US Lawmakers Call for Reinvigorating India-US Ties – On Eve of India’s Giant General Election

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April 9, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – At a Capitol Hill conference, held on the eve of India’s Lok Sabha election, influential US lawmakers called for injecting new energy and more momentum in India-US ties, strained largely on the diplomatic and trade fronts.

April 9, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – At a Capitol Hill conference, held on the eve of India’s Lok Sabha election, influential US lawmakers called for injecting new energy and more momentum in India-US ties, strained largely on the diplomatic and trade fronts.

Indian Ambassador Dr. S. Jaishankar (right) with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democratic Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus.  Photo credit: Embassy of India, Washington

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democratic Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus and a powerful voice on the Hill, stressed the potential for “tremendous growth” in bilateral defense relations.  “There are no two nations whose international defense, security, own self interests are more carefully aligned across the board in area after area than the US and India”, he declared.  “Clearly, we have to be sensitive to India’s concerns and India’s proud history as a leader of independent nations all around the world”, he told a conference jointly co-sponsored by the US Senate India Caucus, the House Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, and the US-India Business Council (USIBC).

The underlying assumption, predicated on polls and surveys, which pervaded the event was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would come to power led by Narendra Modi, ending 10 years of rule by the Congress Party.

Noting that within the next few weeks, there will be a new elected government in India, Senator Warner saw this as an opportunity to set an agenda which can be accomplished.  “I actually think that there is a great opportunity here, as India goes into this critical election, that coming out of the election, we come together with a defined agenda of what we need to accomplish.  Let’s come up with a list of three items that are achievable”, he said, suggesting Offset issues in defense, a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) and more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and immigration reform.

“We have got to make sure the agenda focuses on issues of importance for both countries – education, skills development, infrastructure, energy and growth”, he told an audience which included members of Congress, Indian and American diplomats, foreign policy analysts, American business leaders and Indian-American community activists.

“It is very important that we don’t focus on some of the recent diplomatic, trade and smaller issues that can hide the forest from the trees”, he said.  The lawmaker saw these recent “bumps and hiccups” as “the sign of a growing, maturing relationship between two countries of major international status”.

On an optimistic note, he cited a survey released by the Confederation of Indian Industry, last week, which highlighted that in 2013, $17 billion of Indian investment created 18,000 jobs in the United States.  Furthermore, India is in the top 10 when it comes to fastest growing FDI in the US, while the US is in the top 5 in India.  “These are statistics which we should celebrate”, Senator Warner told the conference.

“I have great hopes for this relationship”, he said.  “We have gone from a relationship of unease to a burst of friendship to now a mature relationship between two great nations, two great cultures.  I believe the brightest days for this relationship are in front of us.  We will deal with whatever comes out of the Indian elections, just as you have to deal with whatever comes out of our elections”.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Republican Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus, addressing a Capitol Hill conference on the eve of India’s election jointly co-sponsored by the US Senate India Caucus, the House Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, and the US-India Business Council (USIBC).  Photo credit: USIBC

Together with Senator Warner, distinguished speakers at the conference included: Indian Ambassador Dr. S. Jaishankar; Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Republican Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus; Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York, Democratic Co-Chair of the House India Caucus; Ron Somers, President of USIBC; Ambassador Frank Wisner, former US envoy to India; Rick Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); and Arvind Subramanian, Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Ambassador Jaishankar extolled the timeliness of the conference, commending the organizers for such a meaningful event.  “It is eminently appropriate as 815 million Indians go to vote next week that the world’s oldest democracy (United States) should both celebrate and perhaps analyze this event and its implications”, he said.

New Delhi’s top diplomat in Washington warned that India-US relations do not need any more negative attacks.  “The last thing our ties need this year are more negative exchanges between Washington and Delhi”, he told the audience, referring to the spat over the arrest, strip and cavity search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, and the accusations leveled against India vis-a-vis bilateral trade.  “Recent experiences underlie that we not only need to tend carefully to our ties, but ensure that smaller problems do not vitiate the larger atmosphere”, cautioned Ambassador Jaishankar.

He told the conference, “In ensuring a climate to take our ties forward, we have a range of options – the most conservative would be to continue as we have in the last few months, focusing on our narrow grievances, thereby missing the woods for the trees”.  Alternatively, he said, “We could be betting on the relationship growing more stronger, looking at the larger picture and the prospects of an upswing in India”.

The envoy underscored, “There is no doubt at all in my mind that after the election, we should expect considerable activity on the relationship which would keep both Ron and me occupied”.

Congressman Crowley noted, “It’s just remarkable how efficient the election process is, in India … how remarkable I think it is for all of us here in the US to witness over 815 million people voting and electing a new government”.  Regardless of what the outcome will be, he said, “the level of participation is second to none”.

A steadfast supporter of strong bilateral ties, the US lawmaker hailed India as “our most important strategic partner for this century”.  Regarding his vision of the relationship, he emphasized, “It’s only upward.  There is no going backwards.  There is a clear understanding of each other as well”, he said.  “We do appreciate each other in this post 9/11 world.  It’s not that India is our buffer.  India is our friend.  India is our partner and we need to do everything we can to strengthen that relationship”.

Regarding the Indian-American community, Congressman Crowley dwelt on the advancements, specifically that criminal activity against Sikh Americans will now be reported separately within the FBI and Department of Justice.  “That was a two-year campaign we helped lead”, he said.  The FBI will now track hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus, among other religious and ethnic minorities in America.

“There is more to be done”, the lawmaker told the audience.  “Many of you are aware of our efforts to have Sikh Americans serve with their garb in our military.  There is a great desire on the part of many Sikh Americans who want to contribute in a holistic way to making America a better home and a better democracy by serving in our Armed Services”, he said.  “We want to see a path cleared within the Department of Defense without a special accommodation for just a few – it should be a matter of right”!

Regarding India-US ties, Senator Cornyn noted, “There is a sense that our relationship has fallen into a bit of a rut” which he attributed to both countries grappling with their own domestic economic challenges, and to US foreign policy being consumed by events in the Middle East and elsewhere.  “But, that is no excuse for letting this special strategic partnership languish”, he stressed. 

“Rather than swing for the fences and cause errors in alienating our Indian partners by exerting too much diplomatic pressure, I think the US-India relationship should focus on short-term accomplishments (BIT) while we continue to pursue long-term goals (bilateral Free Trade Agreement)”, he said.

Senator Cornyn emphasized, “This relationship is not just about trade, investment, security, democracy.  It is about all of those things and much more!  A unique facet of India-US ties are our common values – freedom, minority rights, representative government and the rule of law”, he said.


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