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Ohio builds Modi bridge

Columbus (Ohio), Nov. 4: If America’s presidential candidates are taking their last stand in the toss-up state of Ohio before Tuesday’s uncertain election, so is Ohio in its efforts to build on its impressive rescue from the brink after the financial meltdown of 2008.

Defying the political correctness in Washington, the Columbus region, made up of 11 resurgent counties in the Ohio capital’s extended neighbourhood, is looking to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat as a gateway to building bridges with India’s emerging economy.

In 2008, even as Washington was stuck in its increasingly unsustainable stand that Modi will not be given a US visa because of his alleged human rights transgressions, Columbus, in a strategic initiative, chose Ahmedabad as its “sister city”.

The concept of sister cities is an initiative launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to promote what he called citizen diplomacy, a variant of what has now become public diplomacy.

Columbus has historically used the initiative to its advantage: as far back as 1955, this city, one of the first to participate in the project, added Genoa in Italy, the birthplace of its namesake Christopher Columbus, as its pioneering sister city. In an immediate return, this city got a statue of Columbus as a gift that now overlooks the office of its mayor.

Since establishing a sister city relationship with Ahmedabad, Columbus and the region surrounding it have gingerly but purposefully moved to deepen ties with Gujarat, which is seen here as a dynamic economic engine in India which can help Ohio’s return to prosperity.

Ohio’s Gujarati Americans have chipped into this effort. For instance, Neil Patel, a hotelier from Westerville in Ohio, spent 10 weeks back home arranging meetings in Ahmedabad preparatory to a visit to Gujarat by a trade mission from this state. For him, it was a labour of love with no monetary rewards.

A delegation from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad followed the sister city tie-up between Columbus and Ahmedabad: after all, no one can criticise educational links with Gujarat and Ohio has major assets in the education sector. The sprawling Ohio State University (OSU) campus here alone has 6,000 foreign students, including a sizeable number from India.

The idea of hosting the team from the IIM was to facilitate student exchange with the OSU similar to a programme that the institute in Ahmedabad already has with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This year, OSU opened its “India Gateway” headed by Ratnesh Bhattacharya, an alumnus, to examine new academic opportunities in the country in response to liberalisation on the entry of foreign educational institutions, Gordon Gee, OSU’s President, told a group of foreign journalists visiting the campus.

Last year, when Ohio sent a business delegation to India, it slipped Gujarat into the delegation’s itinerary taking advantage of the sister city connection. The team also went to New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

The delegation was organised by “Columbus 2020”, a public-private partnership, to promote Central Ohio and its members have been satisfied with the 42 meetings held in 10 days. Kenny McDonald, chief economic officer of Columbus 2020, said there had been considerable follow-up from the visit.

Deborah Scherer, director of Global Markets for Columbus 2020, who travelled to Gujarat with the trade team, said the visit opened the eyes of Indian entrepreneurs to Central Ohio’s lower cost of doing business, skilled labour and logistical advantages. The Indians were looking at Boston or New York City before the Ohioans talked to them, she said.

A packaging company from India, which prefers to be anonymous until deals are signed and sealed, visited Ohio in response to the delegation’s outreach and hopes to set up a facility in Central Ohio.

Last week, Momentive Performance Materials Holdings, considered a global leader in speciality chemicals and materials, announced that its two subsidiaries, Momentive Performance Materials Inc. and Momentive Speciality Chemicals, have opened a new Global Research and Development Centre and business headquarters for the India, West Asia and Africa region in Bangalore.

This facility near Bangalore’s “electronic city” will initially employ almost 100 people.

No matter who wins the US presidential election on Tuesday, the next occupant of the White House will be grateful to Ohio’s 18 votes in the electoral college which are expected to tip the balance in the close race.

That is good news for Ohioans who can expect Washington’s largesse in the state’s path to recovery in the next four years. It offers an opportunity for India.

At NetJets, a Columbus-based global leader in private aviation operating the largest fleet of private jets in the world, the company’s management is looking at India as the next frontier.

NetJets is owned by Warren Buffett who used the company’s private planes for his travel for some years and was so impressed by its business model that he bought the entire firm in 1998. Earlier this year, NetJets unveiled a joint venture in China. Its next goal is to enter India.

Battelle, also based in Columbus, is a charitable trust founded in 1929 by industrialist-turned-researcher Gordon Battelle and is now a global pioneer in developing and commercialising technology.

It is credited with commercialising the first photocopier and developing the first nuclear fuel rods and the bar code, which is used to scan products in stores, among other technological firsts.

At the Battelle headquarters, its chief executive officer, Jeff Wadsworth, has a special place in his heart for Calcutta where he lived between 1957 and 1959. Wadsworth has been instrumental in getting Battelle to open a wholly owned subsidiary in Pune.

The idea of the subsidiary was born out of a paper written in 1989 by Shalendra Porwal, a Battelle employee of 33 years, who argued well before India became a flavour here that the trust should examine India’s potential.

In 2008, Battelle India was created and Porwal is now its managing director and CEO.