Conference contrasts

For three days in end April the 1,500-capacity main conference hall and ten conference rooms of the massive 550-bedroom Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles were jam-packed with over 3,000 high-profile spokespersons of American government, business, industry and delegates, panelists and national representatives from 54 countries around the world. They discussed every subject from America’s great recession, climate change, peace in the Middle East, to education upgradation in the US, China and India, and global healthcare challenges. This spring the Milken Institute’s Global Conference (MIGC) 2009 was the greatest show of intellectual fireworks in America.

The brain-child of former junk bonds innovator and billionaire tycoon Michael Milken, and his educationist brother Lowell who runs perhaps the world’s most generous (school) teachers awards programme (Milken Educator Awards) in the US, the Milken Institute was promoted in 1991 with an initial endowment of $50 million (Rs.250 crore) by the brothers Milken. Since then the institute, which is now an independent, self-sustaining not-for-profit think tank and research organisation, has staged its smoothly-orchestrated annual global conference uninterruptedly for 12 years.

From the Indian perspective, a refreshing aspect of MIGC 2009 was the brisk, it’s-serious business culture of the 60-strong organisational team, led by Michael Klowden, president and CEO of the institute for the past eight years. Unlike the stingingly expensive annual Davos (Switzerland) Conference, much-beloved of Indian industrial tycoons and leaders presumably because it also offers an upscale holiday ambience, MIGC 2009 was run with clockwork precision and was completely bereft of the ceremony and ritual which slow down seminars and conferences in India. Moreover the lavish on-the-house hospitality which is routinely rained on delegates and invitees back home was conspicuously absent.

Which is perhaps why not a single representative of the Central or state governments was present at the conference. The India presence was restricted to private sector industry and education leaders, including your less-exalted scribe.

Supra nationalists abroad

With the Central and state governments wholly unrepresented at the high-powered Milken Institute Global Conference 2009, which recently concluded in Los Angeles, the responsibility of representing India devolved upon leaders of Indian industry and less-celebrated spokespersons of NGOs, including your scribe. Particularly ubiquitous and omnipresent on several panel discussions was the diminutive Senapathy (“call me Kris”) Gopalakrishnan, chief executive of the Bangalore-based IT software development major Infosys Technologies Ltd, who for mysterious reasons felt it incumbent upon himself to paint an over-the-top rosy picture of the Indian economy. In one panel discussion where Gopalakrishnan was a star panelist, he felt obliged to belabour the point that India is a better investment destination than the US and everywhere else. Your scribe’s protestation to the effect that it takes over 30 days (a generous under-estimate) to start a business in India as against four days in Singapore and six days in the US, was impatiently dismissed as inconsequential.

It’s not unusual to encounter such supra-nationalism among self-appointed spokespersons of India abroad. Your correspondent has often been involved in slanging matches on public fora with uber-nationalists driven by the belief that it is the duty of all Indians abroad to project India in positive light. Agreed. But doing so doesn’t mean misleading foreign investors who sooner rather than later, are likely to experience the alive and kicking licence-permit-quota regime.

Be that as it may, a substantially true picture of Indian education — particularly the lack of it — was presented by a panel comprising real achievers in Indian education including Mme. Grace Pinto (managing director of the 114-strong Ryan International group of schools); Anand Sudarshan (chief executive of the Manipal Engineering and Medical Group); Pramod Maheshwari (promoter-CEO of the Kota-based Computer Point) and Dr. Jeremy Williams (a knowledgeable Singapore-based academic) moderated by your correspondent. Free, frank, lively and enlivened by argumentative Indians, by all accounts the 90 minute panel discussion was rated among the best of the conference. Perhaps a better way to project India in a positive light.

Fearful foreign cousins

Indians living abroad — the US included — seem to harbour some serious misconceptions about their poor cousins visiting from the mother country. One of them is that middle class Indians aren’t poor as they used to be. Quite obviously, in keeping with native practices of their newly adopted countries, they don’t seem to read newspapers which would inform them that the great Indian middle class, if not the rest of the population, is enjoying unprecedented prosperity following the momentous liberalisation and deregulation of the Indian economy in 1991. These days,  India’s foreign exchange reserves have risen to $252 billion, the rupee is freely convertible, and wondrously, credit cards issued back home work marvellously abroad.

Against this backdrop, the proclivity of Indian emigrants in the US to give not-so-poor cousins from the mother country panicky wide berth is unwarranted. During his latest sojourn in the US, your baffled scribe continuously experienced this phenomenon. While the natives were friendly notwith-standing the sea of troubles in which the US economy is floundering, Indian emigrants encountered found it difficult, indeed impossible, to respond to a friendly smile or innocent query regarding their origins.

Back home while mulling over this curious phenomenon, several explanations presented themselves. Perhaps ABCDs (American born confused desis) continue to entertain the fear that visitors from the home country are desperate to cadge a drink off them. For reasons stated above they need to disabuse themselves of this fear and adopt the friendliness of their host population. Yet, perhaps a more plausible explanation is that Indian emigrants are so desperate to assimilate that they prefer to deny kinship with visitors from the old country. Well, that’s also an unwarranted pathology because us natives are no longer as much in awe of dollar-earning Indians resident abroad as we used to be. Moreover, it’s no longer as unfashionable as it used to be to be Indian.

ighten up cousins!