A number of Pakistanis obsessed about the appointment of Parag Agrawal, an Indian-origin engineer, as CEO of Twitter and drawing unfavourable comparisons with Pakistan. While it is true that the US tech industry has a number of India-origin CEOs and Pakistan has not done as well, the comparison is unfair and, frankly, ridiculous.
For decades, Pakistanis have been obsessed with a race with India. This navel-gazing is an exercise in futility for several reasons. Pakistan can never hope to compete with India.
Right from partition, India was on a different track and marked for a major role on the world stage. While Gandhi, Nehru and Bose were seen as global players, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was only a leader of Indian Muslims and eventual founder of an Islamic state. The achievement was important but in a more limited way than the independence of a state recognised since antiquity as a civilized nation but had gone through 200 years of loot and plunder by the British that had transformed it from a nation producing almost 30% of global GDP to an underdeveloped country in 1947.
Even so, Nehru was an internationally recognized leader and the go-between who was dallying between the US, Soviet Union and China. From the 1960s, the US saw India as a counterforce against China and sought close cooperation with it. In fact, the only reason India was not a closer ally of the US or Soviet Union was because Nehru favoured a non-aligned policy which was carried forward by his daughter.
On the industrial side, the Tatas, Birlas and other magnates ran enormous conglomerates that could have done better if Nehru and his successors had had more laissez-faire policies and not followed a quasi-socialist model that led to a “Hindu rate of growth”. Economically Pakistan was competitive for the initial two decades but nationalisation killed industrial growth and once India liberalised its economy in 1991 it was poised to compete with China and ready to pull far ahead of Pakistan. Pakistan wasted the globally high-growth 1990s and since 2007 has been drifting in and out of economic crises.
While there are many factors including India’s historical impetus, the West’s romance for the country, strength of the Indian brand, market size, Indians’ own self of self and support of their countrypersons, we can focus on the factor that ties these tech CEOs: the higher education they received in India. The IITs which have produced so many global technology leaders were a planned project by the Indian government and the IIT Kharagpur Act declared the IIT to be “an institute of national importance” connected directly with India’s economic progress.
Recommended in 1946, the first IIT in Kharagpur commenced operations in May 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision had led the creation of the IITs, emphasised this aspect in his address at the first convocation at IIT Kharagpur in 1956: “Here in the place of that Hijli Detention Camp stands the fine monument of India, representing India’s urges, India’s future in the making. This picture seems to me symbolical of the changes that are coming to India.” Today the total number of IITs stands at 23, the acceptance rate of which are lower than that of America’s Ivy League universities.
While Pakistan was stagnating, the IITs were churning out competent engineers and IT specialists who were picked up in droves by US technology companies. The dot com boom was followed by the app startup rise and Indians rode both waves extremely well, both in the US and their home country. As Pakistan lurched towards extremism in the 1980s and economic irrelevance in the 1990s, Indian engineers swiftly climbed up in the global corporate world and India itself became a tech giant.
But none of this was unexpected. In fact, given the size of its market, rigourous academics, young population and its strong institutions, India has underperformed and should have done even better. Today it lags well behind China, which at one point was level with India on many economic metrics and no matter what the Quad does, India will continue to play catchup to China for a long time.
As for Pakistan, it should benchmark itself with countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ghana, and specially its former east wing, Bangladesh. India is and will continue to be an enormous market and aware of its political clout on the global stage. Indians becoming CEOs of global tech companies should not be a point of discussion, Bangladesh’s GDP being 23% more than Pakistan and its per capital income rising to $2100 and well ahead of Pakistan’s $1190 is the bigger issue. A Bangladeshi citizen is on average nearly twice as wealthy as a Pakistani and Pakistan lags behind them in almost every metric of the Human Development Index.
Pakistan has not suffered foreign occupation like Vietnam and nor did it have the kind of climatic and economic challenges that Bangladesh has overcome. Pakistan’s issue is primarily its poor policies. Pakistan had similar aspirations for growth but after the 1960s its economic and educational policies were misguided. Nationalisation of industry and educational institutions destroyed the fragile state structure and public institutes struggled henceforth. Instead of learning from India and focusing on science and technology, from the 1980s Pakistan’s higher education system shifted towards a services model.
When India was opening up and tech giants such as Wipro, Infosys, and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) were expanding their operations to global markets thanks to the local talent, Pakistan was seeing a mushrooming of business schools. Today Germany, the 4th largest economy in the world has a GDP of over $4 trillion and has 92 business schools. 44th ranked Pakistan with GDP of $280 has 97 business schools that produce tens of thousands of superfluous business graduates. Bangladesh even with a much larger GDP than Pakistan’s recognized this trap early on and it has only 11 business schools. Instead it is focusing on large scale manufacturing and production of goods.
Besides misplaced academic priorities, it is also a question of financial academic access. Computer science programs in Pakistan can go up to Rs1.4 million a year, although this can be offset through scholarships and financial aid and public universities charge less. Indeed, many of the best charge north of Rs500,000. Compare this with IITs which range around India Rs225,000 fee per annum.
Further on the national policy failure, in 2002 the HEC was created to prioritize STEM education but has had limited impact and the needle hasn’t moved much. Until Pakistan allocates a bigger portion of the budget to education and focuses on accessible and quality STEM degree programs, we will fall behind to the point where not just India, but Bangladesh is beyond our dreams.
So this is a clear case of grossly mismanaged expectations and wholly unrealistic bar setting. Being ambitious is one thing, but delusion is dangerous. India has dominated in the global economy and Indians will continue to rise in Western technology companies. Its homegrown startups will compete with the Amazons and Ubers of the world, even as its manufacturing industry grows to overtake western nations’.
Pakistan should focus on what it can achieve and learn from its current peers. India is not a peer and hasn’t been one for decades.
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