TOPICS > Nation

Tom’s Journal

August 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: This trip took Tom Friedman to the island nation of Sri Lanka and the Indian cities of Bangalore and New Delhi.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom, let’s start in Sri Lanka. When it made the American newscasts or newspaper pages at all, it was usually a story of a terrible terrorism problem or a long civil war. Is that still the headline today?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, it’s not. That’s actually the good news, Ray. We forget that suicide terrorism which began in the Middle East, was actually perfected in Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tiger separatist movement trying for a Tamil country in Sri Lanka. When I say perfected it, they really perfected it. They killed about 1,500 people through suicide terrorism. They actually filmed many of their suicide killings, including the killing of Rajiv Gandhi; their sort of cult leader, Mr. Brabakaran, would have dinner the night before suicides with his bombers, and they really made this a devastating, devastating tool of warfare.

Fortunately though, last December they agreed on a cease-fire and things have calmed down there enormously. It’s still just a cease-fire. There is no peace yet. There is no final peace yet. Everyone is quite nervous. There is an air of optimism, an air that something is over. The mandate of heaven has been taken away from the gunmen and from the government army and people really want this thing over.

RAY SUAREZ: How did they break the cycle? There would be a spate of these terror killings or an advance by the guerrilla army, then a counteroffensive by the national army, the state army of Sri Lanka and went back and forth like that for many years. What made them finally –

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Many things. Part of it was just a sheer stalemate. The government recognized the only way to stop suicide bombings is if the Tamil Tigers did it themselves. They had no military means to do it. How do you stop people who want to kill themselves? We have the same problem in the Middle East. And the Tamils realized they could not even hold their ethnic capital, Joffna in Northeast Sri Lanka. So there was clearly a stalemate on the ground.

One of the biggest things that happened was 9/11. Basically, the combination of September 11 and the whole delegitimatization globally of this idea of suicide bombing and at the same time the fact that the United States, India, Australia and Canada had named the Tamil tigers as a terrorist group, and that’s something that really alienated the Tamil Diaspora in India, in North America, and in Europe, which had been the main funders of the Tigers. These are middle class entrepreneurial professional people. They said wait a minute, if that’s what this movement is about, we are going to take a step back here, which they did. They withdrew the funding. And that really forced the Tigers to the negotiating table.

RAY SUAREZ: Next you went on to Bangalore — and Bangalore, again, not a place on a lot of Americans radar screens but maybe we should speak of it in the same breath as we do San Jose.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, we are a lot more connected to Bangalore than people realize. If you lose your luggage on British Air or Swissair, the person who answers the phone to track it down is in Bangalore. If you have got a problem with your Dell computer, the person on the other end of the phone you’re talking to is an Indian in Bangalore.

Bangalore is India’s Silicon Valley. And it’s a remarkable place. I mean, you know, I have kind of Friedman’s rule of motor scooters, and that is when you go to a developing country and you see a lot of motorcycles around, that’s like the best sign possible, because what it is a sign of is kind of young, lower middle class people who have left the countryside, come to the city and found jobs. And they found jobs enough to give up the bicycle and buy a motor scooter. And Bangalore is full of motor scooters.

The city produces about 40,000 young tech grads every year from different engineering and computer schools, all of whom get absorbed in this Silicon Valley there that is really providing the research and the backroom capability for a lot of American corporations from Bangalore, from the campuses of companies called Wipro and Infosys and Mindtree, they’re actually running the inventory, the accounts receivable, the payroll, a lot of the human resources for big American companies.


THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Like GE, GE Capital, like the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, like Sony, like Reebok, like American Express. And you go to their campuses, I mean you go to the Infosys campus, you walk in, and the first thing you see is a little par 3 hole. Then you see beautiful manicured lawns, a food court with TGI Fridays and Domino’s Pizza, an incredible exercise hall and building after building. And they literally point out that’s the GE back room over there, that’s American Express’s backroom over there. You have 300 people working these buildings; they work on 24-hour cycles. And they’re now the backroom of these companies.

So the old days when we thought of India as maybe what they call doing software coolies, writing very, sort of basic software code, they are gradually moving up the food chain to really appropriate using their minds, all of the backroom functions of major American companies, leaving the American companies, the front end, to focus on marketing and sort of primary design, you know close to their marketplace.

But even now you’ve got Indian companies sending people from India now to the American company to even, you know, take up more and more of that business. But what that means is that the intimacy with which we are integrated with India and India with us is far, far greater than ever before.

