If there’s just one word to describe Mukesh Aghi, it would have to be ‘suave.’ Coiffed hair, immaculate suit, polite, utterly pleasant; he listens quietly to questions and answers with a rare fluidity, reeling off numbers and deftly stepping away from potential minefields. He doesn’t spin and doesn’t offer a word more than needed. His speech also rarely ever recourses to the personal “I,” instead, it’s always the expansive “we.” You are left wondering if that is because he identifies so closely with the organization he leads, the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, or if it’s quite simply the reverse.
Whatever the case, there is little doubt that Aghi is determined to make a difference in U.S.-India relations. The Indian American president and CEO of USISPF has cast his sights farther than mere trade, and is on record as saying the ties between the two nations can and should extend to sustainability, security and innovation. He has told the media that U.S. universities should focus on India for students as well as for exchange programs.
Aghi’s ability to go beyond what meets the eye laces his career and might be a key to his success. Early on, he displayed this streak heading off to get a B.A. in Beirut instead of the usual U.S. or UK. He went on to get an MBA in international marketing from Andrews University and then a Ph.D. in international relations from Claremont Graduate University. These qualifications combined with heading companies and sitting on boards of others had USIBC come calling. He went on to helm it, chucking his job as co-CEO of L&T Infotech.
The organization was coasting along nicely, but his arrival there was to prove explosive. Rubbing shoulders with the mighty, he set dizzying goals and charged ahead. Appreciated by some and not so much by others, Aghi made an acrimonious exit from the USIBC group.
Down but not out, he was soon back with USISPF, signaling to Washington and Delhi that he is here for the long haul. Aghi, after all, is a marathoner. Also, a mountaineer. In his book, neither the distance to nor the lofty heights of a goal are unconquerable. Excerpts from his recent talk with India-West:
Q: Does the U.S.-China trade war present opportunities for India especially with President Trump telling American companies to look at other destinations? What can India do to draw American companies instead of having them go to Vietnam or Thailand?
A: Yes, it does open opportunities. There are four broad areas that India can work on. The first is lowering corporate taxes, which is already done. Two, simplify labor laws. Three, land acquisition reform and, finally, what I would broadly say is ease of doing business, which includes things like getting the building, getting electricity…the process should not be cumbersome. I think India should look at Singapore for this and not be competing with other countries in the region.
Q: Other than the well-known IT and pharma sector, what other Indian industries are doing well here in the U.S.?
A: These two industries are doing exceptionally well. IT continues to grow in double digits. With generic drugs, India has a 40% share of the U.S. market which has translated into $25 billion in savings for the U.S. government. Other than this, jewelry, trade in semi-precious stones is growing. In 2019, while we wait for official numbers, we estimate trade was to the tune of $160 billion, up from $142 billion the previous year.
Q: Is there a middle ground between “America First” and “Make in India?”
A: When Donald Trump came to office, India’s trade surplus was $28 billion. In the last two years that has dropped to $20 billion. India has made a continuing effort for this. Large orders of planes and defense have been placed. A large part of the correction has happened in the energy sector. Three years ago, India was getting zero barrels of crude oil from the U.S.; today it’s 142,000 barrels a day.
Q: Without getting into the environmental issues on this, have you found U.S. companies to be responsive to climate change concerns?
A: U.S. companies are very supportive and very engaged. They are on board with the single use plastic drive in India and are working to bring technology to use plastic waste effectively. India has a major water problem and companies are working to use technology for water recycling and conservation.
Q: What do you think is the actual state of the Indian economy?
A: It is going through some cyclical corrections. The structural changes are also happening like with the public sector banks and non-performing assets. Sixty percent of the economy is consumption-based, most of it rural. The question is how will that revive? There will be challenges in the next two quarters and then there will be an uptick. I am optimistic. There are already some green shoots – auto sales and the manufacturing sector is picking up.
Q: What is the goal you have set for USISPF the coming year?
A: We would like to see FDI touch $100 billion each year; now it is $60 billion out of which 40% is the U.S. The trade objective is to reach $325 billion by 2025.
Q: What has been different working with the Trump administration compared to the Obama or Bush ones?
A: There is no question the president sets the tone and intent for an administration. In this case, the president has made it clear India is very important. He also sees a lot of value in his personal relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Never in the history of the U.S. has a departing Indian ambassador (Harsh V. Shringla) called on the president of America to bid goodbye.
We are bipartisan. Now, the Republican party is in the White House and there is a Democratic party majority in the House. We have access to both sides. We have invited Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Jared Kushner to our events. In a democracy there are multiple opinions; politicians, administrations come and go. As an institution we remain with a memory bank to draw on. When India imported S-400 missiles from Russia, we were there to walk the Hill and the administration and provide the logic that 52 percent of the Indian platform was Russian and couldn’t be cut off. At the same time, we have been encouraging India to invest in defense tech.
Q: You have said when you went to work for Speaker Tip O’Neill you found things did not move on the Hill. In this hyper partisan era, what has been your experience?
A: It’s challenging. At that time the Speaker would sit down with President (Ronald) Reagan in the evening and they would find common cause for the nation. The current state is more challenging.
Q: What have been the noticeable changes over the years in Indian American lobbying?
A: There is more money flowing in. In the last presidential election cycle, per capita, Indian Americans were the highest donors with 300 people giving as much as $35 million. But as a group we are disjointed…so many associations and groups. An effort has to be made to get them together; with a sledgehammer push every nail in to become one. We are 4 million Indian Americans, we need to be cohesive.
Q: Are you in touch with the top Democratic candidates? What are you talking to them about?
A: Absolutely. We are in touch with Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg. We are briefing them on Article 370, the CAA, NRC and, of course, trade.
Q: Has it been freeing for you at USISPF as compared to USIBC?
A: Now my focus is only on U.S.-India ties. The Chamber had 14 councils including Pakistan. It’s a laser focus now.
Q: You have spoken about legacy. What would you like it to be?
A: To have helped foster a stronger, enduring relationship between the U.S. and India.
No. of marathons run: 29
Fastest marathon: Napa to Sonoma in Northern California at 2 hours 49 minutes.
Memorable mountains climbed: Mt. Whitney thrice, Everest base camp, and the most challenging, Mont Blanc.