Secondly, I was able to — in a very marginal fashion —
contribute to trying to start the rebuilding of the relationship after the trauma of Bangladesh and the estrangement that set in after that, which was partly the result of
the mistakes made in US policy, partly the result of the
way those were manipulated politically on the Indian
That caused the two sides to pull away from each other,
including very much on the private sector. There had
been a fair amount of private sector involvement, including business involvement in India in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the mid-1970s, and certainly by the late 1970s, that
was gone because (of) the political reactions to the
Bangladesh crisis, Mrs. Gandhi’s suspicions, her anti-American rhetoric. Not that that did not happen before.
LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) would stop
PL480 food shipments to India every time Mrs Gandhi
criticized the Vietnam War.
So the two sides really moved apart from each other,
including in the private sector. Young scholars like me
couldn’t get in. The scholarship began to be interrupted.
The study of India became a less attractive field to many
by the mid-1970s. Then in the course of all that (India)
threw IBM and Coke out.
They were the sort of iconic American companies — one
on the consumer side, one on the capital goods side. The
for-profit private sector dimension of the relationship virtually disappeared. Very few businesses stayed in India
through that time. So, I guess with the sub-commission
we were starting the re-building.
My mantra, my metaphor, about this relationship has
been that the India-US relationship is like a ship — a sailing ship.
It has been a ship without ballast, without the ballast of
private sector involvement between the two societies,
business involvement, universities, museums, non-governmental organizations, people-to-people exchange, you
Very little of that, for two societies so similar in their values.
Every time the political storms blew up over some issue
between the two governments, this little ship would get
blown up onto the rocks, because it had no ballast.
After three or four years the ship would be pulled off the
rocks and limp back out to sea until the next storm came
along to blow it back up on the rocks again.
So, there needed to be private sector ballast put in the ship
of India-US relations. That is what I think began to happen
all over again in the 1990s.
The reforms made it possible for American companies to
The animus following Bangladesh and all the other political alienations of the 1970s began to dim. After the (nuclear)
tests all the think tanks in Washington suddenly discovered
India; organizations like the Asia Society never forgot it.
Between 1992 and today we now see a substantial private
sector relationship that continues even when the governments aren’t too happy with each other.
One of my worries now is what is happening economically
COUR TES Y: MARSHALL BOU TON
Marshall Bouton with his wife Barbara and children outside her childhood home in Bangarpet, Karnataka.
in India, and policy-wise as well.
If we lose the American business in India in any substantial measure we will be going backwards.
I feel the same way about the need to have a framework for
American universities and other organizations to be in India
in a way that serves India’s interests, but also supports the
relationship over time.
So, your role has been sort of to keep track of these threads?
Helping to weave the threads.
Of private sector connections between the two societies in
my role in the sub-commission on culture, in my role at the
Ford Foundation, in my role at the embassy, in my role at the
I feel those are profoundly important. I spent most of my
career working with private sector institutions that seek to
inform and engage Americans in understanding about other
parts of the world.
Because the nature of our society is that if private citizens
or private institutions aren’t somehow engaged in the relationship, the governments can come and go in the way they
like, but you are never really going to have a sustainable relationship.
That’s even more true of India, because of the character of Indian society.
How is the India-US relationship progressing now?
What has been President Obama’s contribution?
Does he understand the nuances of the relationship?
The principal task in the first Obama term was to consolidate because the India-US relationship had been so transformed between 1998 and 2008, between Clinton and Bush
and on the Indian side with the Vajpayee-BJP government
and Manmohan Singh and the UPA (United Progressive
Even governments — especially governments — have to
stop and take a breath.
There was a lot of concern, right after the President came
to office, that he was not paying enough attention to India,
that there was lack of appropriate priority being given to
India. I was never concerned about that.
Everybody said: What is the big idea the Obama
Administration is bringing to the US-India relationship?
If every time was a time for a big idea, there wouldn’t be
such a thing as a big idea.
A big idea defines a time and then it is passed.
So, the big idea from that period — from 1998 to 2008 —
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