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Global March

Vikram Pandit, the new CEO of Citibank, has proved that Indians have started to make a mark in the global corporate scene. But is it an easy thing to do, especially with the race factor coming in?

A boy from Nagpur, of all places, has just taken over as CEO of the world's largest bank, which is as good an indication as any that India has at last arrived on the global corporate scene. I have a hunch that this Vikram Pandit belongs, in a distant sort of way, to the other once-famous Pandit family, one of whose sons, Ranjit Pandit, married Nehru's sister, Vijayalakshmi, though I am not sure. Pandit is a common name in Maharashtra.It has taken India and Indians well over half a century to catch up with the world. We are still among the poorest nations of the world, but we are catching up fast. I had written sometime ago in this column that a few years from now, Indians will be running companies like General Motors and Ford, and may be even Microsoft and Intel, but Citibank is a good start. There are, of course, others like Pepsi and Vodafone where Indians rule the roost, but Citibank is a different cup of tea altogether.

It is not easy for an Indian, who is, for all purposes, a black or brown man, to run companies most of which are basically white organizations. Race comes into it in a very big way, as it does in most big and powerful international organizations, including United Nations and World Bank. Private companies may be different but not all that different.

Fifty-old years ago, when I joined an engineering company in London, I was the only Indian in the firm. This was in 1949, a couple of years after independence. A year or so later, I was put in charge of a small group overseeing a project in Persia. I had never been to Persia and had never had white Englishmen working under me. One was a Cambridge man whose mother was a niece of Bertrand Russell, and whose great-grandfather had been a prime minister of Britain, no less.

There was another Englishman, who had been a major in the Indian army, had fought in Iraq and Burma and was also a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese.

He had commanded a platoon consisting mostly of Indians and was obviously put out that he was now taking orders from an Indian. There was also a question of size. He was six feet four and I was, and still am, five feet four, quite a difference. And he was much older than me.

But somehow we managed to get along together. I cooked Indian curries for him, horrible stuff actually, but he loved them. The food in the army had been just as bad. Also, I found to my horror that his Hindi or Hindustani was better than mine, which was a plus point for him.

I made him feel that with his fluent barrack-room Hindi and his love of curries, it was he who was the Red Indian, and I, with my acquired weakness for fish and chips, and my hi-fi English, was all Englishman masquerading as an Indian. This is what Nirad C. Chowdhary did later, and the unknown Indian became a well-known Englishman, though the English, who are good at spotting phoneys, never quite accepted him. But for a long while, he managed to fool them.

I am not saying that this is what Vikram Pandit should do or will do, for he is in another business altogether, where he is dealing with hard cash, not words. But it may not be a bad strategy! There are scores of Indians waiting to set into his shoes, and he has to show the way.