RAY SUAREZ: But this new thing must have been under threat during the time when the State Department was saying to Americans, well maybe you shouldn’t go to India, at the time when our newspapers were full of, as the bible says, war and rumors of war.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It’s true. I was out with some Indian industrialists one afternoon and the first thing they said to me– I got kind of bombarded from this the minute I walked into Bangalore – was — what exactly was the U.S. Government, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy and New Delhi up to when they issued a travel warning on May 31, warning, you know, Americans, basically to get out of India because a war with Pakistan was likely? There wasn’t going to be a war here. Nuclear war? Why, are you crazy, man, as one Indian business said to me. We’re talking about nuclear weapons! Are you crazy? When you’re down in Bangalore, you do get this sense there that nuclear war was actually quite far away.

Nevertheless, they really got, I would say, an introduction, and most importantly, the aging Indian Hindu national leaders in New Delhi, I think, got an introduction that they really– of something they didn’t really grasp fully before and that is just how intimately India is connected to the United States and the world and that just the rumor of war can have a huge impact on the Indian economy.

One thing that struck me when I was there, Ray, I was staying at a big tourist hotel in Bangalore and in New Delhi — no tourists around at all. I believe I was the only American in the Imperial Hotel when I was there in New Delhi. So just the rumor of war has had a huge impact on the Indian economy, and that’s why ever since that State Department travel warning, if you notice, the Indian government has zipped it up. There is no more talk about nukes, no more talk about war. And, in fairness to the Indians, this is a problem for them, because there is a real asymmetry between India and Pakistan.

India has this really high-tech economy now – I mean at the far end. It also has a huge low tech agricultural– 70 percent of Indians, let’s remember, still live in the countryside in villages but at the cutting edge, it has got this high-tech economy connected to the world. It’s a country that really is hard wired basically to take advantage educationally, culturally, in terms of democracy and secularism, really to take advantage of the 21st century. But it has got a neighbor that’s really been failing at modernization, failing at democracy. And they are very vulnerable to Pakistan now because any threat of war from Pakistan can really create real problems and havoc for India.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you know, when you travel to Silicon Valley, they talk about what people in Washington, like they are really far away and on a different planet. When you went from Bangalore to New Delhi, was there a similar kind of shift?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. You get to New Delhi and you do again feel like you’re in the capital, you’re away from the entrepreneurial heartbeat of the country. And everyone is really just focused on Pakistan, and the gentleman who you just had a segment on, President Musharraf of India.

And what always strikes me when I’m in New Delhi is that Indians talk about Musharraf exactly the way Israelis talk about Yasser Arafat. It is kind of you can’t possibly trust this guy. You know, don’t you realize he is a terrorist, et cetera, et cetera. I’m sure– listen, this is a country whose parliament, let us not forget, was attacked – you know — by pro-Pakistani militants just this last year. So even paranoids have enemies and India has real enemies here that they have to and legitimately worry about. But you do feel in New Delhi that people have been talking to themselves there a lot there. There is an obsession with Pakistan that strikes me as a little bit out of order in that India is such a big country-

RAY SUAREZ: But New Delhi is a lot closer than Bangalore.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Absolutely – no question — it is closer but it always strikes me about India that it could and should– it’s got a lot to be proud of. It’s managed to maintain a democracy in this teeming multiethnic, multilingual society for lo these 50 odd years and it is really actually very impressive. One of the things that strikes me is that the Indians should be more self-confident than they are, more self-confident vis-à-vis Pakistan — more self-confident vis-à-vis the United States. There is a lot of worry about the U.S.-India relationship.

You really feel when you’re there, Ray, talking to people, how young this relationship is, how during all the years of the Cold War, we were really alienated from each other when in fact our two countries have an enormous amount in common – I mean, you know, basically multiethnic, multiracial democracies built around a high degree of federalism and Lord knows we have differences as well but we have a lot in common with India today.

RAY SUAREZ: Multiethnic, multiracial democracy but at the same time there were religious riots in India over the past year between Muslims and Hindus. The government of Atal Vajpayee, a Hindu nationalist government, has moved more toward the tendency with the elevation of Lau Krishna Avani to more influence within the government. Aren’t there sort of competing forces for India’s attention that way?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Definitely. But let’s look what happened. There were riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat earlier this year in February. 60 odd Hindus were killed, maybe 600,000 to a thousand Muslims. It was terrible, pogrom really instigated by the Hindu nationalists in Gujarat. What happened? What happened? Nothing happened. That violence not only did not spread around Gujarat, it didn’t spread anywhere else in India. I think that’s a very, very positive sign. And that’s a sign that people in the rest of India not only are their cultural ties that’s still bind Hindus and Muslims in villages. There has been a lot of mixing of faiths and whatnot. But most importantly, it’s about democracy, that’s about free markets, that’s about people with something better to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Friedman, thanks for coming by.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: A pleasure, thank you.