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Indians get a glimpse of Americans' busy, lonely lives via a customer service help line.
BANGALORE, India — Amit Shetty and Arinana Kiran, both 25, are customer service agents at the back-office firm here known as 24/7 Customer.
The company has one of its largest global outsourcing centers in Bangalore, and Shetty and Kiran are quick-thinking and enthusiastic employees who serve U.S. corporations halfway around the world. During the course of a typical workday they talk incessantly to dozens of Americans, sorting the customers' office problems or selling them insurance or cable TV.
But the professional conversations sometimes stray into polite chatter, and call center agents say they often find themselves talking with Americans about America.
They get to know their U.S. customers a bit, their fondess for Starbucks coffee, the vacations they take, their love life confessions — little conversations that leave them feeling that Americans are pretty lonely and need someone to talk to.
As a result of these informal chats, Shetty and Kiran, like many of their colleagues in call centers, can blithely hold forth on a broad range of topics that interest Americans, from the NBA to David Letterman to President-elect Barack Obama’s culinary skills, as well as the makeup of his new cabinet. They definitely know about Obama's campaign rhetoric against outsourcing, but they also know he is a citizen of the world, a trait they say they welcome in a U.S. president.
“Obama came in from the cold, fought a dignified election and won against all odds,” Kiran said. Like Kiran, many other young workers in India’s outsourcing industry are impressed by Obama's “Yes we can” motto and his slogans about change.
“Obama could be the savior-in-disguise,” said Shetty. “He could help the United States build bridges with the rest of the world and lead change in areas like global warming and terrorism."
Like thousands of young Indians logged into their computers at all hours of the day and night to work for American firms, Shetty and Kiran’s life in Bangalore — the outsourcing capital of the world — is inextricably intertwined with the United States.
Outside of the U.S., India has the largest concentration of brain power involved in research, development and design, as well as back-office operations for U.S. companies such as General Electric, Intel, Microsoft and Boeing.
India means three things to the United States, said Ashok Soota, chairman of the Bangalore outsourcing company MindTree: It is the largest functioning democracy in the world, it has the largest potential market for the U.S., and it is the single-largest source of brain power that is cerebrally-aligned to American ideas and ideals.
“The possibility that this combination creates will always remain central to the political and economic agenda of the United States for all time to come,” Soota said.
As outsourcing grows, links to the United States grow stronger for many. Despite the geographical distance, a Barack Obama fan club sprouted in Bangalore to kick off the Techies for Obama campaign. From 8,500 miles away, the club's 50-odd members texted and emailed friends and relatives in the U.S. They rallied votes and raised money for his campaign fund.
The club’s self-apointed president, Venkat S. Balaji, said he was inspired to start Techies for Obama because he believed the world needs a strong leader to play a positive role.
“Obama is for change and so are we,” said Balaji. “The United States needs change; the world needs it."
So, despite minor unease over president-elect Obama’s anti-outsourcing statements, many of India’s young, white-collar workers are charmed by him and enthusiastic that his election could improve the already convivial relations between the two countries.
On the other side of the city, Narayana Murthy — who founded India’s second largest outsourcing company, Infosys Technologies — believes that the U.S. will soon be led by an analytical and pragmatic politician. Murthy is chairman and chief mentor of Infosys, whose customers include Visa, Reebok, JCPenney and Apple.
Obama drafted three of his former political opponents to his new cabinet. “If that is how he works with rivals, think of what he could do with allies like India,” Murthy said. In dealing with India, the U.S. could use both pragmatism and logical thinking, he said.
Murthy said the new administration will face the challenge of curtailing terrorism. “After the evidence put together on the Mumbai terror attacks by the Indian government and the FBI, the United States appears to fully understand the implications of state-sponsored terrorism,” he said.
In India, there is an expectation that the U.S. will throw its weight unambiguously behind India when it comes to persuading Pakistan to curb terrorism and extradite terrorists. But the U.S. needs Pakistani support to fight the Taliban. China’s involvement in the region and its support for Pakistan increase the equation's complexity.
“America will have to decide on what is right versus what is expedient,” Soota said.
To stave off economic challenges, the U.S. and India would do well to look to each other, Murthy said. Even in the current depressed economic conditions, India is forecast to grow between 5 percent and 7 percent, but such expansion requires foreign investment. “So who better than the United States, whose corporations are hungry?” asked Murthy.