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India fatigue on Capitol Hill

business Updated: Dec 14, 2011 21:23 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
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A sense of “India fatigue” seems to be setting in in Washington over a stream of disappointments from the US perspective, latest of which was the rollback of the foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. The US would officially not admit it.

A senior state department official said opening up of the retail sector would have been good for India, adding that it is for India to decide.
But the list of disappointments has been growing with the nuclear liability law, loss of the multi-billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), deal and now FDI in retail.

“A sense of India fatigue is setting in,” said a US businessman, refusing to be identified. “It’s been one disappointment after another.”

Indian officials admit they sense a growing despair in the tone of their American colleagues. And they have had to bear the brunt of the fallout after every setback.

With elections coming up in Uttar Pradesh and then the general elections, Washington is kind of ruling out the possibility of an early respite from the downward spiral.

Around Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday, there was a mounting excitement here with India announcing a cabinet decision allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand retail.

“As we scrambled our BlackBerrys to put out a press release,” said US-India Business Council head Ron Somers at an India event on Tuesday, “news came of the rollback.”

But, he added, nodding in the direction of assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robert Blake in the audience, “we have seen worse.” No need to despair.
Multi-brand retail FDI had been high on the watch-list of US government and business, and every visiting commerce-side delegation from India was felt the push.
Visiting commerce secretary Rahul Khullar told a cheering audience at an India-US business event last March that FDI in retail was coming in summer. It didn’t, but his announcement was widely quoted.

Walmart, the multi-brand US giant, has been keen to get into retail in India, and has been waiting patiently for years. It was among the first to welcome the decision. Target is said to be the other retail chain interested. They were all waiting for the fine print before announcing their investments.

India, of course, need not apologise or explain to anyone. It is not expected to. But it is indeed under increasing pressure to deliver its end of the relationship, which is transactional to a greater degree than what is generally conceded.