Smooth Sailing for Presumptive US Ambassador to India Verma at Senate Hearing


December 11, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On December 2, the Senate confirmation hearing was smooth sailing for Richard Rahul Verma, President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to India, with members of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) nodding in approval during the important proceedings.

December 11, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On December 2, the Senate confirmation hearing was smooth sailing for Richard Rahul Verma, President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to India, with members of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) nodding in approval during the important proceedings.

Scenes from the Senate Confirmation Hearing for Richard Rahul Verma, President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to India.  Top: Verma (right) is seen here with his family chatting with Senator Tim Kaine (left) of Virginia who chaired the hearing

In unison, influential Senators underscored the importance of this diplomatic post in the 21st century and extolled Verma’s background, experience and credentials.

Verma, 45, is currently a senior counselor at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and the Albright Stonebridge Group, as well as a senior national security fellow at the Center for American Progress.  His impressive career thus far, has included serving as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2009-11), and national security advisor for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (2002-07).

If confirmed by the full Senate, Verma would become the first Indian-American to serve as ambassador to India.  Political leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington are hoping this happens before President Obama visits India, in January, as the chief guest on Republic Day.

Robert Menendez (Democrat – New Jersey), Chairman of the SFRC, noted that Verma’s appointment, if approved by the full Senate, would come at a critical time” for the world’s two largest “liberal democracies”.

Senator John McCain (Republican – Arizona) stated that the relationship with India is “maybe the most important” the US has with any country in the world, “certainly in the future”, he added.  “There are challenges”, he said, “but I am very optimistic about the new Prime Minister, and many of the reforms that are being implemented there”.

The hearing, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on a cold, blustery Tuesday afternoon, was chaired by Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat – Virginia) and drew a packed crowd of attentive listeners.  Verma shared the stage with two other Obama nominees: presumptive US Ambassador to Afghanistan Peter Michael McKinley; and Isobel Coleman designated as US Representative to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform.

It is noteworthy that compared to the other nominees, Verma enjoyed a much easier time at the hearing.  McKinley, in particular, was grilled by Senator McCain on the Obama administration’s set schedule for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan which the Senator reasoned should be contingent upon the situation on the ground.

Verma did get a fair share of questions which he deftly fielded.  Senators Kaine and Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat – New Hampshire) queried him on the sensitive issue of India-Pakistan relations.  He replied in tandem with the India-US position that security issues are “up to the two countries” to decide between themselves.  “The US can encourage dialogue and help on regional connectivity and economic issues as well as people-to-people ties”, he said.

Top: Richard Rahul Verma (seated at right), President Obama’s nominee for the next ambassador to India, at the Senate Confirmation Hearing on Capitol Hill.  Lower: Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat – New Hampshire)

In this context, he also pointed out that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s presence at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration was promising and a breakthrough.

Asked by Senator Kaine about India-China relations, he responded that a “healthy relationship” between the two Asian superpowers is in the best interests of America.  He noted that “there is a dialogue on border issues when they occur” and “economic issues are important to both countries”.

Senator Kaine broached the issue of US and India deepening counter-terrorism cooperation, to which Verma stated emphatically, “When we talk about shared values between our two countries, one of those values is standing against terrorism.  We have built very robust counter-terrorism cooperation measures over the years with the Indians”, he said, adding the two nations should look at ways to enhance joint training, joint law-enforcement cooperation and joint intelligence sharing.

Senator Menendez raised the thorny issue of India’s intellectual property rights and the lack of protections.  Verma pledged “to make it a top-tier issue with the Indian government” and “part of the regular framework” of discussions.

Senator Menendez also prodded him about India’s policy of non-alignment which sometimes results in differences with the US on international platforms.  While noting that the richness of the India-US partnership is unlimited, Verma admitted, “We have had challenges which stem from India’s very proud history of non-alignment.  Sometimes, we get frustrated when they don’t join us in international campaigns or international efforts more publicly.  But, I would say that the trend-line in our partnership is very strong and we have to view it over a period of time”, he said.  “We have to do the hard work that our bureaucracies are doing”.

Senator Shaheen raised the issue of violence against women in India, recalling that “in 2012, there was the gang rape of the young woman in Delhi and she ultimately died from the violence.  Obviously, there still seems to be a fair amount of debate in India about how to address gender-based violence”, she said.

