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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Satya Nadella ascension: misleading triumphalism

The elevation of India-born and schooled Satya Narayana Nadella to chief executive officer at Microsoft Inc, USA — the world’s most well-known IT corporation (annual revenue: $77.85 billion or Rs.484,149 crore) — has been widely reported in the media. All reports were anchored by a streak of pride proclaiming it as an Indian achievement. This puffing of the collective chest is one more indication that the media responds to such stimuli in an overwrought manner, used as they are to what Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul described as “a negative way of perceiving” events and trends.

Elaborating on his construct in India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), Naipaul wrote: “In an active, busy country, full of passion and controversy, it is not an easy thing to grasp, this negative way of perceiving. Yet it is fundamental to an understanding of India’s intellectual second-rateness… (which) may be the most startling and depressing thing about the world’s second most populous country.”

Naipaul’s insightful observation is still valid in the second decade of the new millennium. After a decade of promising growth and unlocking of the nation’s unlimited potential, India’s “second-rateness” seems to have overwhelmed it. Everywhere one turns, the promise seems to be in terminal decline with the media typically blaming government. This is the essence of this “negative way of perceiving” — externalize the problem and bring in fascists or anarchists to save the day. Any option is preferable to deep thinking and introspection.

At the heart of the problems debilitating the nation and Indian society, is a dysfunctional education system. Indeed, it may not be too far off the mark to tag the Nadella ascension as a full-blown indictment of the Indian academy. The higher education system does produce world-class scientists, engineers, managers and doctors but the economy lacks the sophistication to absorb them. Consequently, these heavily-subsidised technical and professional academic institutions produce skilled manpower for more evolved global corporations.

But even as the brightest and best move on to script success stories elsewhere, Indian enterprises struggle to find the engineers, managers and doctors needed to meet the demands of a growing economy. To fill these demands, the education bureaucracy and freewheeling entrepreneurs have devised a system of selection defined by examinations and rote learning. 

The ones with the highest scores are usually recruited by global corporations; the remainder battle for survival or success in local enterprises and joint ventures which struggle to cope with the demand for marketing, supply chain, maintenance, logistics managers and the dead hand of socialism — regulation, labour laws, taxation, finance. This leaves little room for innovating new products, services, processes, and systems.

Nadella’s ascension nevertheless provides a welcome opportunity for assessment of an education system which has become a programme of elite selection rather than public empowerment and enlightenment. National pride is probably the last reaction it ought to evoke, given the fact that Nadella and a whole host of such immigrant success stories are scripted outside of India. In the end, Nadella’s achievement is an American success story, an endorsement of the American dream. It’s also a summary rejection of the Indian milieu in which conformism and mediocrity inevitably triumph over innovation and excellence.

It bears repetition that the elevation of Indian-origin executives to apex positions at Microsoft, Citibank, Pepsi and others is a grim indictment of India’s education system. It is vital not to be misled by triumphal media which adulates the success of Nadella, Vikram Pandit, Indra Nooyi and others as feathers in the nation’s cap. True, these are men and women shaped by India’s higher education system. But they went away, knowing well that opportunities for intellectual growth and pursuit of knowledge lay outside the country.

Things did change as the reforms of 1991 struck root. Admittedly, there are more jobs, larger incomes, and more choice in the market for products, services, and business options. But simultaneously our cities, towns and villages are trapped in the chaos of traffic and pollution, and lack power, water supply and sanitation. Political conflicts have been exacerbated by acrimonious public debate fanned by ignorant and self-serving media. To watch the news on television, or read newspapers and periodicals is to confront doom-and-gloom scenarios purveyed by opinionated apparatchiks of the news business.

Meanwhile, the education system offers little to help young people struggling to understand the mismatch between economic growth and civic responsibility. It’s still mired in the bogs of bureaucracy and robber-baron capital. Yes, there’s been a substantial expansion in the number of universities, colleges and professional institutes. But the end product still remains rote graduates, ill-equipped to do more than pass examinations and unable to handle the demands of a growing economy and changing society.

This article appeared in Education World magazine,  March 2014.