combination of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and
the beginning of the reforms in 1991 (in India,
made me decide) I was going to mount a big project
on South Asia after the Cold War.
It went on for two years and involved putting a
big task force led by (later US Trade
Representative) Carla Hills and (Ambassador)
Arthur Hartman and had many, many, facets to it.
That was my first deep dive back into India and
South Asia after I joined the Society in 1981.
Then over the rest of the decade, as the reforms
went forward two steps, sideways two steps, backwards one step, but began to (really) take hold, we
at the Society began to do a lot more.
That became more than a sideline of my role at
the Asia Society.
And what did that achieve?
I became very centrally involved in the evolution
of the (India-US) relationship.
Frank Wisner went to Delhi as ambassador from
1994 to 1997. Frank and I met before he went and
agreed to be partners in crime, in trying to bring
some new life to the relationship.
I became a kind of US conspirator and he became
the Delhi conspirator and as co-conspirators we
were doing lots of things together.
The Society began to do our corporate conferences in India — the first was maybe 1994-1995 in
We became the platform for Indian leaders to
come and talk — political leaders, business leaders,
I had gotten to know Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1978
when he was foreign minister in the Janata government. He and my boss Bob Goheen liked each
other. He was a very likeable man. A thoughtful
man. They used have tea together, and I would be
there in Roosevelt House, at Atalji’s bungalow, at
the office, wherever, just to talk.
Once he stepped down as foreign minister that
didn’t go on, but they were in touch. After he was no
longer in office he used to come to the embassy and
Bob Goheen was a very principled man, but a very
apolitical man. He wasn’t hung up on political
brands or identities or labels.
What interested him was what he perceived to be
the quality of the person. That is what attracted him
When I was going back (and forth) to India in the
early 1980s, the Congress was back in power.
Vajpayee was the only BJP (Bharatiya Janata
Party) Member of Parliament. This was 1980, 1982.
When I used to go to Delhi I would call on him and have
these very interesting conversations.
I would say something and there would be a 40-second
silence. Brilliant (man). Not as fluent (in English). Oh yeah,
(his Hindi speeches were) stem winders. He spoke pretty
good English, it was not difficult to carry on a conversation
When John Whitehead became chairman of the Asia
President Bill Clinton with daughter Chelsea in Rajasthan during his visit to India in March
2000. Marshall Bouton gives Clinton a lot of credit — for the persistence of his intent and for
finding a way to go after India conducted nuclear tests.
President George W Bush in New Delhi in 2006. Though no big fan of Bush, Bouton, for many
reasons, gives him huge credit on India.
JASON REED/REU TERS
Society in 1988, I took him to Asia for the first time.
Whitehead had come from Washington, where he had been
deputy secretary of state, former head of Goldman Sachs.
I took him to see Vajpayee. We were at one of these strange
meetings where there were long silences. After we left, John
said to me, “Why did we see that guy?”
I said: “Mark my words, someday this man will be prime
minister of India.” Many years later I reminded John of that.
As the BJP started getting nearer to power in the
mid 1990s I would go see Vajpayee. Two months
before the 1998 elections I was in Delhi and
Jaswant Singh (the senior BJP leader) took me to
I said if the BJP wins the election and you form a
government, will you conduct a nuclear test. And
he said: “Yes.”
That’s the way he spoke. I thought I know this
man a little bit. I know how he speaks. He means
yes. So, I came back and talked to my friends in the
State Department. (I said:) “I just talked to him. He
said yes.” They didn’t believe me!
Why didn’t they believe you?
Lack of imagination. I dunno. Because (India
would not conduct the tests) was the conventional
So, when India did conduct the test the relationship went into the tank. But we — Frank and I ;
Frank was by then back in New York — knew that
President Clinton really wanted to go to India.
Was the Clinton Administration the best for the
Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit.
The (nuclear) tests were in May 1998. Even before that he was planning to go to India in the second term. Hillary went (during his) first term (in
Then the tests happened. US law and prevailing
public opinion put the kibosh on any idea of a
Presidential visit to India. All the sanctions were
But we knew — Frank had served as Bill’s ambassador to India — that the President was interested
in India, intellectually.
Why was he interested in India?
He was interested in India, as a country, as a
place, as an emerging nation, as an emerging economy.
Remember by now, this is the late 1990s and the
reforms are beginning to take hold. The reforms
started in 1991. Bill Clinton came to office in 1993,
less than two years later.
So, Clinton’s was an instinctive interest?
A combination of an instinctive interest and a
sort of geo-political interest.
Frank and I put together a project, with a small
group of people, largely in New York, to figure out
a strategy by which the Administration could
address, in the required fashion, the fallout from
the tests and at the same time open the possibility
of rethinking the relationship, including a
Of course, it wasn’t long after that that Strobe
( Talbott, then deputy secretary of state and the winner of the India Abroad inaugural Friend of India
Award) and Jaswant began to have their talks.
So we weren’t the only ones who were thinking along these
lines. But we were the main group outside of the government. We prepared a paper for the Administration. We gave
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