The appointment of Soumitra Dutta as the head of the Ivy League business school of Cornell University is one more addition to elite club of Indian-origin intellectuals and thinkers occupying positions of importance in international institutions in the US and UK.
Madeleine Sumption, policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Washington, attributes this growing number of Indian intellectuals to the growth of the Indian economy and its gradual opening up that has provided opportunities to Indian immigrants. "It's part of a broader success story of Indian immigrants," she says.
The Indian success story of academics is long, but now thanks to globalisation, there has been a huge influx of CEOs and IT experts from India. The phenomenon has helped India endorse itself as a brand. A MPI study further says the recent trend has branded India as a source of well-educated and hard working professionals, rather than a poverty ridden country of "snake charmers". Also, besides the higher level of education, the study says, proficiency in English has helped in better integration with foreign societies.
Though, the number of Indians who had moved to the US between 1820 and 1900 was no more than 700, according to MPI, presently the country has 2.8 million ethnic Indians. There are 1.3 million in Britain and 1 million in Canada and a large number of low or semi-skilled Indians in Gulf countries. In developed countries, a significant majority of them hold a bachelor's degree.
While first generation Indians, highly skilled and distinct in adaptability to tough working conditions, have made their mark in management, academics and the IT sector, the second and third generation have raised the bar with their active presence in local politics, educational establishments and research centres in destination countries.
After globalisation and India's economic reforms, with all its shortcomings, Indians have been flourishing especially in the private sector. "India's soft power is its private sector entrepreneurs," says India-born UK parliamentarian, Lord Meghnad Desai.
Talk about India's global presence, and a comparison with China is hard to evade. A recent study by talent management farm, DDI says that about 60% or more of the Indian leaders are found to be more effective than their Chinese counterparts when it comes to excelling in critical skills required for successful leadership.
But, the magic of Indians in the private sector internationally has not really transcended domestically, especially in the public sector. "In the West, India is now regarded as a competitive tiger when it comes to the private sector. It is the public sector which fails India at every turn," adds Desai. But, the increased spending on research and higher education in India is showing results. "Rome was not built in a day," says Director of Centre for Theoretical Physics in Jamia Millia Islamia, M Sami, who rose to prominence after his paper on ‘Dynamics of Dark Energy' was included in the Nobel Prize committee document in 2011.
Many believe that while there is much focus on Indians in the West, intellectuals based in India are largely neglected. "The cumulative impact of the over focus on foreign institutions is to ignore people working wonderfully in different circumstances in India," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank. "There is also a disproportionate focus on business schools; the real Indian contribution is now in fields like mathematics, etc."
Ashis Nandy, Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who was chosen among 100 public intellectuals of the world by Foreign Policy magazine in 2008, says Indians go overboard in celebrating the success of Indian-origin emigrants. "Have you ever seen the French, German or Irish taking so much pride in their second and third generation migrants as we do?"
Rather, the obvious observation, experts suggest, is that proud Indians have come a long way now to achieve international acclaim. Many constructive policies which are now seeing light in other parts of the world are actually the contribution of Indian thinkers and intellectuals who formulated our initial five-year plans. For instance, says senior fellow at the New York-based think-tank, Council on Foreign Relations, Jagdish Bhagwati, "The UNDP thinks it invented these concerns when in fact its advisers from our subcontinent simply reproduced these concerns and objectives from what we had been doing for decades."
A 25 million strong Indian diaspora is a liability sometimes — in terms of brain-drain — and an asset at other times — for instance during market slowdown. The worldwide recession in 2008 complemented the positive trend for India. Another study by MPI shows that compared to others, Indians fared better during recession.
The trend is that once immigrants become stable in host countries, they contribute to their home country. As Sumption puts, "Data is scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the US-born children of immigrants have also begun to seek out opportunities in India in greater numbers."
Other Indian-origin intellectuals heading global academic institutes | Other Indian-origin intellectuals heading global academic institutes | Other India-origin intellectuals heading global academic institutes
Profiles by Yashwant Raj, Dipankar de Sarkar and Anirudh Bhattacharyya.