Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ambassador Mulford comes calling...

Amongst the best experiences at the ISB ("takeaways" - in MBAspeak)is this unique ability to interact with thought leaders. And I really mean leaders. In this last year, I've met Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, shook hands with Mr. Digvijay Singh and lunched with the Home Minister. What would be the probability that I would have similar opportunities if I was working as before ? Zilch.

These experiences were capped by an unique opportunity to interact with His Excellency Mr. David C Mulford, the US Ambassador to India. It was wonderful and exciting to be in the same room with the Ambassador of the most powerful country on earth today. And true to form, it was a very interesting insight into the thoughts of some of the most influential people of the day.

I shall endeavor to put into this post some of the views expressed by the Ambassador as also cover the interactive discussion which followed it. I've faithfully recorded on paper much of his speech, but any errors or ommissions are all on me.But I do clean my ears regularly, so I dont think this should be much of an issue ! Also, I would not be expressing specific comments on this post. I leave it to the reader to form his/her own perceptions.

The Ambassador, in his opening remarks referred to the increasing depth of the Indo-US relationship. He spoke of it being broad-based in its reach, and counted as many as 22 different agencies which work with the Indian government today. He noted that there is a move from govt-to-govt interaction into the private sphere and hoped that this would increase. He believed that there was genuine reform going on, albeit slowly and surely, although privatization of national assets was yet to happen.

On commercial agreements, he focussed on the Open Skies policy and noted the expansion in trade due to this legislation. However, he hoped that there would be aggressive liberalization of financial services and expressed frustration with a lack of reforms and the subsidies.

He believed that as future business leaders we need to focus on Energy,Infrastructure and the Restructuring of the Indian rural economy. He mentioned that the civilian nuclear deal was the energy thrust and that enough has been mentioned on Infrastructure. Commenting on the last issues, he spoke of the tendency for coalitions, and that much of the rural economy was locked in a political vise, with no appetite for land reform. He spoke of rental and contract farming as possible options here. He believed that invigorating the rural economy was a surefire way to ensure that incumbent governments can get "30 years in office". As the Government was unequipped to the task, he opined that private participation in the rural sector would be useful. He drew paralells with the Maoist experience in Nepal and the Naxalite movement, and mentioned that reviving the rural economy was paramount to prevent a similar slide in India.

On US issues, he indicated declining economic activity in the US and spoke of emerging nations such as China and India which would have an increasingly important role to play in global economic affairs. He spoke of how the world at large would have to incorporate these realities and bring these countries to the negotiating table as equals. He was concerned that the US in general has perhaps still not understood the nature of the new world, and was concerned with some of the US-China rhetoric. Thus he believed that there needed to be a new order, and not just the G-7,and spoke of fundamental policy changes over time to reflect these realities.

At this point, he concluded his remarks and threw the floor open to questions. P began with a well reasoned question as to why the Kyoto protocol has not been signed upon by the US ? He replied by stating that first, not all signatories have adhered to the the Protocol. Secondly, he said if global warming was taking place, the US would definitely take the lead. Lastly, he was critical of the capping requirement and believed it to be a form of punishment, which was why the US did not sign.

Prof. R spoke of the rural economy views and asked whether fresh investment into the rural economy would not spur inflation, which was a key lookout for the govt.? The Ambassador quickly responded by pointing out that he was speaking in general terms and not in the current context. He mentioned that there was no project financing culture, and believed that the capital/bond markets can be developed atleast for domestic participation. That way, the wealth of India can be harnessed for the rural good. Here,he commented on the World Bank which he characterized as slow, inefficient and bureacratic.

ATP asked for his comments on the low level of Indo-US trade versus Sino-US trade. He rightly highlighted on the time gap in both trade relations and highlighted the differences in both countries, especially mentioning the presence of a confident Indian private sector, a different kind of production base, and different policies on currency.

H queried as to the negative comments on outsourcing heard in US politics of late. The Ambassador was confident that such comments, heard earlier in Senator Kerry's campaign would definitely die down, but mentioned that if the next President was "beholden" to a state like Ohio, which blames NAFTA, he was not so sure.

Yours truly popped the final question for the day.I began by aggreeing with him on his views on the new world order, but pointed out as to why this view was not seen in context of India's efforts to win a Security Council seat ? I also asked his view on our chances for the seat in future.

He went "Ummm..." and began by saying that these ties have a long way to go. He drew in the historical context of Indo-USSR ties, and mentioned that while there are common values, there are different interests. While he believed we are now friends, and are signing up deals, in his view India could serve a better role with economic power rather than just political power. He spoke of a "dichotomy" and expressed a view that our foreign service at the UN did not provide co-operation to the US at the UN. Pulling out statistics, he mentioned that India has supported the US only 22%of the time, and only 11% on important issues. In such a scenario, he mentioned that any US president supporting us on the seat had some explaining to do to the American public. He struck an optimistic note and ended the discussion.

I'd just like to say that I came away impressed by the forceful ability of the Ambassador to put forth his views. And not to mention, the obvious high from getting one of the most powerful individuals in India to go "Ummm..." to my questioning !

Howzzat !

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