Goodbye to "Karen from CIA"

Discussion in 'International Politics' started by Oracle, Apr 24, 2011.

  1. Oracle

    Oracle New Member

    Mar 31, 2010
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    Bangalore, India
    WASHINGTON: Kiran Pasricha came to Washington DC on a posting as representative of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) the same year as your correspondent arrived here. It was 1994 and India was just a blip on the American radar. Typically those days, a US posting was seen as a sinecure, the icing on a long career to enable the recipient to build a nest egg before retirement. But we were both young professionals, barely in our 30s, and before long we realized, forget retirement plans, we were working like galley slaves on what would turn out to be the ride of our lives on the US-India boat.

    When we arrived here, the internet was still in its infancy. The standard mode of communication those days was the phone and fax. If you haven't heard the groan of a document going through the fax machine and climactic beep to signal it had been received at the other end, you don't know torture and reward. Then came dial-up internet -- its modem squeaking, hissing, whooshing and gurgling -- and more torment. The term outsourcing was not current although GE, AmEx, H-P and few others had begun operations in India in the 1980s. The cell phone, born in 1973, still belonged to ultra-elites and uber-geeks.

    Tech challenges were least of our problems. The biggest issue was access. It was hard to get attention, forget face time, with administration officials, lawmakers, and big business. Bill Clinton was midway into his first term and was caught up in domestic issues (in more than one sense). A visit to US by the Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao went virtually unreported in the American media. Kiran recalls phoning the office of an administration official and having the "who-shall-I-say-is-calling" assistant patch through "Karen from CIA."

    CII and its affiliates Indian companies were marginal. Ta-ta was a way to say goodbye, and Mittals and Jindals were mostly unknown outside India. US-India trade was measured in millions, not billions. The Enron-Dhabol project was a nightmare in the making. Indian lobbying, or what passed for it, was highly personalized and spasmodic. Forget Indian industry, even New Delhi was a reluctant lobbyist, with just one Nehru-Gandhi family friend named Janaki Ganju doing all the spade work.

    Bill Clinton tried to get things going in his second term starting 1996. But each time there was a bit of momentum the government in India would fall. Then came the low point in the relationship. India went overtly nuclear in May 1998. Washington exploded. "Why don't you just shut down your office and go home?" Kiran recalls one executive telling her.

    Indians were persona non-grata, although friends joked about my becoming "Persona Rajghatta" because TV channels sought out anyone who could explain what India had done. We learned two lessons from the episode: The value of being upfront with Americans, and laying it out in simple, sound-bite terms. "If Canada and Mexico were malevolent neighbors with nukes, would you Americans be sitting on your butt?" did more than lengthy editorials.

    From adversity came opportunity. We thought Kargil would doom us (travel advisories presuming the direst scenarios) but Washington made a fair call (backing India). The danger passed, as did Pakistan, and Clinton, looking for a nice finale to his two terms and a way to patch up with a country he really liked, embarked on a historic India visit.

    It was the first of three presidential visits in the last decade, each more successful than the previous, each driving US-India ties to new levels, and in each of which Kiran was a livewire on the business side of things. She lived through the worst (nuke test) and the best (nuke deal). Asked to recall a standout moment, she recalled Hillary Clinton, then a New York Senator, accompanying an Indian business delegation on a road trip for two days -- including staying overnight with them at a $ 50-a-night motel.

    At fond farewells last week, they came to say goodbye to "Karen from CIA" -- administration officials who hadn't returned her calls, corporate honchos who she had wrangled with, lawmakers she had badgered. When she first came here, there were maybe a dozen Indian-American staffers on the Hill. Now there were a dozen senior administration officials of Indian origin, including Suresh Kumar, Obama's Assistant Secretary of Commerce. Ray Vickery, Kumar's predecessor many times removed (under Clinton) was moved enough to recite indecipherable Urdu poetry as he wished her Godspeed. Others Americans plied her with "Namaste" and "Dhanyavad," although she jokingly pleaded for a Single Malt to overcome the uprush of emotion -- both a sign of the distance the two people and countries have traversed. It will be a road much traveled in the years to come.

  3. Hud

    Hud Regular Member

    Aug 17, 2010
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    Nice article. Come a long way since then

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