A Certain Swagger

I mentioned to a colleague that Varadhan, a mathematician of Indian origin at NYU, won the Abel Prize. One of the top honors in the field. My colleague turned to the person sitting next to him, a visiting academic, and said:

In the middle of all that corruption, they are good in statistics. It must be because the British were good at it.

He was expressing a common view of India as a corrupt place where nothing works, perhaps with an occasional genius. Even Americans whose knowledge of India does not extend beyond watching “Slumdog Millionaire” feel free to pass such judgment.

They are not singling out India. If you grew up as a middle class American my age, you have led quite a privileged life, at the center of the universe. You may speak only one language, but that is the language of commerce and science anywhere in the world. It gives an illusion of universality, as if you can understand the rest of the world, because they can understand you.

The truth is that the Indian Statistical Institute, where Varadhan got his Ph. D., was started after India became independent. It is funded by the Commerce Ministry, whose main mission is to collect data on the economy. Statistics and economics were two fields, along with physics, in which the Indian government made early investments. At that time Prime Minister Nehru was criticized for such indulgence. Now, it is starting to pay off. In addition to the ISI, he also started the Indian Institutes of Technology, which now produce some of the best engineers in the world. Later this successful brand was extended to the Indian Institutes of Management.

Why would anyone look to India for management advice? Most people, even in India, would think that a typical American corporation is better run than any company in India. No corporation symbolizes America as GM does. “What is good for General Motors is good for America”, its former CEO once told President Eisenhower.

We live in a strange world. General Motors is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. On the other side of that strange world, unfamiliar to people like my colleague, the Indian Railway just turned a handsome profit.


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