India hopes rest on CEO's project

Trump choice for top diplomat is Delhi's buffer against President-elect's rhetoric

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 14.12.16
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson and Trump's choice for secretary of state

Dec. 13: A $500 million backroom project in Bangalore shepherded last year by Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has emerged as India's hope as a bulwark against the President-elect's anti-outsourcing rhetoric that threatens to rock ties.

Tillerson, the 64-year-old CEO of ExxonMobil, America's second-largest firm, has no governance or formal diplomacy experience, but is known to at least two Indian ambassadors because of his firm's work in India, senior officials told The Telegraph.

The executive who will, if confirmed by the US Senate, serve as Trump's top diplomat, has pushed back-offices for ExxonMobil - the world's largest oil and gas company across countries where labour and resources are cheaper than in America.

In 2015, the firm under Tillerson launched a mammoth technical and business support centre in Bangalore, with a plan to employ over 1000 employees within two years.

President-elect Donald Trump (left) and musician Kanye West at Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday. West's meeting with Trump fuelled speculation that the rap artist may have discussed performing at the President-elect's inauguration. Asked about the purpose of the 15-minute meeting, Trump said: "Friends, just friends. He's a good man. Long time. Friends for a long time." (Reuters)

India is counting on that corporate realism to act as a buffer against the instincts Trump displayed during his campaign, just as that pragmatism facilitated ties between Tillerson and Russia's leadership despite a chill between Washington and Moscow.

For New Delhi, Indian officials said, Tillerson's ties with Moscow could serve a crucial role in facilitating a realignment that may discomfit Beijing.

But it is his positions on economic diplomacy under Trump that could prove crucial, they said, to whether India and the US can continue their relationship from where it stands - or are forced to bicker over what New Delhi thought was a settled debate.

"He will be a forceful and clear-eyed advocate for America's vital national interests, and help reverse years of misguided foreign policies and actions that have weakened America's security and standing in the world," Trump said in a statement today.

The President-elect, in a short video message in November had listed the "misuse" of work visas by foreign employees as a key hole he would plug, and has repeatedly promised to "bring back American jobs".

That rhetoric has sparked concerns within the Indian strategic establishment of fresh negotiations with the incoming US administration over the benefits of outsourcing, and of hiring Indian workers in the US, for the profitability of American companies.

India has so far not received any assurances from the Trump transition team on these concerns.

"I think what can be safely predicted out of the United States is that the Trump administration will have different priorities and different terms for engaging with the world," foreign secretary S. Jaishankar had said in late November, after a trip to Washington to meet members of Trump's transition team.

Nearly 1.3 million Indian nationals are currently working in the US - apart from the 3.2 million Indian Americans in that country - with a majority working on high-skill, H1B work visas that are on Trump's radar. And Bangalore has emerged as a metaphor in the US for outsourcing - with multiple television soaps and movies portraying offices with Indians wearing headsets answering questions and solving problems of Americans, employing faux accents.

Indian officials are clear that any significant disruption of this relationship - one which New Delhi argues benefits both sides - will impact broader ties.

But Tillerson as a corporate chief has demonstrated, Indian officials said, a more sophisticated, almost diplomatic, approach to his ties with different countries than some might assume from a man from the tiny town of Wichita Falls, Texas.

His approach contrasts with that of his predecessor as ExxonMobil CEO, Lee Raymond, who was viewed by many international governments, including India's as too brusque while trying to negotiate overseas projects, officials said.

In the US, Tillerson's camaraderie with Russian President Vladimir Putin - the American executive has visited Russia frequently, met and dined with Putin, and received the country's Order of Friendship award - is controversial.

But for India, that's a selling point. India has for the past few years grown increasingly concerned about America's tensions with Russia pushing Moscow closer into Beijing's embrace.

Trump's strident criticism of China - both before and after the elections where he emerged winner - coupled with a US-Russia thaw could fundamentally alter that equation, according to the assessment of the Indian foreign office.

A more business-minded secretary of state, Indian officials argued, is also less likely to lay emphasis on some of New Delhi's sore wounds - like Washington's insistence on highlighting human rights concerns in India.