Execs launch India forum after split from Chamber

Execs launch India forum after split from Chamber
© Getty

Following an acrimonious split with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, several business executives have founded a new group aimed at creating better relations between the United States and India.

The US-India Strategic Partnership Forum launched earlier this month in New Delhi. The group’s board is made up of nine corporate chief executives and lawyers who defected from a similarly focused organization within the Chamber, called the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC).

In July, USIBC’s board voted 29-0 to separate from the Chamber, a move that exposed long-simmering tensions between the council and the business behemoth, which housed the council and ran its administrative operations.

Leadership at the Chamber blasted the vote. CEO Tom Donohue said it was invalid and threatened potential legal action to recover any “assets” owned by the Chamber.

“The USIBC is a program of the U.S. Chamber with no autonomous existence outside of the U.S. Chamber,” Donohue said. “All of the assets of the USIBC program are in fact the legal assets of the U.S. Chamber.”

The executives forged ahead with the new, separate group that exists parallel to the Chamber’s USIBC. The Chamber’s council recently sent out a letter to members promising to elect a new board in short order and return to work.

“We have received a number of questions regarding the relationship between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) and the newly formed U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum. I am writing today to clarify some of these questions for the membership,” said USIBC’s acting president, Khush Choksy, in the letter.

He emphasized that the new group “is in no way affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the U.S.-India Business Council,” but added that they would work together  “when it benefits the interests of our members.”

“USIBC is continuing its work apace and we are hosting a myriad of events for our members in the United States and in India, in cooperation with the U.S. and Indian governments,” Choksy wrote. “We are currently in the process of reconstituting the USIBC board and have been very pleased with the level of interest by members.”

Mukesh Aghi, the president of US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, told The Hill that the new organization aims to be more expansive than USIBC, going beyond policy issues like trade into areas such as managing cybersecurity and weapons sales, among other things. 

“Our objective is: How do we grow this relationship beyond trade? We’re not focused on policy only, we go beyond that,” he said. 

President Trump said in his speech on Afghanistan earlier this week that he expected India to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”

So the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum plans to work on efforts to boost cooperation with the U.S. in the Middle East, such as continuing infrastructure buildup in Afghanistan. India has already built a new Afghan parliament building and a hydroelectric dam in the country, in addition to providing billions of dollars in aid money. 

The USIBC, prior to the split, had 34 board members, including CEOs from companies like IBM, Caterpillar, MasterCard, Lockheed Martin, Cigna and Deloitte. 

The new forum has only nine, including Chairman John Chambers, the executive chairman and former CEO of tech giant Cisco, and vice chairmen Punit Renjen, of Deloitte LLP, and Edward Monser president of Emerson. The other board members are PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, MasterCard chief executive Ajay Banga and Purna Saggurti of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The forum also has layers and former ambassadors Susan Esserman, now at Steptoe & Johnson, and Frank Wisner of Squire Patton Boggs. 

Aghi would not say how many of the other former USIBC board members had jumped over to the new organization, only that there was a recruitment process underway to bolster membership. It is developing offices in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley and New Delhi, India. 

Without the robust Chamber apparatus to support the group, though, it will have to start from scratch. Aghi said he is hopeful for the future. 

“It has been great, there is a lot of positive energy,” he said.

The USIBC, which reportedly generated $10 million in revenue for the Chamber, had 350 members. 

The Chamber would not directly answer questions about whether it was still considering litigation against the defectors, something the publication Indian Abroad reported earlier this month.

“We are focused on our work on behalf of the business community to strengthen economic ties between the US and India,” Lindsay Bembenek, of the Chamber, wrote in a response to the question. 

Pressed further, she said the Chamber doesn’t “have any further information.”

Aghi said that he isn’t aware of any remaining conflict or potential legal actions. 

“What had happened in the past happened is in the past,” he said. “We need to be mature and move on in a positive matter, and that’s what we plan to do.”