Friday, February 07, 2014

Meritocracy or risk taking?

The article in The Hindu of January 7th 2014 [1] felt almost like letting the cat out among the pigeons! In the latter part of the 2-paragraph piece the article/editorial argues that celebrating the rise of Satya Nadella to the top of the heap at Microsoft should be muted. But it felt compelled to enclose this sentiment in the garb of how the US nurtures merit, implying it is a paragon of meritocracy.
I was not given the time to choke on this. Or rather, I was forced to swallow more garbage, the comments online, and choke harder. Early this morning there were as many as 34 comments online and at least a few of them, given that the article had hinted at the direction of the debate, threw darts at the reservation policy that India practices. What India does was placed squarely opposite of how the US nurtures merit, Satya Nadella being the current poster boy.
I have two issues with this slant. One, in India only the deeply uninformed (in my lexicon that means the same as hardly informed) can cite reservations as the sole source of the non-meritorious being rewarded. Let us look at Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Both went to prestigious management schools in the US (never mind that the former was pulled out of Stanford and into business by his father halfway). I would hazard a guess that they could attend these universities not merely based on “merit”. What about Cyrus Mistry, the current chairman of Tata Sons? True, these doyens of industry are not meritless, but one can confidently assert that it was something more than merit that got them where they are now. Take the case of Narayana Murthy. OK, here we have a genuine performer who pulled himself up by his boot straps. But, would you say the same thing about his current Executive Assistant, his son? I am not sure, no matter that the son is highly educated, from the most prestigious schools etc.
To understand how merit has been undermined in these instances – just a select few – one has to only imagine how much better than these gentlemen another man or woman has to have been to get up this high up the corporate ladder. One cannot claim that the four people I had cited are non pareil. I am led to wonder why this issue of not-solely-merit pulling up people in life does not occupy the minds of the anti-reservation brigade.
The second matter pertains to Indians’ perception of the US being a meritocratic society. True, it may be more through merit one comes up in life in the US. But this is not exclusively so. Pit Obama against George W. Bush (Jr.). Did the latter enter and get out with a degree from Yale University on merit? Gag me with a spoon. But Obama did far better without his father using his Alumnus card! In the US, merit finds success often enough that we may judge it as meritocracy, at a particular level. But remembering George Bush should temper this judgment.
Now, come to Satya, more power to him. But, we have celebrated Indra Nooyi, Vikram Pandit, and until recently Rajat Gupta. Well, this is not a gusher, but at the same time, it is also a more than a trickle, particularly given the cultural biases operating in the US, none can deny.
There is more to the US than meritocracy, I argue.
Nobody asked me, but where would I place Satya? Remember Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the physics Nobel Laureate? Remember Venkatraman Ramakrishnan? They too did schooling and college in India and migrated to the west and got their fame for the work did there. We do celebrate them as Indians. I do not see anything wrong with that. But going gaga over them is, in my books, a big no no.
They had their chances, took risks and that came up trumps. So did Satya.
In all this talk about meritocracy in India vis-à-vis the US, as I see it, the relevant thing that gets left out is that the US society allows risk taking. Steve Jobs took risks and so did his nemesis Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg did so too. They thrived. But many must have succumbed and we cannot list them out.
Chandra was humiliated by the elders in his field of study; yet he persisted. Venkat moved to the UK on a lower salary and bagged the prize. Satya, as I understand, headed emerging fields and risky ventures at Microsoft and has come up trumps.
The US is exceptional in infusing confidence in its citizens, even in the immigrants, to take risks. When that works out, one becomes a star. This is the lesson I take from the recent event.

1.    Nadella at the top, The Hindu, February 7, 2014

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