‘If you can’t drive reforms from below or above, you have to get them from beyond’

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Tom Friedman has been a perpetual bull on India, so when he associates the word ‘paralysis’ with the country, policymakers will be listening closely. In an exclusive interaction with Shaili Chopra, Friedman suggests India is a nation going sideways and needs a course correction.

Tom Friedman
Tom Friedman
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

India has traditionally believed Republicans to be better for Indo-US relations. Who do you think is better for India — Obama or Romney?
I believe what’s best for America is also best for India. A healthy, confident America is a healthy democracy and that’s good for other democracies. I think issues that determine Indo-US relations are usually based on trade and commerce. And we don’t have a lot of serious disagreement on global politics with India. So, honestly, I don’t think Obama or Romney’s win will impact our bilateral relations.

Lately, the two countries have focussed more on economic issues. But is India big for the US as a country to balance China?
There are two basic issues between India and America. One is the broader geo-politics. The US sees India as balancing a rising China. Two, we do have a lot of trade issues. Not as many, but on expanding trade between the two countries; investment in financial services and retail.

But America must have a strong relationship with China because economically, neither nation has a choice?
There is no question that, economically, we have a more intimate and integrated relationship with China. Niall Ferguson is right when he says we can in some ways be called Chi-America. China has its own set of issues, strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for America.

Obama has been pushing for freer access to the Indian markets since his 2010 visit here. And now that we have opened up FDI, many argue that this is too little too late…
I think these reforms are more important for India than others. Of course, it is important for American companies with interest in these sectors, but most Americans are not aware of the dynamics of the economic relationship between the US and India. I do believe in the concept of ‘globalusion’. If you can’t drive reforms from below, or from above, you need to get them from beyond. Big retail companies are not about what’s on the shelf, but the number of best practices they bring. This by no means is an advertisement for Walmart. But these stores employ thousands of people and I can see it having a positive effect on India’s logistics industry.

Has there been a shift in India’s perception given the slowdown in decision-making on key reforms and the recent exposés of corruption?
The Indian brand has certainly taken a dent. I say this with disappointment. ‘India Shining’ was an exaggeration but there was always an India that was on an upward trajectory. In the last few years, for those who follow the India story, the first word that comes to mind today is “paralysis”.

‘General Motors is alive, and Osama is dead’ is what Joe Biden is saying to define Obama’s presidency. Is that a bit too simplistic, or does it hit where it matters?
It does come down to this. Did he keep us safe and did he stabilise an economy heading into depression? I think that’s what they would like to tell American people. So, a month before election, even as Obama has a sliver of a lead, there are Americans who buy Biden’s argument.

How important are Obama’s decisions on banking, and the Wall Street in his re-election?
Obama did what he had to do: use the government balancesheet to stabilise banks and actually made money in the long-run by doing this. But when you don’t have a job, you don’t think of these banks. The average worker and voter are bothered about their own jobs and their own bank accounts. When you have so many people officially or unofficially unemployed, it does get harder.

Has Obama failed in creating jobs? Calling India and China job-stealers seems rhetorical not just to Indians but even to Americans now?
To blame the outsourcing bogeyman has become evergreen; it comes back every four years, every election. But I think outsourcing is so ‘90s. The world is so much more hyper-connected today. There is nothing ‘in’ or ‘out’ and talent is all about good, better and best.

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