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In the fall of 2000, I won an all-expense paid trip to India, courtesy of Tina Brown, then editor of “start-up” magazine, Talk. And, along the way, I ran into India’s new prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Okay, so “ran into” is kind of an exaggeration. Let’s just say I was traveling with someone Singh thought it important to meet. Who? Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail, the software that made, well, made the Internet café possible.

I was supposed to write a story about Sabeer as he bounced around India for Talk magazine. It didn’t happen. Brown wanted a story about the millionaire dating a Bollywood (now Hollywood) movie star and Bhatia’s role in India’s massive and still continuing social change wasn’t the kind of story she wanted to do (and you wonder why Talk isn’t still at it, huh?) Still, going to India with Bhatia was – still is – what it must have been like to tour Memphis, with Elvis Presley in, oh, 1959.
Bhatia gets stopped on the street by young men who want his autograph. Older men, businessmen, stop him on trolleys and shuttle buses to press their business cards into his hand. He is granted almost any interview he wants with pretty much anyone. Indians want to hear first-hand how U.S. businesses work and they think Bhatia, who sold Hotmail to Microsoft for more than $400 million – can tell them. So, of course, politicians – politicians like Singh – want to be photographed with him. For the generation of young Indians following him – Bhatia is the first of a post-partition baby boom that’s just getting started – he put a friendly and enormously successful face on American capitalism.
Yes, I know, Indians in America grouse about his celeb status and how he hasn’t done anything and well, that’s not entirely true. Bhatia has a nice gig. His main job — it’s not really written down anywhere – is to use his celeb status to help Indians here invest in India there. It’s a great example not just of global economics and immigrant politics — you can always go home because you never really leave home — but of India’s changing relationship with the U.S.
All of which offers some interesting insights into why Singh – a member of India’s Congress Party, traditionally hostile to business – gets to be prime minister instead of Sonia Gandhi. He’s not a guy who looks back. Singh made that very clear as he stood beside Bhatia, whose father quietly murmured that Singh would someday be politically powerful. Singh, India’s finance minister in the mid-1980’s lowered tariffs on the export of software, launching an international economic phenomenon.
I am growing weary of America’s fascination with China as a trading and economic partner. Yes, I know, there are billions of people there and if we can get them to all buy just one Coca-Cola, we’d all – well, Coke – would be rich. Sure. Go to China then go to India. You’ll see. Although there’s tremendous willingness to try and build bridges, the gulf between China and the west is culturally enormous.
India is, even with its poverty, its tottering infrastructure (India electricity: it works until it doesn’t) and its phenomenal political corruption (probably the Congress Party’s biggest challenge because they will have to police their own) sensibility is in many respects a more politically sophisticated – and by that I mean cannier about the West — than China. Think about this: Singh, a Sikh, is the first non-Hindu to lead India. Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to stand aside speaks volumes about where India is headed.
And while we’re here: Amy Waldman, the New York Times reporter in India is doing a simply fabulous job. She’s smart, she’s insightful and she doesn’t spend all her time hanging around ministers in Delhi like her predecessor. Read her. Almost everything she files is worth your time.

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