Friday, January 17, 2014

Raghuram Rajan :The irrelevance of being Indian

The irrelevance of being Indian

Somasekhar Sundaresan

The erstwhile colonisers are open-minded while we still live with the ghosts of being colonised by a foreign race

Don 2 was a "superhit" Bollywood movie. Its complex plot involved Germany's central bank (equivalent to our Reserve Bank of India) having a deputy chief of Indian origin. The Indian central banker is mixed up with hard-core criminal activity and compromises the blueprints for plates that print currency. Although just a movie, the imagery built by it was that the central bank's senior management positions should ideally not be placed in "foreign hands". 

In real life, the citizenship status of the Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan who had been accorded a Don-like rock star welcome in the media, both for his looks and his intellect, continues to make news. The latest source of controversy is the Government of India refusing to share information about Governor Rajan's nationality. Its reason: documents considered by the Union Cabinet are exempt from disclosure under the right to information law. 

Perhaps the government's keenness not to answer could have driven by reluctance to set a precedent of sharing cabinet documents, or even by the government not even having considered it relevant to check Governor Rajan's citizenship since he is evidently Indian by race. The Governor himself is hardly amused. Last year, he is reported to have told a press conference: "I will answer this question once and only once. I am an Indian citizen. I have always been an Indian citizen. I always held an Indian passport. I held an Indian diplomatic passport when my father was in the Foreign Service and when I travelled on behalf of the Ministry of Finance. I have never applied for the citizenship of another country. I have never been a citizen of another country and have never taken a pledge of allegiance to another country." 

So, what is the fuss all about? Typically, a mistaken sense of patriotic zeal is all one finds as the answer. A writ petition seeking the Supreme Court's ruling on whether a citizen of India not born in India (read, Sonia Gandhi) can be a Prime Minister is under the apex court's consideration. There is nothing in the Indian Constitution prohibiting a citizen from holding the post on the ground of the place of birth. Likewise, there is nothing in the law governing the RBI to prevent a foreigner from being governor. Indeed, many a British judge had continued to serve as justices even after the British left. 

Hyper-nationalistic Indians often think of Israel in glowing terms in matters of patriotism. Last year, Stanley Fischer ended an eight-year term as the head of Israel's central bank. He was born in Zambia, grew up in Zimbabwe, got educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, and became an American citizen. To become governor of Israel's central bank, he was given Israeli citizenship and permitted not to renounce his American passport. Last week, he was reported to have been named as the Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the US' central bank. 

The United Kingdom has done even better with its central bank. Last year, Mark Carney, a Canadian was appointed as the Governor of the Bank of England. In short, the erstwhile colonisers are open-minded while we still live with the ghosts of being colonised by a foreign race and are happy to be colonised by bureaucrats of Indian racial origin. Our laws governing foreign investment in "sensitive sectors" such as the media require persons holding Indian passports to hold offices like those of the editors. A lot of India news however, is now covered by foreign journalists employed by foreign-owned digital media while we take comfort from archaic and irrelevant legislation. 

Patriotic zeal can move from the sublime to the ridiculous. A "handbook" published by the Government of India's Department of Personnel and Training in 2013 (superseding a 1984 edition) is reported to indeed contain a bar on appointing "non-Indians" from serving on government posts. That begs the question: "Who is a "non-Indian"?" If one were to adopt a citizenship standard for who is "Indian" Sonia Gandhi's political position should not evoke so much emotion. If one were to adopt a racist definition, foreign citizens of Indian origin like Bobby Jindal would be acceptable despite having no allegiance to India. 

Indeed, even Preet Bharara, the recipient of India's misplaced nationalistic collective conscience in recent weeks would be eligible for appointment to positions in Indian government. 

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