Foreign vs. local talent

Mr. TCA Srinivasa Raghavan had penned the first of his six articles for Business Standard. This was written in the context of the appointment of Viral Acharya as Deputy Governor at RBI. Put simply, in the article, he has batted for home-grown talent.

At a very broad level, I have no major issues with his thesis. But, the problem with all these, in the current Indian context, is that it would play into the hands of ideologues. That is a very high risk. He had made the point about ‘RSS Accountants’ (his phrase and not mine). But, that would be barely noticed since the bulk of the article is about foreign Ph.Ds. In other words, people will cherry pick his ideas. He should clarify adequately in future parts.

In terms of recent egregious policy errors – not including demonetisation (it is early days) – how many of them are traced to foreign degree holders? In the UPA years, there were Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze but then they had Aruna Roy, Harsh Mander, Teesta, et al. in the NAC. Chidambaram’s farm loan waiver and Poojary’s loan melas. They were not due to foreign Ph.Ds.

The piece would be more credible if he had cited specific policy errors that foreign Ph.Ds contributed to. Second, in my view, the case should be made against economic pretensions in general – foreign or domestic – rather than foreign Ph.Ds.

The article might end up being the right tool in the wrong hands. Also, it might inadvertently strengthen the hands of those who argue for ‘Indian exceptionalism’. I am rather sceptical of that. It has been a self-reinforcing drivel and has built up many distortions that, in turn, make it impossible for conventional economic answers to be tried. So, QED.

Another friend wrote to me in response to my MINT column on Tuesday that he disagreed with my remarks on Raghuram Rajan and that the current economic advisor and Raghuram Rajan came to India only to embellish their CVs. Why should that be a problem?

I think regardless of their goals – taking up a particular role to embellish one’s CV is not such a bad idea, I think – all that one wants is commitment while they are in office, to the role and to country’s interests.

A foreign-resident Indian has two advantages. Academic training in the United States is more rigorous. Students learn to approach problems methodically and systematically. Plus, the Universities there – at least until recently – encourage multiple and diverse viewpoints. Students can also pick up international experiences as students from many other countries come there to study and stay on to work there.

Second, there is a good chance that he or she brings a fresh perspective to the job, unburdened by domestic baggage and obligation to various domestic stakeholders. It is a fresh perspective. Most public policy decisions in India, it appears, are a bit like page 3 stories. Only intrigue, whispers, rumours, political agendas and connections seem to drive them. Seldom do we find public policy and development goals as ostensible, apparent and real reasons. If foreign degree holders are going to break this mould of policymaking, they will only be doing a good service.

The argument that these foreign-resident Indians do not know India well does not pass scrutiny beyond a point. Frankly, given the size of the country and its economic, social and cultural differences across States, not many – even if they have been living in India for a long time – can really claim to know India well.

So, in short, it would be best to make a case for finding the right person for the job. The best fit – regardless of their current domicile.

Casting the issue in terms of foreign vs. local makes it needlessly divisive. It is counterproductive.

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