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November 4, 1999


The Rediff Business Interview / Frank Wisner

'India is one of the least insured countries, and potential for insurance is extremely high'

Frank Wisner Frank Wisner, former US ambassador to India (1994-1997), remains one of the best-known diplomats in India, two years after he ended his stint. He was in India recently to promote US business. He and his wife Christine travelled the length and breadth of the country, and organised some very successful charities (like the Umang group for children).

Wisner represents the American Insurance Group and the US-India Business Council and is currently looking forward to the India Investment Council meet to be held in Bombay in mid-November. Suhasini Haidar interviewed him in New Delhi.

Email this interview to a friend What is the purpose of your latest visit to India?

I am here to represent the board of the US-India Business Council. I have come on behalf of the board to congratulate the Indian government for the win in elections and to relay some of the thoughts and concerns of American investors here. And I am lucky to have been able to meet some of the leaders of this new government, to emphasise that global markets are beginning to respond to India's fundamentals, and the buoyancy of India's corporate community.

There is also the feeling of stability here now that this government has got itself a working majority. We spoke of how we could reinforce this positive image of India in terms of legislation, like the Insurance Bill, telecommunications, etc.

We feel that a consensus can be formed around the budget and controlling fiscal deficit, so that infrastructure can be given a big push. I think the greatest challenge to trade relations between the two countries will be in the field of e-commerce, and the Internet, and I think both countries must work towards formulating legislation on this as soon as possible.

The UIBC also hopes that with the US President coming here would give a huge push to the US-India relationship.

You also represent the American Insurance Group. After all the hiccups that the Insurance Bill has faced so far, it has finally been tabled in Parliament. How do you feel?

I am thrilled the Union Cabinet decided to introduce the bill in Parliament. Now what would be ideal is for the bill to be passed in Parliament quickly and without controversy. As for AIG's plans here, we have already entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Tatas and hope that that will take off fairly quickly.

How large is the Indian market for private insurance companies ?

I get asked that a lot, but I am afraid it is impossible to say. I would say that India is one of the least insured countries, and potential for insurance is extremely high.

You spoke of Indo-US cooperation in the field of e-commerce. In what way is that important?

In a variety of ways. It's a new emerging industry, and the specific areas of cooperation will come to light soon. In my mind, India is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the e-commerce industry, and so is the United States. When we go to the World Trade Organisation and ask for regulations on e-commerce, we would have a much better case if India and the US could have a common base.

There is also the question of knowledge-based services, research and software, and the free movement of people working in these fields between India and the US. There will be disputes arising out of any partnerships in these areas, and it is best if we work together now rather than later on forming consensus on legislation.

Why do think India is uniquely positioned?

India has a computer industry full of very talented people, and which has partnership arrangements around the world. It has already emerged as a major player in Internet technology, both here and in the United States. There is also a change in the mood in Indo-US relations now, a very positive one, I am happy to note.

And I hope that on his visit to India in January 2000, President Clinton will be able to cover a lot of ground with Prime Minister Vajpayee. And more than just issues of trade relations, I hope they will be able to cover the more sensitive ones of security concerns in the region. With both India and Pakistan now being nuclear, I think the concerns of this region are beginning to concern the world.

On that subject, do you think the fact that the US Congress has rejected the signing of CTBT means that it is a dead option in the South Asian context as well?

I think we need some perspective on this. First of all, the United States has in fact not tested since 1992. At least the Clinton adminstration has no plans to test either. I suspect that the debate over CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) inside our legislature, is in fact far from over. And second, India's choices should not be dependent on what the US does or doesn't do.

India is not a nuclear threat to the US in any direct way, and neither is the US to India. India must decide whether CTBT will establish some confidence building with its neighbours, with China and the rest of the world. And if India thinks it is in its best interests, it should do what Prime Minister Vajpayee spoke of last year at the UN, and go down the road with CTBT anyway, regardless of what the US does.


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