ON THE MARGIN: NRIs and the Cult of Mammon 

Written By: Shastri Ramachandaran
New Delhi Published: Dec 02, 2021, 09:12 PM(IST)

Parag Agrawal, CEO, Twitter Photograph:( Zee News Network )

Story highlights

The “lower realms”, our overseas equivalent of the “great unwashed” at home, are peopled by the millions of Indian workers abroad, mainly in West Asia. Over the decades, their money-order remittances have contributed immensely to the economy (and education) of their families, homes, communities, villages, towns and cities. These toiling classes, such as the workers in the Gulf, may never fit our image of “NRIs” in the dollarised aspirational sense

Parag Agrawal’s appointment as CEO of Twitter Inc has unleashed tidal waves of hype about the success of Indians abroad (i.e. the US) and a world awestruck by the cult of the ‘Global Indian CEO’. The flood of words, bytes and images has made sure that everyone knows everything about Agrawal from his schooldays to the terms of his appointment especially his pay packet down to the last decimal. 

Thereby hangs the narrative of the Cult of the global Indian CEO which holds that India, though not the world’s manufacturing hub, is the world’s CEO-producing factory for the technology sector as well as others. Prominent in this pantheon of world-changing tech CEOs are Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai and IBM’s Arvind Krishna. Big Indian names in the minor arcana of non-tech global corporates include Ivan Menezes of Diageo and Vas Narasimhan of Novartis. 

Even those who know nothing about these people or their accomplishments know how much they are paid. Clearly, it is not the company or its products and services that matter; nor is it the person and her attributes and achievements. It is money that is the sole measure of success. And, it needs to be in US dollars just as the acme of success can be only the top job in a US company. 

It is only the US, as our story goes, that is truly globalised, recognises ‘merit’ (without reference to caste and other considerations) and offers a ‘better life’ by way of education, jobs, success and wealth. The minor detail that, more often than not, their education in India’s IITs helped launch many of these achievers on the road to success, is not allowed to spoil the narrative of all things great being achievable only in America. 

No longer is this lamented as “brain drain”, which is as it should be. But neither is this trend of Indian-origin CEOs leading global corporates a dimension of India’s “soft power” as it is made out to be by those who have reduced success and achievement to idolatry of wealth, particularly dollarised wealth.  

Also Read | Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said this in his very first e-mail as captain of the ship

These successful individuals may be Indian, but they are not India’s. India is their homeland, which they have left. They are now dedicated to their home country, the US, where they have reached the top of the corporate food chain. Their loyalty is to their companies, consumers, stakeholders, brands, products, boards and shareholders; not to India. Their sole interest is to maximise the profits of their companies. They did not get to the top to advance the interests of the Indian state, nation or people. Of course, Indian talent would doubtless be harnessed when required for running their business. These tech titans are as much American as the companies they head and the currency in which they generate profits. 

They are also Americans as idols who represent the Cult of Mammon. As the iconic status of both wealth and the wealthy in India media reveals, the cult has now been exported worldwide. The self-gratification, the celebrity culture, the corporate narcissism, the self-glorification of the so-called self-made successful people is adored, if not worshipped, with near-devotional fervor.  This is exactly what the prosperity gospel is all about. 

Were it otherwise, there is much to cherish and celebrate in India’s long-standing “human exports” to the world, which predates these techno-corporate icons. Indian scholars, artists, scientists, jurists, economists, writers, social scientists, academics, public intellectuals and thought leaders have long been prominent in many spheres of life abroad. They have inspired and influenced individuals, institutions and communities; and, their thinking, including their understanding of India and Indians, and Indian thought, tradition, politics, society, economy and philosophy.  These are people who may feature in the higher realms of human endeavour. 

The “lower realms”, our overseas equivalent of the “great unwashed” at home, are peopled by the millions of Indian workers abroad, mainly in West Asia. Over the decades, their money-order remittances have contributed immensely to the economy (and education) of their families, homes, communities, villages, towns and cities. These toiling classes, such as the workers in the Gulf, may never fit our image of “NRIs” in the dollarised aspirational sense. Yet their contribution to home country and homeland country is far greater.  

Traditionally, India’s political elite fraternised selectively with those in the ‘higher realm’; and, at least talked more about the condition of those in the ‘lower realm’. Such engagements attest to their greater relevance and contribution to the Indian economy and role, albeit unacknowledged, as a “soft power” to strengthen and deepen bilateral and people-to-people relations.  

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)  

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