Washington, Sept. 19: For Manish Tewari and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, spokespersons respectively of the Congress and the BJP, both in Washington now, the political confrontations over corruption, economic reforms or the stability of the central government back home could be happening in another planet.
The two men shared a platform here yesterday, but for Americans who braved rain, trees downed by a storm and attendant disruptions in traffic or power supply to attend their only public event here, the anticipated face-off between India’s two main parties was a disappointment.
Instead of any fireworks over the political crisis back home or even barbs against each other that are normal between spokespersons of ruling parties and the Opposition, Tewari and Rudy were civil, politically correct and effusively cordial to each other on foreign soil.
Both men praised India and raised expectations among Americans about India’s future to such heights that at some point a few Indians in the audience may have thought they were discussing a different country.
Such was the civility at the meeting that the US-India Business Council (USIBC) here, which hosted the two spokespersons, marvelled later in a press release that “India’s vibrant democracy was on display today”.
It was not a stretch, however, for the council to claim that their speeches and a question-answer session that followed constituted “a lively discussion on the current state of affairs in India and the recently announced ‘big bang’ reforms, including the opening of multi-brand retail” which has become a touchstone for the UPA government’s commitment to reforms among the US business community.
Reflecting the mood at the meeting, USIBC president Ron Somers said in the press release that “now is the time for cooperation and action.” The council “encourages progress, not politics”, an ideal call, but a far cry from the ground realities in India.
Rudy said in his introductory remarks that “everything looks good in India” and went on paint the picture of a country that has a bright future ahead. He, however, prefaced his comments with the constraint that he was on foreign soil and would, therefore, be guarded in what he would say.
Tewari, true to his cheeky style, said the pace of reform in India may not be to the liking of the country’s overseas friends. The implication was that liberalisation at home was solely India’s business and could not be dictated by organisations like the USIBC or other vested interests in America or anywhere else.
But he also rationalised that the latest package of reforms was delayed because the Manmohan Singh government became careful after the global economic crisis in 2008 which “demanded caution and prudence” while waiting to assess world trends and their impact on India.
By Tewari’s admission, his regular sparring partner from the BJP, Rudy, was “magnanimous” and “generous” in his restraint in Washington on domestic developments. Rudy refused to talk in any detail about corruption in India which has dominated headlines for months.
Jaws dropped among the audience when Tewari extolled the record of the previous NDA government in building strategic relations with the US, an initiative which the UPA has built on, he said, culminating in the nuclear deal.
Instead of turning on each other, both the spokespersons had subtle digs at the US. Drawing on his experience as civil aviation minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Rudy drew the attention of USIBC members to rampant protectionism in America’s civil aviation when the organisers talked about India’s decision to allow foreign investment in the country’s aviation industry.
Rudy said when he is invited to the US on occasion, he had been told that he could only fly on American carriers and not on airlines of his choice because the tickets were being bought with US government money.
Tewari referred to America’s yawning budget deficit and national debt and sent a message that the UPA government could not be reckless with reforms that could pave the way for similarly disastrous consequences.
The symphony on the stage between Congress and BJP rivals prompted the moderator of the session to hope that there would be such accord in American politics which is going through a searing election campaign with opposing parties tearing each other.
Sunjoy Joshi, the director of the Observer Research Foundation which brought Tewari and Rudy to Washington, said the idea was to bring the two spokespersons to a common platform in a non-adversarial framework to unveil a shared vision for India.
He said the foundation hit upon the idea to dispel doubts abroad about the India story and felt the initiative yesterday was a success. Tewari and Rudy had extensive closed-door meetings with the Obama administration focusing mainly on the State Department and the Pentagon.