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Wadhwani Foundation supercharges skill development through RTAJ

Romesh T Wadhwani, one of the richest Indian Americans globally and who plays an active role in Indo-US dialogue, says the two nations need to communicate better with each other. Chairman of the Wadhwani Foundation, and founder, Symphony Technology Group, a private equity firm investing in software, internet and technology-enabled services companies, the California-based entrepreneur invests a significant amount of his personal wealth towards philanthropic activities in India.

In an interview with Surabhi Agarwal, he spoke about the frustrations from both sides and how the US is already looking at who the next Indian PM will be. Edited excerpts:

What is your sense of the India-US dialogue. Both sides seem to be sitting on a pile of issues against the other.

Three years ago, when we started the policy programme, there was a sense of much greater promise, particularly in the area of economic development, putting aside geopolitics. But, now, there is a feeling of stagnation and frustration on both sides.

On the American side, the feeling is that Indian policies are too inconsistent in a variety of ways, such as one ministry doesn’t talk to another ministry and nobody steps in to end the logjam. They are inconsistent in a way that even when the Cabinet agrees on something, it gets overturned after six months or reinterpreted over time. That makes it very difficult for Americans to relate to having a partnership with India on economic development.

The second thing is that the quality of communication between the two countries is very poor. I think bureaucrats and politicians in both countries tend to talk past each other, rather than talking to each other. They don’t recognise that you can have a common economic framework without agreeing on everything else. What seems to be missing is the ability to communicate and say even though we disagree on a few issues, we agree on others.

Look at innovation, particularly in defence technology, energy, skill development – there is enormous opportunity for both countries to work together. Our Foundation is helping create those collaborations, for example, with community colleges in India and the US. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

What are the key expectations/grudges against India from the US side?

Inconsistency on economic policy, failure to execute reasonable terms and conditions around the civil nuclear deal, etc. There is a feeling in the US that the right arm in India doesn’t talk to the left hand. Manmohan Singh tried really hard to get the civil nuclear deal done; he took a huge political risk and succeeded. In the US, George W Bush tried very hard to get it done but nothing happened because the liability limits were set too high. That creates a huge set of frustration. The third example is defence.

On the one hand, the US is pleased that $8-9 billion worth of contracts will be given to US defence companies but 10-15 times that number have been given to France or Russia. The feeling is that we (in the US) should get a higher percentage of that business if it is a partner of India.

How would you answer this question from the India side?

I think it would be the equal and the opposite. From the geo-political side, it would be what the hell is the US doing in Afghanistan without consulting India? Why should the US care if India is importing some oil as we have this current account deficit issue and the best possible deal was with Iran? They could say that if you don’t want India to trade with Iran, than give us an alternative.

In the civil and nuclear deal, the Indian point of view is, we had a horrible catastrophe in Bhopal and we don’t want something similar to happen if something goes wrong with the nuclear side, and if your technology is really good, why are you really worried about these limits? On the economic agenda development side, the Indian view is not particularly well formed. There, it is less about frustration and about enough thought not being given to taking advantage of the relationship.

How do you rate the recent meeting between Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh?

Very positive. Unfortunately, the question (now) is who will be the Prime Minister in June? The US already knows that even if the Congress wins, Manmohan Singh might not be the PM and if the Congress doesn’t win, he certainly won’t be the PM. In the US, there is an enormous amount of goodwill at Obama’s level but the White House is not paying a lot of day to day attention to India, as it is distracted with so many issues – economic issues in the US and geo-political issues in the Middle East. India is distracted with the coming elections.

So, while the personal relationship between Obama and Manmohan Singh is very strong, if you can’t move down these good feelings to the next level, what is actually going to happen? I am not sure if much is going to come out of that meeting till things have settled on both sides.

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