Frank G Wisner, who was the American ambassador to India from July 1994 to July 1997, has been keenly involved with South Asia even after retiring as Career Ambassador, the highest grade in the United States Foreign Service.
Now the vice-chairman, external affairs, American International Group, the US-based international insurance giant, he keeps visiting India whenever he gets the chance. ;In Mumbai to attend the Asia Society's 16th Asian Corporate Conference, he took time out to speak to Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta on India's new role as a global player.
Today, the buzz words all over the world are India and China. What has led to India suddenly becoming a player on the world scene, and how much of a role did the nuclear tests of May 1998 play in this?
First of all, I welcome the buzz. I think it is a necessary correction in the world's agenda which has been so dominated in recent years with politics and violence. The war on terror, Iraq and many other subjects. I think it ijust terrific that the world is finding time to attend to other issues. The emergence of major new economies, and with the emergence of those major new economies, major new power centres.
China and India are going to be terrific arbiters on the international scene. As this century develops, their national strength and standing, their diplomatic reach, their military prowess, their economic punch, are all in position. So I think there is no one reason that has popped into the headlines.
There are lots of international conferences taking place, events like this (the Asia Society conference in Mumbai) bring it to the fore. It is a natural evolution. I wouldn't look at it as something that is untoward, shocking, or even surprising.
So how much did India's nuclear tests have to do with this?
No event, singly explains an evolution. I would think that India's emergence as a global voice and global point of focus comes more from her economy. But it has been fed by more than the economy. India has traditional assets that now come into relief.
India has also been at peace inside her region. The last several years of reduced tension with Pakistan caught people's attention. The evolution of major international agreements that require India's participation have also played a role. So there are lots of factors.
I can't eliminate the nuclear tests back in 1998, but that certainly doesn't singly or even in a large part explain why people are looking at India today as a place to do business, to partner in the investment field.
How does one reconcile the repeated calls for a total opening up of the Indian economy with India's needs to address the problems of poverty and education, which need state support to succeed?
I don't think India has ever been about opening up the economy totally. India has been about a very staged and gradual evolution of the economy in order to be able to judge precisely its social impact and its political portability. So I don't think we are going to see any dramatic moves, we are going to see a measured pace of Indian economic changes, of Indian economic policy.
India will always be propelled by sensitivity to those who are less advantaged, as she should. As her politics, the democratic pace of this country, compel her to do something. So I would like to think the changes will always have a dual, a pro-poor attitude about them.
The debate will be: What helps the poor the most? Is it heavy levels of subsidisation? Is it major investments in education and health? The opening up of the economy to more opportunities, or a mixture of the two, the phasing up of one and the phasing down of another?
India will be judicious while making these choices. This has been my experience, and this is what I suspect how it will continue to be.
What are your views on the Indo-US nuclear deal?
I happen to be a very strong proponent of that deal. I believe in it, I think it is an extremely good deal and a good idea for both nations, the US and for India. That said, the nuclear deal has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing what is a strategic change in US recognition of India as a force that we want to be associated with. And on the other hand, a broad array of cooperative interventions, economic, environmental, all sorts of things.
This deal is just one piece of a puzzle. But that's the piece that's getting the attention because it requires political decisions, emotive capital.
While many of us hope that it will turn out the right way on Capitol Hill, we are still in the extremely early stages of the American political debate.
I believe the deal can be justified for Americans on the basis that if we are forging a strategic relationship with India, that India's entering the world of people who have to make important decisions about non-proliferation, to be a cooperative partner, that India is taking steps which are very important with regard to India's energy future, and then there is the environmental impact. All of these taken together in my mind add justification to the wisdom of the deal.
So are we strategic allies yet or is there a long way to go?
I didn't use the word strategic allies. I used the world strategic partnership. It is different. Allies carries to me a connotation of treaty automaticity, I go to war, you go to war. I don't think that is what we are talking about. We are talking about the ability to look at world events, think together, reason together, and because of common points of view, try to find ways to ally, or bring together, our respective points of view and bring about common actions that would bring economic stability and prosperity.
If the Democrats come to power in the next US election, will this partnership survive?
Oh very much so. The relationship with India is at a bipartisan level. It goes across party lines.
Photograph: Jewella C Miranda