Over the past few weeks, former United States ambassador to India Frank Wisner has been the go to person on India for senior State Department and White
House National Security Council officials
— agencies where in recent times they
have been sorely lacking in South Asia
expertise and experience.
Wisner, the ‘godfather’ of the US-India
Business Council, and currently senior foreign affairs adviser to the top lobbying
firm Patton Boggs, recently met with
Prime Minister Modi in Delhi as part of a
USIBC delegation that visited India.
In an exclusive interview with India
Abroad, Wisner, one of the most experienced and effective diplomats in the history of the US Foreign Service who is still
intimately plugged into the corridors of
power and intelligence, offers his perspectives on Indian Prime Minister Narendra
Modi’s impending visit.
The build-up to Prime Minister Modi’s
visit to the US has been quite unprecedented, and there seems to be an infectious
enthusiasm and excitement in the Indian-American community, the US business
community, and of course, the Obama
administration, which is pulling out all the
stops. Is all this hype warranted?
The US-India relationship deserves the
hype and Modi has shown every instinct to
be not only India’s prime minister today
but the prime minister over the next 10
years. And, so, if we are going to have a
meaningful relationship, it is absolutely
important that the US government and
Modi get on track in terms of confidence
and respect and chart a path forward.
You point to the hype, and the Modi
electoral victory is very exciting and have
whet the appetite of all Americans who
like elections. But the reality is deeper
than that —we want a strong relationship
with Indians in the United States and the
opposite is also true.
That said, all of us have to temper our
enthusiasm with a dash of reality. The
prime minister has been in office for four
months and he doesn’t have — as the
recent by-elections show — an invulnerable political position. He’s got to be
His aim is both to improve India’s economy but also to build his political strength
and he has to be careful. He’s got to build
Now, you and I might cheer and wish
him to move fast and solve all kinds of
problems. But we need to look at it from
his perspective — what does he need?
So, I believe he will get a very warm welcome in this country. He will get a very
interested welcome, he will get a very realistic welcome from the President and
those of us who follow India closely. But,
you will see some excesses on the side —
excessive enthusiasm, excessive pessimism.
Of course, the optics are going to be great
with the President hosting a dinner at the
White House, the summit the next day, and
the Vice President’s formal luncheon at the
State Department, etc.
But in terms of tangible deliverables,
both from your perspective as a former
diplomat, a member of the US business
community and now a senior policy advis-
er, what are your expectations?
My expectations are that they will con-
centrate on the quality of the relationship.
That they will get their minds around the
great problems of the day — and there are
many: How does one deal with China, how
does one deal with Pakistan, how does one
deal with Afghanistan, how does one deal
with the Middle East. These very important geo-strategic challenges.
And, they will concentrate undoubtedly
on how to strengthen economic cooperation between the two sides and they will
have some common areas where we can
work together. For example, in the field of
They will identify future prospects of
things we can do together that will
increase exchanges between the two sides.
But it isn’t going to be the President of
the United States promising Mr Modi
$100 billion worth of investments in
India. The President of the United States
doesn’t promise any number of investments — it has to come from the private
With the private sector though, I suspect Modi will meet leading members of
the private sector and they will cheer
him on, but they will also tell him that
like Indians, they also need to have problems solved to make the economy have
India’s growth and their being also to
grow and hence to clean up some of the
traditional problems that are around.
So, I believe, Modi is going to find himself having some very interesting and
engaged discussions where the business
community is going to hear a certain
amount of optimism, that if he builds
India, they build in India.
Two of the most significant tangibles that
are highly unlikely to be resolved are the
nuke deal implementation — since India
has said it will not compromise on the
Nuclear Liability Law — and the issue of
Aren’t these huge disappointments for
the business community, which in turn
could be a damper not just on trade and
investment but also vis-à-vis India’s own
infrastructure development efforts, where
such investments are imperative?
I really don’t think so. What will unques-
tionably hold back and undermine growth
prospects for business is power — the
price and shortage of power in India.
How you get to power — nuclear, or
coal or gas or some other way — that’s
If India wants to grow, it has to have
power, and it doesn’t have enough right
And, I am sure whether a businessman
articulates that to Modi or not, that’s on
Sure, we will all like to see what can be
done with the liability law and we will
have to see what Modi can do with his
On brand retail, I don’t think that is
going to stop people from coming in. It’s
in India’s interest to open up retail in a
much more vigorous manner. But then,
none of us get our dreams; this will
affect Walmart, but it doesn’t affect
Not to belabor the point of the US kept
hanging on the nuke deal, but the business community, the Indian-American
community, the US Congress, all went to
bat for India…
Oh, didn’t we ever….
And in various fora including the NSG
(Nuclear Suppliers Group), and now
there’s almost a sense of betrayal on some
I can’t deny that there isn’t a huge disappointment. Here, we are headed to 2015 —
10 years after the signing of the agreement
— and nothing’s happened. It’s a big disappointment, there’s no doubt about that.
But is it the whole story? No.
At the very least, are you hopeful that at
this summit between the President and
Prime Minister Modi some kind of
Bilateral Investment Treaty will be signed?
I don’t know that. The Bilateral
Investment Treaty is on the table and
India has got to join it if we are going to
pass it, and I do hope in due course,
whether it’s on this trip or next spring, I
hope they do it.
I hope the President and Mr Modi will
talk about it, because I believe if you want
to get American investment, you want
India to be open with a world class envi-
ronment, where a foreign investor knows
his investment is in good hands in India.
And the BIT is one way to make the point.
Senator (John) McCain, who recently visited India and was the first US lawmaker to
meet with Prime Minister Modi, in a major
speech two weeks ago on strengthening US-India strategic relations, said imagine if
India could be part of the coalition against
ISIS. Is it this possible as a tangible extension in terms of US-India counterterrorism
coordination and cooperation?
We have a very robust counterterrorism
dialogue — there is a lot of intelligence
we exchange — but I do not believe that
the United States will ask India to join
And if we did — which I hope we don’t
— I don’t think India will put soldiers into
this anti-ISIS coalition. The anti-ISIS
coalition must not be predominantly
deserves the hype’
Former ambassador to India Frank Wisner, one of America’s sharpest minds on South Asia, tells Aziz Haniffa what Washington can expect from Narendra Modi’s visit