Looking across at Verma, she queried, “If confirmed, what can you do to help promote discussions to improve women’s empowerment in India and how to address that kind of sexual violence, and what we can do as Americans to support that”.

Verma acknowledged, “This is a really important area and it is a tragedy, unfortunately not limited to India.  But, it was encouraging to see millions of Indians actually march against this kind of violence”, he said.  “It was encouraging to hear the Prime Minister speak out against this kind of violence.  We have to continue to keep it as a top issue that we speak out against, rhetorically.  At the program level, there is a lot that we can do, and we currently do.  So, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and other agencies of our government in India have a number of programs to promote women’s leadership, skills-training, entrepreneurship, skills development”.

Regarding gender-based violence, he cited the Safe Cities program which uses technology to ensure that women are able to report incidents of violence.  He also mentioned the efforts of Cathy Russell, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, at engaging in a women’s empowerment dialogue with the Indian government and making it a high-priority issue.

Senate Majority Leader Reid (Democrat – Nevada) came to the hearing and spoke glowingly about ‘Rich Verma’, as he called him based on a long association.

“I have known him for a long time”, Senator Reid told the powerful Senate Foreign Relation Committee.  “I say with complete confidence that there is no better choice or a more highly qualified candidate for this important post than Rich Verma”.

He pointed out that “Rich Verma is uniquely suited to be our Ambassador to India” and “his ethnic background will be extremely helpful to us in India”.

“Rich is a son of Indian immigrants”, he said.  “He has an understanding of India”.

Noting that he served as his National Security Advisor for over four years, Senator Reid stated, “he is an expert on foreign policy”.

“Rich is very good at building consensus”, he said.  “He works across party lines.  His bi-partisan approach to legislation helped us pass the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.  Frankly, I’m not sure it could have been done without him.  He was an instructor for me”.

On the personal front, Senator Reid described Verma as “a wonderful, caring man” blessed with “a perfect family”.

The Senator stressed that serving as Washington’s diplomat in Delhi is an “extremely important post.  India is an indispensable partner of the United States”, he said.  “Our ties to India transcend policies.  So many states in the US have a proud and thriving Indian-American population”.

Richard Rahul Verma, Ambassador-designate to India, is flanked by his family following the Senate Confirmation Hearing on Capitol Hill

Verma was accompanied to the hearing with eleven family members including his wife Pinky, three children and father, Dr. Kamal Verma.

In his prepared remarks to the Committee, Verma said, “There is no question that this is a defining and exciting time in the US-India relationship.  President Obama will make a historic visit to India in January, becoming the first US head of state to attend India’s Republic Day and the only sitting US president to visit India twice.  His trip will build on Prime Minister Modi’s highly successful visit to the United States this past September.  There’s little doubt the relationship has been re-energized, with renewed enthusiasm to take our partnership to the next level”.

Regarding the wide-range of bilateral “critical national interests”, Verma mentioned expanding trade and defense ties, ensuring maritime security and freedom of navigation, countering terrorist networks, promoting clean energy and sustainable development.  He noted that two-way trade has increased five-fold since 2001 to nearly $100 billion, and both President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have committed to increasing it another fivefold which would create tens of thousands of new jobs in the US and India.

“Our people-to-people exchanges are flourishing”, he stated.  “There are over 100,000 Indian students currently studying in the US.  And the Indian diaspora in the United States, now estimated to number over 3 million, continues to make deep and lasting contributions to US society”.

Verma noted that across Asia, US and Indian interests are converging and “India has been called the lynchpin of our Asia re-balance”.  He emphasized, “The ripple effects of our partnership need not be limited to Asia.  As Prime Minister Modi noted, the true power and potential in this relationship is that when the oldest and largest democracies come together, the world will benefit”.

Verma told the Committee, “I am deeply appreciative of all those who have worked so hard on cultivating this relationship over many decades – the diplomats, development experts, security professionals, members of Congress, and so many other dedicated public servants.  But, also the immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, those who took a chance like my parents, who worked hard, who continue to pursue their dreams, and along the way have helped ensure India and the United States become the closest of friends and partners.  I will strive to live up to the high standards they have set”, he pledged.

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