On Tuesday, December 3, the tech world was rocked by an interesting news. Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced that they were stepping down from the posts of CEO and president, respectively, of Alphabet Inc, Google’s parent company. While Brin’s post was to be abolished, the current Google CEO, Pichai, was to assume Page’s job. Alphabet Inc was created as a holding company in October 2015 as a broader push for Google’s restructuring. That was when Pichai, the company’s product chief, was elevated to the post of CEO and the two founders were relegated to the role of overseers with more leeway in more quixotic projects. Meanwhile, Pichai’s consolidation of power, based primarily on his ability to deliver for the stockholders, has continued unabated. It is likely that now that the CEO of the two companies is the same man, Alphabet Inc will be abolished. The shortcut meant to bypass the founders will be abolished and the real king, thus far disguised as the regent, will formally take over the throne.
Going through the reaction of the tech news business was interesting. To many, it was just another non-news. This is how things were already. This development only formalises things. To others, Pichai, an engineer of Indian origin, had finally managed to get rid of the bee in his bonnet. When I contacted my friends in Silicon Valley, especially at Google, I was cryptically told that in the hi-tech, ultra-rich world there are no coincidences. Tech CEOs and founders do not wake up one morning and decide to relinquish the executive control of the companies they founded. From this all I could surmise was that there was an element of arm twisting or at least aggressive lobbying involved. But here are two coincidences for you. This change happened in one of the world’s most powerful companies right when the technological cold war is heating up. The second coincidence is when it all began. Pichai became CEO of Google in 2015, right in the middle of the years when the world changed for good. Between 2014 and 2016 the rise of the far-right, much discussed in the past decades despite looking far-fetched, became a reality. And the CEO happens to be of Indian origin, a country which has aggressively marketed itself as the probable counterweight of China.
Going through Pichai’s journey you simultaneously get inspired and paranoid. Inspired because a child who did not have a computer while growing up in a two-room apartment in Chennai graduated as a metallurgical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, and now controls a company that has such a profound impact on our lives. Paranoid, precisely because the company he now controls, is so powerful. Forget the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Google now is the world’s largest listening post. Remember how they keep going on about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica? How one app using another app harvested all the data that was so critical in swaying the 2016 US elections? That was just an app. Facebook too is an app. It is usually accessed through only half a dozen platforms. The three major operating systems: Windows in computers and Android and iOS in smartphones. Facebook may own some of your data. Android runs most of the handheld devices. As owner of the Android operating system, which has over 74% market share of the smartphone OS business, Google doesn’t need some of your data; you spend most of your life in the world owned by it. Paranoid also because if India had even the remotest role in Pichai’s rise, the new India, a hideous polity under Modi, will keep coming back for his pounds of flesh.
Unfair as it seems, it is significant that Microsoft, a key player particularly in the PC market is headed by another gentleman of Indian origin. But since apples and oranges are not the same I do not want to compare the two. Satya Nadella’s rise to fame, influence, and power are less shrouded in mystery. And when he rose to prominence he was an exception not a rule. By the time Pichai got his chance, it had almost become a rule. Likewise, another coincidence and perhaps an unfair comparison, though important to mention here is of Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the powerful US body tasked to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. He too is of Indian origin. Comparison seems unfair because unlike Pichai, Pai was brought up in the US. But you will agree with me from the random list of coincidences a pattern emerges. Perhaps nothing sinister. But momentous in its scope and timing.
The pattern becomes a rule when you google “CEOs of Indian origin”. The concentration of Indian-origin CEOs in the tech sector begs many questions. One of them is of others in the business. I don’t doubt that Indians are very enterprising people. But so are Chinese. You will not find many CEOs of American tech companies that are of Chinese origin. And above everything else Americans are by far the best innovators. But they too are being crowded out as we see in Larry Page’s example. Interestingly, Google employees are not chuffed about Page’s departure.
Let me tell you how these coincidences work. When Trump won the election in 2016 he spent most of the time confined to the Trump Towers in New York interviewing potential cabinet members. While world leaders were reaching out to him, the first group of his business partners who gate-crashed and met him were Indian. Immediately after that Tulsi Gabbard, the then darling of Modi’s Hindutva regime, was called for a meeting with Trump. Next, we heard that she could be the secretary of state. When things fell through, Nikki Haley, another leader of Indian origin, was summoned and she got the job of the US Ambassador to the UN, where apart from serving US interests, her diatribes were targeted at two people: Palestinians and Pakistanis.
Another coincidence is that when Chuck Hagel, the then US secretary of defence, outraged India by suggesting that the Indian government had a hand in terror activities, Obama immediately replaced him with card-carrying Indophile, Ashton Carter. Shortly before the impeachment hearings against Trump began because he had allegedly demanded help from the Ukrainian PM to find dirt on his possible challenger in the elections, another foreign leader, Modi, came to America and asked US citizens to vote for Trump. But what a coincidence that no one notices all this.
The question is why? The likely answer is found in the so-called new cold war between the US and China. But here is the thing. Jury is still out on the future of the Sino-US relations because there is a lot of shared interest. Meanwhile, the US is systematically being convinced that India can be its proxy against China. In view of the power and influence mentioned above you see enough evidence to develop a working hypothesis. That the cold war is actually between India and China and the US is India’s proxy. Go figure!
Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2019.