A day of keynote speeches, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, the conference offered a collaborative, solutions-oriented platform to discuss topics ranging from U.S.-India relations to freedom of expression in media and the arts in India.
“The U.S.-India relationship deserves a robust, high-profile platform in Washington to articulate the hopes, dreams, and challenges facing this critically important partnership for both countries,” said Irfan Nooruddin, director of the India Initiative. “The India Ideas Conference showcases leading voices of people on the frontlines of building these ties, and, crucially, showcases voices from India so that D.C. policymakers can learn from their expertise and experience.”
Launched in 2015, the India Initiative is a platform for high-level teaching, research, and dialogue among American and Indian leaders from government, business, civil society, and the academy. This was the second annual India Ideas Conference.
The opening keynote featured a conversation between former U.S. ambassador to India Richard Verma and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia Thomas Vajda. Their discussion about U.S.-India relations outlined current and future opportunities for stronger ties.
“U.S. companies see great opportunity in India, and we certainly support India's efforts to open up to greater trade and investment,” said Vajda. “But given the size of our respective markets, there's still plenty of room to expand the flow of goods and services in both directions, and the process for trade to be more balanced and fair.”
Despite mutual turns toward nationalism and protectionism, speakers throughout the day remained optimistic about further economic and political alignment between India and the United States.
“I do think that the fundamentals of the economic partnership are still very strong and that companies are still bullish on the long-term prospects and willing to ride out some of the short-term challenges,” said Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council.
Taking on Barriers
Although the general outlook was optimistic, speakers identified several barriers to India’s rise. During a plenary on “Skill India: Investing in India’s Youth,” panelists discussed the labor force implications of the massive, government-run skills training program, Skill India.
“[The skills gap is] never going to get filled if the dignity of labor remains an issue going forward,” said Raj Gilda, co-founder of Lend-A-Hand India. “There might be demand for thousands of drivers, thousands of plumbers, thousands of carpenters, thousands of welders, but if one doesn't want to become one, then you know it's not going to address the challenge in the first place.”
Beyond economic constraints, the conference explored political and cultural barriers to a more inclusive and democratic Indian society. The conference’s closing plenary focused on “Freedom of Expression in the Media and the Arts,” and panelists’ remarks illuminated new trends in governmental and non-governmental challenges to free speech.
“Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi—they've all restricted freedom of speech, but it's come from the state,” said Sagarika Ghose, consulting editor for Times of India. “The non-state actors and the violence and the street aggression—the 'goondaism,' what we call the goon squads, the hooliganism—that is, I believe, new.”
“I can actually go online and make jokes about the Congress that I feel a little nervous about making about the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party],” added comedian and writer Radhika Vaz. “Not because someone from the Congress or the BJP particularly is going to come after me, but their people are going to.”
‘Courage, Faith, and Resilience’
The conference also explored personal experiences of Indian youth, women, and members of the diaspora community. Amita Poole, CEO of the infrastructure company IIPL USA, discussed her career path alongside other female trailblazers during a breakout session on “Women in Leadership.”
“The power of what we do as women is: we are able to bring an organization together that has so many different people and give them the opportunity to be themselves and to challenge them to be better people,” said Poole. “I think that it's not about gender alone; it's about what you are as a leader and what you can bring to the table.”
During a breakout session on “The Power of the Diaspora,” founder and CEO of Percipient.ai Balan Ayyar described his career trajectory and shared his view of the overlapping Indian and American values that the diaspora community brings to entrepreneurship.
“What we're really celebrating with entrepreneurship in America, and I think in the Indian diaspora, is this notion of courage, of faith, of resilience, of the belief that something that everyone thought was impossible 10 years ago could be accomplished now,” he said.
The India Ideas Conference took place on April 21, 2018. A list of sponsors, speakers, and full videos of the day’s events are available on the India Initiative website.