Washington, July 10: One week from now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will bring to Washington qualities which have landed him India’s most powerful job: probity in public dealings and a reliance on meritocracy.
During his three-day visit to the US from June 17, Singh will firmly turn his back on a Washington institution, which has been a powerful instrument in transforming Indo-US relations for nearly 15 years -- lobbyists paid to argue India’s case with the American establishment.
The UPA government has firmly decided to return to the practice during the times of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi of not dealing with America’s political powerhouse with the aid of paid lobbyists.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who heads the High Level Co-ordinating Group on Indo-US Relations, has, instead, marshalled 10 of America’s most influential chief executives to plead India’s case in the US -- for free.
These 10 chief executives will work with 10 captains of India’s corporate world through an institutionalised “CEO’s Forum” in an innovative effort to advance Indo-US relations.
Next Monday, shortly after his formal reception on the South Lawn of the White House and formal talks with President George W. Bush, the Prime Minister will address the 20 members of the CEO’s Forum at its first meeting.
On paper, the CEO’s Forum will be an engine to take forward Indo-US economic relations, help Indian and American companies to find their way in each other’s countries and create a high profile joint corporate interaction.
But in practice, it will be much more.
Men like Paul Hanrahan, CEO of AES, the power giant, Charles Prince, the CEO of Citibank, or David Coat, CEO of the high-tech and defence conglomerate Honeywell, who have agreed to serve on the Forum are chief executives who can pick up the phone and talk directly to Bush or Vice-President Dick Cheney on India’s behalf.
Beijing has consistently used its corporate influence in Washington through companies doing business in China to overcome formidable obstacles here to most favoured nation treatment, entry into the World Trade Organisation and even consideration on issues of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But Beijing has done this through the clout of individual business giants it has relations with.
India wants to institutionalise this process so that it is enduring.
The Indian members of the Forum include Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, Y.C. Deveshwar, ITC’s chairman, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries and Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys.
One of the big foreign policy debates within the UPA government since it came to power has been over continuing the practice of paying lobbyists here to argue India’s case.
Ronen Sen, the ambassador appointed by the Manmohan Singh government, has been arguing for ending the practice, partly echoing Indira Gandhi’s view that paid lobbying is immoral and that India’s case should stand on its own merit.
Ronen Sen, the ambassador appointed by the Manmohan Singh government, has been arguing for ending the practice, partly echoing Indira Gandhi’s view that paid lobbying is immoral.
The Prime Minister is said to have lent a sympathetic ear to that argument. Many high profile corruption charges involving top US politicians in recent months have centred around Washington lobbyists.
The NDA government decided in March 2004 to renew India’s $600,000-a-year contract with the lobbying firm, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, on a month-to-month basis pending elections in India.
Within a few months of taking charge as ambassador, Sen persuaded New Delhi in October last year to terminate this arrangement.
However, some of India’s most powerful friends in Washington have been campaigning hard in New Delhi to secure the lobbying contract either for their firms or for their friends.
New Delhi’s decision to opt for a most honest, direct and arguably more effective lobbying route through platforms such as the CEO’s Forum will mark a new turn in bilateral relations with the US during the Prime Minister’s visit.