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H-1B visa: India has strong case; Nirmala Sitharaman should match Trump rhetoric with political chutzpah

Can you fight sweeping slogans with hard statistics?  The answer is yes, but it hardly matters when you are dealing with populist politicians who have been voted to power.

Donald Trump was never known for a nuanced approach to public policy, and it is hardly surprising therefore that the US President has aides who shoot off their mouths about visa regimes like Wild West sheriffs who used to shoot first and ask questions later.

But the world economy is not exactly cowboy country. India's government has a strong case to bat for the software industry. The challenge however, is that in business you don't pick up fights. You pursue profits. It is for Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to speak up and say what the information technology industry captains may be afraid of saying in public for fear of spoiling the mood in India's biggest software export market.

Poor Nasscom!  India's software industry association has painstakingly disproved claims by a White House aide of Trump that Indian companies pay below prescribed wages to workers on H-1B work permit visas  and also statistically dispelled notions that leading Indian companies corner H-1B visas. At only 8.8 percent of such visas taken by  TCS and Infosys in the financial year 2015, and given that India accounts for as much as 17 percent of the world's population, the case for India is strong.

US President Donald Trump. AP

US President Donald Trump. AP

However, numbers hardly matter to those who are trying to ride the narrative of "Those Indians are stealing your jobs!". What we need is political chutzpah to match political rhetoric and here is where Ms. Sitharaman has to step in. India can diplomatically negotiate with the US to disprove false claims and also to dangle carrots and sticks where necessary. Which carrots and what sticks are a matter of detail -- but suffice it to say that in the age of globalisation and fair play involving dispute resolution in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India has sufficient elbow room to play the game fair and square.

Nasscom can only go so far. As the industry that annually provides export revenues of well over of $100 billion in the most competitive way, the software industry has a knock-on effect on other industries. (Consider the fact that foreign exchange reserves that influence exchange rates are dependent on software revenues to a good extent). It is imperative for the government to see the long-term implications of US protectionism in information technology (And it does not help India that even Singapore has also turned protectionist).

Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka recently took a stoic stance that visa issues are part of life.  Who will stand up for him (or for that matter, TCS managing director Rajesh Gopinathan) when he also has to take on automation challenges and boardroom battles?

There is an influential lobby of wealthy Americans batting for easier visas to Indian techies, but the Trump administration needs to be shown in hard terms that what it is attempting is bad for America and fair trade. The Indian government is best placed to do that.

One option is for India to form a caucus within the WTO of like-minded nations (Think Philippines, Ireland) and pressure US to ease visa curbs and stop spewing rhetoric. If necessary, India can make common cause even with China.

The other is for India to reserve options for action on industries other than software/IT to tell the Trump administration a thing or two. For those of us who have lived through the earlier days of the Uruguay Round negotiations that led to the formation of the WTO, there is reason to believe that the US is backtracking on its own gospel in the services industry that it used to preach in the early 1990s. It is time for India to call the bluff.

If they are cowboys, there can be Indians, no?

(The author is a senior journalist. He tweets as @madversity)



Updated Date: Apr 25, 2017 12:36 PM

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