An Interview with Representative Jim McDermott, Chair of the Congressional
Caucus on India: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Statesman, Kolkata
(Calcutta) , India
"Candour From an American Friend"
June 5, 2001
Jim McDermott has visited India fourteen times.
A physician, a decade ago he was among the first to recognize that India,
like many other nations, would face an HIV/AIDS crisis. He admires
Indian culture, appreciates the long rich history of Indian civilization,
and understands Indian politics. He is also one of the dozen Americans
most influential in shaping U.S.-Indian relations. For Mr. McDermott,
as a member of the U.S. Congress, is the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus
on India and Indian Americans.
A recent interview gave me the opportunity to
explore his views on India and its links to the United States. What,
focusing on recent news, does Mr. McDermott think will happen to technology
leader India as IT companies plummet in value on the world’s stock
markets? “The business cycle goes through various ups and downs,
and we are in a trough at the moment. But I don’t see us turning
back to the industrial age,” McDermott says.
A substantial part of his work in the India Caucus
and the U.S. Congress is focused on knowledge and technology. “I
want to help establish an enduring and deep relationship between the U.S.
and India on every level. In particular, I want to make it easier for
students to travel to the United States to pursue their education, just as
I want to encourage the efforts to make use of India’s remarkably
well-trained workforce in information technology.”
The liberal Democrat has seen great advances
in U.S,-Indian relations during his twelve years in the House of Representatives.
“America should develop closer relations with India in as many ways
as possible. This, however, was almost unmentionable before the Rao
government and its efforts at economic liberalization. “ Prime
Minister Vajpayee gets good marks from Mr. McDermott for continuing this
liberalization. In particular, Mr. McDermott believes that “last
year’s home and home visit between Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Clinton really
opened things up” between the two nations, the world’s largest
democracies. “Indians have a tremendous capacity to participate
in the world economy, a capacity untapped in the past.” That
capacity, Mr. McDermott believes, has moved toward becoming a reality through
the efforts of Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Clinton.
But I wondered, will the advent of the Bush administration
change relations between the two nations? McDermott was direct and
refreshingly non-partisan. “I don’t think relations will
go backward. In particular, there is – unlike the expectations
of some friends of India – no tilt toward Pakistan under President
Bush. I myself expect that things will go forward as in the recent
past, that our mutual relations will continue to develop.” When
pressed, McDermott said that there has been only one problem in Indian-American
relations in recent year, what he termed “a bump on the road:”
the detonation, by India, of nuclear weapons. But then it is no surprise
that what many Indians see as an assertion of national autonomy is viewed
by many outside India as a threat to world peace.
McDermott is aware that there are problems in
India, as there are in the United States. One that he sees shared by
both nations is the pandemic HIV/AIDS, the problem which first drew the physician-Representative
to India over a decade ago. “In 1990, when the government of
India said there were 50 cases of AIDS in Mumbai, I told them that as a doctor
I thought it was clear that there were half a million cases. Later,
public health officials asked me, ‘How did you know?’”
As a doctor in one of the first nations to be hit by the pandemic, McDermott
understood that AIDS is always under-reported and largely ignored at its
first appearance. This has been true of the United States, of Thailand, of
Rumania, of South Africa – and it was at the time the case with India
McDermott is candid about the current situation
regarding AIDS in India. “What most of us agree on is that –
understandably, with so many other problems to address – India has
not paid enough attention to AIDS. At the same time, Indian scientists
are participating in the world-wide effort to find a vaccine for AIDS.”
McDermott foresees help coming from outside, but adds that indigenous efforts
must be the substrate of any effort to deal with AIDS. While acknowledging
that the disease is a terrible problem, he also understands that the problem
cannot be merely ignored or wished away. “My heart’s with
them, but they – Indians – will have to work on combating it.”
Despite Mr. McDermott’s concerns, the Congressional
Caucus on India, does not foreground AIDS. Its 120 members “have
many different views on what needs to be done” to further Indian-American
relations. The Caucus, Rep. McDermott offers, is an amorphous group,
comprised of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
But when asked what holds it together, his answer is clear. “The group
is united by the need to help Americans see who and what the new India is.
As well, the Caucus helps other members of the American Congress see what
is different about India, and to see where it is going. We’ve
made major strides in the ten years since the Caucus began.”
Representative McDermott, as befits someone who
has visited India more than any other member of Congressman, is remarkably
knowledgeable about the world’s second-largest nation. He is
attracted by India’s intricacies, and deeply appreciative of its democracy.
“To see democracy work in India is fascinating. I’m a psychiatrist,
and appreciate what it means for democracy to thrive in the midst of such
a diversity of languages and religions. I think it is quite true,”
he says, turning to comment on his fellow Americans, “ that we can
learn from Indians. The whole idea of a secular society, which Indians
struggle with every day, the idea that a nation cannot fall into a religious
society . . .” Here McDermott pauses, developing an emerging parallel
to America, “If we Americans do not heed India’s example . .
. We ourselves are not so far away from ending the separation of church and
state here in the United States. We can learn from the long history
in which India has worked to maintain a secular state.”
Lately, the Indian pharmaceutical company CIPLA
has been much in the American and world news for its offer to sell at low
prices drugs to limit the effects of AIDS, drugs which the international
pharmaceutical companies have under patent and currently sell at very high
prices. I asked, what are McDermott’s views on the efforts of
the developing world – as in the CIPLA-South Africa negotiations –
to find ways to address pressing health care needs? Again, he responded
“The CIPLA example is an indicator of the
much larger problem we have in the world, of the ‘haves’ and
the ‘have-nots.’ We must make it possible for all nations
to participate in the success of scientific research and technology.
CIPLA in the end has not done anything that we should not be figuring out
ways to do. Still, I believe in the patent system – but also
in humanitarian concern. There has to be a way to meet the needs of
At the close of the interview, I asked Representative
McDermott to expand upon his earlier statement that “Indians have a
tremendous capacity to participate in the world economy.” He
told me that there are two modes of development, two ways of developing economic
capacity. One is that of the tiger, agile, quick to pounce, predatory.
(Was he thinking of the so-called ‘Asian tigers’ with their rapidly
burgeoning economies?) The other is that of the elephant, slow, patient,
ponderous, unstoppable. His conclusion recognized the importance of
India’s democratic commitments, and the impact of democracy on economic
transformation. “India will never be a tiger but an elephant.
Democracy requires slower movement.”