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 as well.

       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 with candor.

       “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 both.”

       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.”