India and the US were “estranged” democracies for many decades and gradually moved towards cautious “engagement” after the end of the Cold War, during the Narasimha Rao-Bill Clinton phase. Among the many individuals and institutions who were part of the vast bilateral ensemble that contributed to this transformation was Stanley A Weiss, former chairman of BENS (Business Executives for National Security) who passed away in London on August 26. Weiss played a critical role as a discreet enabler both in the Beltway and corporate America of the mid-1990s.
At that time — when the India-US relationship was estranged — IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) was often referred to as the “lion’s den” by American academics and analysts for its fierce defence of why India remained outside the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty). In a lighter vein, India experts alluded to the late K Subrahmanyam, long-time director of the institute, as the “lion king”. But it was also deemed mandatory for members of the American strategic community on their first visit to India to stop by at Sapru House and be “given a stern tutorial by Subbu” — as the late Steve Cohen used to quip.
In early 1997, the IDSA was informed that a business team from the US would be in India later in the year and that we (I was then the deputy to Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who was the director) were to coordinate the visit. What seemed like one more foreign delegation acquired a different texture when the then Indian ambassador to the US, Naresh Chandra, met Subbu and Jasjit and indicated that this was more than a routine visit and that the PM would also meet the BENS team.
Events moved swiftly after that and I was nominated as sherpa from the Indian side and tasked to plan the BENS visit with the US embassy, ably led by ambassador Frank Wisner and Raphael Benaroya, the India expert assisting Weiss. Most members of the BENS delegation were CEOs of top US companies. They had never visited India and were exploring business options after economic liberalisation.
The result was a very successful BENS visit to Delhi in 1997. The team met the top brass of the Ministry of Defence and the military, and finally called on Prime Minister I K Gujral. Weiss conveyed to the PM that the real India story was not being heard in the Beltway and Gujral suggested that he (Stanley) could tell the story in his widely read column in the International Herald Tribune.
What was the outcome of the quiet role played by BENS apropos the bilateral relationship? In response, Weiss would point to the lead story of The Telegraph (Calcutta), which noted in its September 26, 1997 report: “Why did the US President Bill Clinton, undoubtedly one of the busiest heads of state, seek a meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, I K Gujral, in New York (at the United Nations)? The answer is a four-letter word: BENS. Business Executives for National Security.”
Subsequent events moved in a roller-coaster manner after Prime Minister A B Vajpayee took office in Delhi and India conducted its nuclear tests in May 1998. When the India-US relationship hit rock bottom after the tests and the White House was “mad” with India for crossing the nuclear Rubicon, Weiss was the solitary American voice to provide an empathetic interpretation of the Indian decision.
To their credit, the apex political leadership on both sides and their tireless diplomats were able to reach a rapprochement after the Kargil war of 1999 and Bill Clinton’s visit to India in early 2000 was testimony to the tentative “engagement” between the two prickly democracies. Stanley A Weiss, a World War II veteran and mining tycoon, will be long remembered as a wise and empathetic friend of India.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 31, 2021 under the title ‘A friend of India’. The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi