The focus at the U.S.-India Business Council’s first annual West Coast Summit here April 26-27 was the progress of U.S.-India relations over the past decade.
While some speakers addressed the twin bugaboos of a perceived “stall” in Indo-U.S. relations, and India’s recent proposal to levy taxes retroactively on Vodafone and other multinationals, a spirit of cautious optimism prevailed on the growing warmth between the two countries.
The emotional highlight of the conference was the closing keynote speech by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (see image - left), who recounted her memories of how she refused to allow the U.S.-India civilian nuclear talks to collapse.
The story is related in more detail in her 2011 book, "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington," but Rice charmed the audience of about 300 Silicon Valley leaders with her vibrant retelling.
She said that the day before the July 2005 meeting in Washington, D.C. between President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she was informed by then Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns that the deal was “not going to happen. They can't get it done in New Delhi.”
She said she went to sleep that night troubled, woke up after 4 a.m. in the morning with the imperative, “I am not going to let this deal go down.”
She knew the meeting between Bush and Singh was scheduled at 10 a.m., so she asked Burns to seek a meeting for her with the prime minister at 8 a.m.
When she spoke early in the morning with Foreign Minister Natwar Singh, who had expressed strong support for the nuclear deal, he told her the PM didn’t want to see her. When she asked why, the minister told her that the prime minister “doesn’t want to tell you no,” Rice told the USIBC audience.
But she persisted, got the meeting with the PM, and he agreed to try again to get a deal hammered out.
Later that day, Rice said, Burns "burst into the Oval Office and said, ‘We got it!’” When the two countries signed the nuclear deal that day, it was "one of my proudest moments," the former secretary of state said.
Rice pointed out that even before Bush became president, he had shown an inclination to better relations between India and the U.S. She said when she met with Bush while he was still Texas’ governor, he broached the subject of doing “more with India” after he became president.
Rice said one reason Bush was so focused on India was because "he knew the (Indian) Diaspora in Austin so well and the contributions Indians are making in America."
“Innovative partnerships” between India and the U.S. were emphasized by two main speakers April 27 at the conference, held at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Menlo Park. (Separate story on the April 26 event.)
The emphasis was no surprise, since the conference theme was "Building Bridges, Fostering Innovation."
Indian Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Arun K. Singh said such innovative partnerships would become an “engine of growth,” not just for the rich in India, but also for its millions of poor people. India has set up a $1 billion “innovation fund” to develop technologies to help those “at the bottom of the pyramid,” he added.
Singh pointed out that Indian companies have created many jobs in this country and contributed "$30 billion" to the U.S. economy. Another $3 billion comes from the more than 100,000 Indian students currently attending U.S. colleges and universities.
R.V. Kanoria, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, co-host organization with USIBC of the conference, said FICCI has initiated an incubator program that has resulted in the commercialization of at least 70 technologies.
Kanoria, while he has been critical of the passing of a retroactive tax law by India, said these types of “problems and pitfalls” can be overcome if the two countries work together.
Geoffrey R. Pratt, principal deputy secretary, South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau at the U.S. State Department, was even more blunt in countering the idea of a drift in U.S.-India relations.
“I want to shoot down the narrative of a drift,” he asserted. “We are not going back,” he added. “We have a decisive stake in each other’s success.”
Pratt said he expects “strategic dialogue” to continue in talks in Washington in June between high-ranking U.S. and Indian officials. “There is very little that is not on our agenda,” he said. The U.S. wants to be India’s “leading partner in all areas."
Pratt praised FICCI’s role in the recent improvement in trade relations with Pakistan. He also addressed India’s criticism of high fees in H-1B and other U.S. visa programs by saying, “We get it and we’re listening.”
But Pratt also suggested that India reciprocate to the United States’ 10-year B-1 visa program for foreign business travelers to the U.S. by establishing a similar 10-year visa for U.S business travelers to India.
A high-powered panel on the “U.S.-India Strategic Partnership” featured former U.S. Ambassadors to India Frank Wisner (see image - right) and Timothy Roemer, Symphony Technology Group CEO Romesh Wadhwani, FICCI secretary general Rajiv Kumar and USIBC president Ron Somers.
Wisner said that a “fundamental change” has occurred in Asia due to the “fresh partnership” between India and the U.S.
Somers, acknowledging some disappointments in India recently, in particular what he called “diminishing of the power” of India's ruling coalition government by the “reversal of the railway budget,” urged the audience to “pull back and look at the big picture” in the growth of U.S.-India trade.
Noting the increased corporate participation in Washington, D.C.-based USIBC, Somers said his organization “has never been more robust.” He also confirmed to India-West one conference speaker’s statement that hundreds of people had to be turned away from attending USIBC’s West Coast Summit.
Wadhwani (see image - left) echoed previous speakers’ remarks that “innovation is the word of the day,” but it “needs to get beyond technology.”
The longtime entrepreneur emphasized that more vocational schools need to be developed for India’s increasing young population, since “10 million kids drop out before high school” in that country.
FICCI’s Kumar made an intriguing remark on the new political shift in South Asia when he suggested it would be helpful for the U.S. to make clear its position vis-à-vis China in the South Asian landscape.
That comment, unfortunately, was not followed up by the two former U.S. ambassadors during the too-short question-and-answer-period. The jam-packed conference typically left very little time for questions from the audience, which comprised a large number of Indian Americans, and had very few breaks to allow networking with participants.
Roemer (see image - right : center) advised U.S. business leaders who encounter problems with India’s central government to “go to the state” chief ministers who seem to hold more power in modern India. He also underscored the importance for India and the U.S. to sign a “bilateral investment treaty.”
Wim Elfrink, chief globalization officer at Cisco Systems, spoke about his five years living in Bangalore heading “Cisco East.” He said his experience in India changed his decision-making and his priorities on the Cisco board. Elfrink said he was proud when Cisco was voted the “4th best employer in India” in one survey in India, which helps Cisco’s recruitment efforts there.
“In 2020, India will be the youngest country in the world, with one in three workers in the world being Indian,” the Cisco executive said.
“Additionally, 100 million Indians are expected to urbanize in the next 10 years. Needless to say, this is a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. and India to collaborate.”
Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International, said Disney’s acquisition of Mumbai-based UTV, one of India’s leading media and entertainment companies, added a company that was “four times larger than our Disney operation in India” and 800 employees to Disney’s previous workforce of 200. The combined operation, he said, “will become the Walt Disney Company” in India.
“India is all about cricket, film and television, so Disney had to be involved in at least two of those to be successful there,” Bird said. “So our strategy in India has been driven by media.”
He added that in the future Disney would hope to produce “Disney-branded” movies in India not only for the domestic market, but also for international markets.
Disney is stepping up production initiatives in India, according to one recent report, charting 14 new family-oriented films, with five of the films in advanced planning stages.
Other highlights of the USIBC conference included informative panels on renewable energy and venture capital investing in India, and an inspiring and out-of-the-box presentation by noted venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, who told the USIBC audience, “The willingness to fail allows you the opportunity to succeed. But when you have the chance to succeed, make sure it’s something consequential.”
“It’s okay to fail, as long as you fail fast,” he added.