in developing poorer countries on strength of large Indian business houses and I find many lessons in what Mr. Steven has written about how the ‘white’ sees us Indians. Also, I can perfectly relate to this growing breed of international business crusaders who all call ‘a spade a spade’ and are comfortable talking freely and casually on complex issues facing the world with like-minded people as often happens in transit at Airport lounges.
As for my own observations within business fraternity of Indian origin, many times I have had people impress upon me, whenever I suggest that it is time to change some of our attitudes with comments like “these people will never change. We have done so much for them but they will never be thankful”. I find these too generic to cover an entire continent!
The crux of the matter to me is in our desire for another to be ‘eternally thankful’, a historic and very Indian phrase, which means that the other should bend and touch the other’s feet. With my morning school prayer quoted from Tagore “to give and not to count the cost” we have to really think hard if ‘buying’ gratitude and faithfulness is the right thing to do in a highly connected and wired world where youth are all the same.
In 21st century India, it is no more “in” to re-quote mentors of past who shaped post-independence thinking unless we are a ‘branded’ nationalist. Even MK Gandhi’s stories of apartheid can be a ‘fault’ if the rationale of some of the business leaderships who have only touched these countries in midst of business, but never quite kept on hold the ethos nor treasured ‘goodness’ as a ‘strength’ and our own superior intellect as a result of our own growth from poverty. In this day and age we consider even comparative poverty, political equations and color of others as weakness and ‘giving’ as a short term plan to gain power or profits, with no thought to long term equations nor fact that losing our reputation will close us to future possibilities of a new world, new gen or quite simply ‘the global village’ where ‘more money’ won’t buy ‘more love’ (that, we were already getting!) whereas projects which could be normally won or ‘closed’ earlier will get lost on ‘local preference clauses’ if not local ego by a young generation asking jobs and modern living worldover.
I spent many days in city of Addis Ababa, trying to make pact with some local infrastructure contractors around the stadium area. We would spend the afternoons discussing business, eating local injera and shiro, from the same plate as is the custom there. They bought me the beer and food most of the time by then (usually it is understood that the Indian will pay). Then the leader speaks to me late in the afternoon as the sun is setting and what he had to say, stumped me for long time to come – “Yogi, I respect whatever you are saying. I am even willing to put money if you can get us this project, but you know for all the Indian people I have worked with, there’s always something that is saying ‘what will you give me’ and I am never certain if the money will ever come to me and I must run after them like I don’t deserve my dues. All that is fine, you are smart businessmen, but you know in my house where I pray, I have kept a picture of Xi Jinping”. I will not elaborate; but to anybody working in these countries, the modern day Chinese executive can be an eye-opener, if you can just get them to talk.
Poor people, colorful people all like us, come with a History of wisdom and Ethiopia is as much known for Solomon and beauty of Sheeba as it is for the famous famine where we still see them and all of Africa as hungry and begging (remember Satyajit Ray movies?). Similarly, there lies a whole 80% of Africa that is ‘young’ after mass genocides, tribal wars have ended 2 decades ago to bring them, like India, a new generation of educated mostly by Indians (most African leaders invited Indian teachers as a prime agenda for development). In the process, our lowly paid intellectual rarely given merit in our own country found worth and World Bank dollars to give Africa a ‘thumbs up’. I am one of them, a seeker through whom the people of color and silent beliefs of “Solomon” have sent this message, along with a quip of their own “..are Indians white?”
You see, the world is round and it is really, tit for tat. This is what Jawaharlal Nehru said for Indians going overseas for work or business post independence “wherever in this wide world there goes an Indian, he carries a little of India with him”. May I add in reverse “… and he who comes back through true exploration and honest acceptance, humanity in its intellect and beliefs for self-sustenance is the same”, so respect everybody and you will find respect.
PS: Dear friends, when India invests in a poorer country what do we want in return? Indian banks have set up more branches in ‘dark’ continent in recent years than all of history, but who is pledging their assets when there is no faith under global trends of protectionism and we must ‘compete’ when ‘acceding’ under government money had become our habit? This is what our dynamic leaderships of today will have to answer in Gujarat, while remembering that the conference called by Modiji two years ago in Delhi did find Modi jackets attractive to African leaders but if our fellow fraternity looks adamant “Black is Black” then we also must look at many cases where African governments blacklisted some Indian suppliers and contractors for “poor” quality materials and services whenever consigner or client happens to be Africa. This is the ‘change factor’ of new Africa, yet unknown to many of us; even as we accepted China doing that to us in past. This is the circle and cycle of ‘development’.