The irrelevance of Clinton’s visit

Rarely in history have so many written so much about so little. The visit of President Bill Clinton to South Asia is a minor event which will soon be forgotten. So why are the media carpet-bombing the public with reports on every aspect of the Clinton visit from the decor in his hotel room to his strategy for seeing tigers at Ranthambore sanctuary?

Because news today has become a form of entertainment rather than political significance. Visits by singer Michael Jackson and call-girl Pamela Bordes now inspire detailed coverage. The fact is that Jackson can draw bigger paying crowds than Clinton any time.

Several political pundits are wasting their time warning against India caving in to American diktat. What paranoia! Clinton has already visited over 100 countries before coming here. That sums up the low priority he gives to India. It also sums up the low priority we should give to US Presidential visits.

Do not misunderstand me. I believe that improved Indo-US relations are very important. But I do not believe that relations between the two governments are very important. What matters is relations between individual Indians and Americans. No US President has visited India for 22 years. During that absence, person-to-person contacts between India and the US have soared, to the point where Indians now occupy an amazingly strong and influential position in the US.

This has happened despite constant quarrels between politicians on both sides. Indeed, Indians have become more influential than ever in the US precisely when the US government has imposed economic sanctions on India. Millions of US citizens will scramble to buy shares of Wipro if Azim Premji offers them, whereas politicians like Jaswant Singh or Strobe Talbott cannot attract an American audience of even a thousand without official assistance.

The US now has 1.5 million people of Indian origin, constituting the richest segment of American society. Silicon Valley alone has a reported one lakh Indian millionaires. Over 200 CEOs of Indian origin have created a new business forum in Washington DC. Rono Dutta now heads United Airlines, the biggest airline in the world, and Rakesh Gangwal heads US Air.

Rajat Gupta heads McKinsey, the top management consultancy firm in the world. Victor Menezes is close to the top of Citicorp. Two Indians have just merged to form a $9 billion software company, the biggest ever software merger in the US. Indeed, Wall Street has an orgasm every time an Indian software company wants to list its shares in the US.

Let me tell you a story doing the rounds. An American called John Smith approaches a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley with a proposal for a new company. The venture capitalist says, “Your idea is very good. But why don’t you first get a partner with a name like Murthy? Then we will happily finance your venture.’’ Indians are now seen as a recipe for high-tech success. This has happened despite constant friction between Indian and US governments for decades. Even as Nixon and Indira Gandhi muttered expletives about one another, thousands of Indians were moving to the USA for higher studies and jobs. That was the start of their climb up the technology ladder which has now culminated in Indian dominance in Silicon Valley.

This happened despite, not because of government help. The US government created several barriers to migration. The Indian government moaned about the brain drain and condemned the Indians in question as unpatriotic. Yet that flow of Indians was followed by a reverse flow once India adopted a more open economy.

This has now made India a global superpower in software. Infosys and Wipro command a market capitalisation of almost $40 billion each, ten times as much as US multinationals like Goodyear or Raytheon. Even Germany, long opposed to immigration from Asia, now wants to attract Indian brains in order to improve its competitiveness.

Various technology agreements are expected to be signed by the two governments during the Clinton visit. This is a lame attempt of the two governments to pretend that they have something to do with the technological revolution we are witnessing. In fact the two governments have constantly had disagreements on technology flows, with India complaining of insufficient access to US technology and the US drawing up a long list of entities to be denied technology. Political pundits have made much of the denial of American computers to help predict the weather. This shows how completely out of touch political pundits are with the real world. The flow of individuals between India and the US has made India a hightech superpower. By contrast, Americans remain sceptical of their Met Office’s ability to forecast the weather, no matter how high-powered their computers may be.

The Indian government has constantly complained that the US government does not give enough visas for Indian computer specialists to travel to the US for on-site work. But the truth is that this very lack of visas has obliged firms to do more software work in India rather than the US. This upgradation of Indian skills and rise of Indian software giants has suddenly rung alarm bells in Silicon Valley, and companies there are now leaning on the US government to expand the number of visas so that more Indians can come over. This is a case of citizens leading the way and governments following.

Okay, some people will say, but surely topics like nuclear proliferation and Kashmir are important? Yes, they have some importance, yet neither remotely approaches the capacity of high technology to transform the lives of Indians. If the two governments make no progress whatsoever on these two issues, it will hardly change the lives of Indians.

So, let us treat the Clinton visit mainly as an opportunity for promoting Indian tourism. No doubt it also has some symbolic political significance. But if the media hype attracts another lakh American tourists to see the Taj Mahal and Ranthambore, that will be a more concrete outcome than the paper agreements that Clinton and Vajpayee may sign.

What do you think?