Some things never change. Doing business in India is one of them. The India-US Joint Business Council was all set to hold its 15th meeting in Los Angeles on December 7, 1992 to discuss what was then — and still is — the most important drawback in this country’s relations with the world, especially the industrialised West, when India seemed to explode. The theme for Los Angeles was “How to do business in India”.
Throwing up their hands in frustration at India’s byzantine bureaucracy, primitive procedures that have seemingly creaked along unchanged since the East India Company acquired zamindaris, the obstructive bombast of ultra-nationalist politicians, and money-grabbing corruption of which the system reeked from top to bottom, many American members of the Joint Business Council had not attended meetings since 1977. That was the year when the rumbustious George Fernandes, industries minister in Morarji Desai’s government, threw Coca-Cola and IBM out to the consternation of the Western world. Computers weren’t an immediate compulsion then but democracy seemed impossible without hamburgers and Coke. As for corruption, it still rankled that when Rajiv Gandhi sent senior Indian officials to collect the Cray XMP-14 supercomputer the Reagan administration had promised after agonisingly protracted negotiations, they had unblushingly demanded a commission from Control Data Corporation, where Seymour Cray had developed the fastest computers in the world.
Then came the Babri Masjid bombshell only the day before the Los Angeles conference was due to open. It was a baptism by fire for Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who had only just presented his credentials to President George H.W. Bush (Bush Senior) in flowing dhoti and flamboyantly draped antique jamiawar shawl as India’s ambassador. I was packing my bags then to return to India at the end of a stint as editor-in-residence at the East-West Center in Honolulu and was well aware of the profound scepticism with which India was viewed. Outrage and anger at the vandalism still simmered a few days later as I broke journey in Singapore en route to what was still Calcutta — my ethnic Chinese taxi driver bluntly said the United Nations ought to bomb people who were capable of such barbarity. Americans had more politely pointed out that Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore were Asia’s most rewarding investment destinations. The social climate in even Indonesia and Malaysia was more stable than India’s; also, that the governments of both countries were more hospitable to American business while the investment opportunities were far more attractive than in India.
It seemed with just a day left, the Los Angeles conference was dead before it was born. But thanks to S.S. Ray’s intense lobbying in Congress and intercession at high levels, India’s 40-member delegation was cordially received. Rallying splendidly, Donald M. Kendall, one of the American hosts, and his colleagues gave a sympathetic hearing to Raunaq Singh, alternate leader (the other being L.M. Thapar) of the Indian delegation, as they urged the US to lower trade barriers, abandon the Special 301 retaliatory process, continue generalised special preference, and not go beyond the agreed international norms on intellectual property rights. This was a significant position to take in that age of trade wars that anticipated Donald Trump’s dramatics. Thanks to their combined efforts, American investment in India rose from $200 million to $20.7 billion in five years, and the number of joint collaborations increased from 300 to 1,300.
What may have turned the tide for the administration was the assurance by George B. Griffin, an American diplomat with impeccable Republican connections, that the mosque-temple crisis was a passing matter that would not affect India’s overall stability. Mr Griffin had little reason to love the Indian government. He had been a popular and personable young political officer in the US consulate in Kolkata in the 1970s. Later, as the Pakistan-based deputy chief of mission in America’s Kabul embassy, he had parked his wife in New Delhi, which he visited every six weeks, thanks to a three-year multi-entry visa issued by India’s Jyotindra Nath (Mani) Dixit. But India refused to accept him as a political counsellor in the US embassy in New Delhi. No reason was given but dark rumours were spread of attempts to sabotage the Bangladesh revolution, plotting counter-revolution in Afghanistan and even planning to murder Indira Gandhi. The truth probably was that Moscow intensely disliked his role in Afghanistan. Mr Griffin rose above the provocation 12 years later when he could help India repair its image which the Babri Masjid demolition had left in tatters.
There won’t always be a Mr Griffin gallantly to leap to India’s rescue. That is why the courageous and imaginative proposal by Savitri Bai Phule, a BJP member of the Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, for a Buddhist monastery at Ayodhya, deserves to be welcomed by Hindus and Muslims alike. It recalls the writ petition that an Ayodhya resident, Vineet Kumar Maurya, had filed some months ago asking the government to declare the disputed land “Ayodhya Buddha Vihar” under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958. Mr Maurya pointed out that Saket (Ayodhya’s ancient name) was an important Buddhist centre, as borne out by the Archaeological Survey’s reports in 1862-63. This could be blended with other proposals for a non-denominational garden of remembrance so that a mere 2.77 acres (of which the Babri Masjid occupied only 1,500 square metres) never again calls into question India’s credibility.
It’s a sad day, and an insult to those who took such a brave stand in Los Angeles on December 7, 1992, that the BJP president should gloat over India’s lowly 100th position among 190 countries in the World Bank’s recent report, “Doing Business 2018: Reforming to Create Jobs”, and boast that this proves that Narendra Modi is superior to Manmohan Singh....