The Economist, one of the most influential journals in the world, has recently published a column titled ‘Why Brahmins lead Western firms but rarely Indian ones’. The finding is correct but the causes it attributes for this phenomenon are wrong.
The magazine is wrong when it blames ‘affirmative action policies’ like caste reservations in India for why Brahmins don’t lead Indian companies. Whereas affirmative action policy in the US is actually the cause for why Brahmins lead Western firms.
The article has three main ideas. First, some of the big (and not so big) companies in the West are led by CEOs of Indian origin. Indian talent finding space in the Western corporate world is a normal affair, considering the fact that Indians are granted around two-third of America’s H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. Many of these Indian CEOs in the United States are Brahmins.
Second, Indian boardrooms are dominated by traditional business castes known as Baniyas. In India, the Brahmins dominate many arenas like academia, science and law, but not top corporate positions. It cites a study from 2010 that says 93 per cent of board members in India come from “forward” castes. Of them, 46 per cent are Vaishyas or Baniyas.
Third, the author offers three explanations for this disparity: One, businesses in India favour those with established networks (mostly Baniyas and, in some cases, the Parsis). This led Brahmins to emigrate. Two, Brahmins have a “tradition of bookishness”, due to which they easily pass exams and enter the land of opportunities. Three, Brahmins are forced to leave the country because of affirmative-action policies in India.
The first two points are based on empirical facts and there is not much to debate. Though it’s amusing that in The Economist list of seven ‘big’ corporations headed by Indian CEOs, the columnist has also included OnlyFans and introduced the company by saying that it’s “a subscription service featuring content creators in various stages of undress”. Setting aside that trivia, let’s put the three explanations of Bramhins’ success in Western corporates under scrutiny.
The Brahmin privilege
The argument that the Baniyas rule the Indian corporate world largely holds ground because most corporations in India are traditionally family-owned and, in many of them, the biggest stakeholder or the promoter group, provides the CEOs. Kinship, familial relations and caste-affiliation might have played a role in selecting the top managers. As most of the big businesses in India are owned by the Baniyas, it’s not surprising that in the Forbes list of India’s wealthiest in 2021, in the top 20, 12 are from the same community. This might have impacted the prospects of managers from other castes, especially the Brahmins, who are traditionally the most privileged community. The Economist column also cites a report that says ‘Agarwal’ and ‘Gupta’ are the most common surnames of corporate board members. Despite having some merit to this argument, it seems far-fetched that due to so-called Baniya domination, Brahmin talent is leaving India. Top echelons of the government sector, judiciary, media and many more fields are still dominated by the Brahmins.
The second reason cited, which talks about the Brahmins having a “tradition of bookishness” and thus becoming more competent, is almost racial and hints at eugenics. These ideas and theories were debunked long ago. It’s true that having a tradition of education in a family puts a person in an advantageous position. This advantage is popularly known as ‘cultural capital’. But this does not explain the migration of any social class or group. Cultural capital can be used for nation-building too. So it was more a question of intent.
The third reason is more atrocious. Blaming reservations for the migration of the Brahmins is beyond comprehension. Since The Economist column is talking about the corporate sector, it must be noted that despite long-pending demands, the Indian corporate sector has never been under the ambit of reservation policies. Unlike the US and European countries, Indian corporations do not follow any affirmative action or diversity programme. To blame the reservation for Brahmin migration to the West is a travesty of logic.
Migration to the West
Indian migration, mostly by the Brahmins and other dominant castes, to the West started much before the affirmative action policy was introduced after Independence. And even after constitutional obligations, reservation policies were never implemented in letter and spirit. It was in 1973 that the scheme of reservation of seats for SC/ST students in the Indian Institute of Technology was introduced. OBC reservation in IITs was introduced as late as 2008. Most of the IIT graduates, who are in higher positions in global corporations, are graduates of the pre-OBC reservation era.
Indians migration to the West was not due to ‘push’ factors. The only ‘push’ factor was the government controlled-economy and that reason also waned after 1990, when the economy opened up. The Brahmins, or for that matter Indians of any community, migrated because the grass was greener on the other side. It was the socio-economic pull from the West that led them to migrate.
The phenomenon of Indian corporate leaders, mostly Brahmins and now Baniyas, finding good positions in the West can be due to two possible reasons.
First, because people from advantageous social groups, here, the dominant caste elites, started migrating early, so they had the first-mover advantage. Current generations of these communities are getting the benefit of social-caste-family connections and networks built over years. This is their accumulated asset that they are exchanging for admissions and jobs in the West. Communities lacking this social capital are laggard. Their “bookishness” is not sufficient to make them eligible for migration. It’s easy for a dominant caste student to ask their faculty, as in most of the cases both are from the same social background, to write recommendation letters for college admissions in the West.
Look at which community has global connections in India.
Second, Indians are the ‘right’ type of minority/immigrants — they are also called the ‘model minority’ in the US. As diversity has become a moral project in the US, universities and corporations are trying to make their intake more diverse. Blacks and Native Americans, and to some extent, Latinos and Hispanics, have fought for their rights. For dominant whites, if diversity goals are fulfilled by the inclusion of the Indians or other non-black groups, it probably suits them. It must be explored if Indians are grabbing those positions that should actually go to the Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans.
The American ‘caste system’
Indians, or as The Economist says, the Brahmins, are at the top of the ladder in corporate houses because they are probably the ‘right person’ at the ‘right time’. An ideal Indian CEO in an American company can be described as a person who has done his graduation from a highly-subsidised, world-class government institution in India, in most cases the IITs, then used his family connections, caste affiliations and financial muscle to migrate to the US for higher studies, and taken the advantage of the affirmative action policy in the US to get a good job.
Thus, the most privileged social group in India after a smooth metamorphosis becomes a minority — an oppressed identity in the US — takes the avatar of Person of Colour (PoC) and grabs the jobs that should ideally have gone to a Black or a Hispanic person. This co-opting is now being debated in the US. Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, argues that “around 2040 when the non-Hispanic White majority will probably disappear, the whites will rush to co-opt insecure mid-caste nonwhites — ethnic groups who have profited from affirmative-action programs that the Blacks fought for.” She predicted that the Asians and Latinos will “vote up, rather than across, and usually not down.” She envisages the Indians as future collaborators of whites in perpetuating the American ‘caste system’, in which the Blacks will remain as the permanent bottom.
Has that process already started? Maybe, and the Indians, most of them Brahmins, might be the beneficiary of this historical process.
What does this mean for Indians from oppressed castes? Will these Indian CEOs ever try to incorporate the diversity of Indian society while recruiting Indians? As the Indian dominant caste is situated in the middle of the American colour hierarchy, it will be quite difficult for them. Isabel Wilkerson tersely says, “When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do whatever it takes to survive in it. If you are insecurely situated somewhere in the middle — below the very top, but above the very bottom — you may distance yourself from the bottom and hold up barriers against those you see as below you to protect your own position.”
It seems that large Indian masses, most of them from the middle and lower castes, have no reason to celebrate the success of Indian-origin corporate leaders in the West.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)