It includes the issuance of visas and welcoming tech workers, says former U.S. Ambassador to India
Richard Verma, former U.S. Ambassdor to India (2014 – 2017) and currently the Vice-Chair of strategy advisory firm The Asia Group, recalls that Barack Obama and Joe Biden wanted to carve out a separate designation for India as a major defence partner. In an interview, Mr. Verma vouches for Mr. Biden’s ability to help stabilise risks to peace in South Asia.
With both the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention now over, what do you think the issues that will dominate the campaign ahead of November elections?
I’ll just make clear at the outset; I’m just speaking for myself in an individual capacity. Look, [the U.S.] in the middle of a pandemic crisis that has devastated the country. We lead the world in the number of cases and number of deaths despite our incredible medical system, world class universities health system, research, we’ve not been able to solve or control or limit the spread of that pandemic. There’s no question that the overriding issue for the next president. Second would be the economic recovery. We’ve had 30 million Americans lose their jobs. You don’t go a day or two days without a major retail or a major store in the United States or business, filing for bankruptcy, and the human toll and the way it has exposed the kind of gaps and divisions in America has been devastating. Job number three is really an incredible kind of international repair job to rebuild American alliances, to go back and talk to our friends and partners about the United States actually reclaiming and playing a leadership role again in the world as opposed to playing a disruption role.
Given events, however, how concerned are you that that race issues are going to take over other issues?
This is as important an issue as any of the ones that I’ve mentioned. I am exceptionally concerned about the direction that [U.S.] has taken on race and on our treatment of immigrants and minority communities. I am an immigrant, I come from an immigrant family. My parents came here 57 years ago. I’ve told this story many times the thought that my dad could show up here in the United States with $14, and a bus ticket, and his son could go back one generation later to represent the United States [as Ambassador]. That vision that dream, that ability to do what I did, I think is seriously at risk. We’ve got to stamp out and eliminate this racism, this white nationalism that has taken over our country and has been exploited by political leaders.
What are your thoughts on the Kamala Harris nomination? Is it also an important moment for you as an Indian American?
Absolutely. I had been so moved and inspired by her selection by her service as a senator, by her services, Attorney General, as you said, she’s been breaking barriers all her career. I think not only was she the most qualified pick, I think she’s going to be an outstanding Vice President and hopefully future president of the United States.
In India there has been no response officially and some scepticism in the commentary over whether Ms. Harris really owns her Indian origins as well as over her pronouncements on human rights in India, Jammu Kashmir etc…
I think those are parlour debates that probably are not worth spending that much time or attention thinking about. I don’t expect any foreign government, Indian government, or any government to opine on the internal politics of the United States and that would be that would be appropriate. Again, I just think you have to look at her overall qualifications as a legislator as a lawyer as a what she did in the state of California, how she’s built her office, incredibly diverse staff and her chief of staff is Indian American. I am so confident about how she would not only do in the job but how she would do in managing really critical foreign policy relationships, including the U.S. and India.
Where do you think a Biden presidency put its focus when it comes to ties with India?
This is someone who would restore a degree of stability and hope, inspiration and effectiveness in the bilateral relationship. He said in 2006, that if the U.S. and India are the closest friends and partners by 2020, the world will be a safer place. Five years ago, he is the one that set the goal of $500 billion in two-way trade. And he and President Obama talked about this as being the defining partnership of the 21st century. So, if you are rooting for the U.S.-India partnership, I think you’re going to find no stronger advocate than Joe Biden.
Could that match the Modi-Trump chemistry? And how do you address concerns that a Democratic administration will be much more intrusive on issues like human rights?
We broke every record on defence sales and trade record under the Obama-Biden administration. [He was] the only president to visit India twice, the only president to come to Republic Day. It was Joe Biden and Barack Obama who wanted to carve out a separate designation for India as a major defence partner. It was Joe Biden and Barack Obama that knew that India would be critical to the Paris Climate Agreement to the Treaty on hydrofluorocarbons to improving global health security and it was that administration that broke every record on the issuance of visas and welcomed tech workers and did not treat a spouses of tech workers badly actually wanted an inclusive America. I would dare say that the Obama Biden years, especially those last three or four years and people are going to say I’m not objective because I was in the job at the time, but we’re some of the best years we’ve ever had in the relationship. Now, if the chief complaint is that sometimes democrats raise human rights, I would just say that’s what close friends and partners do. Indian leaders would call me and the President and the Secretary of State and others and raise sensitive issues. We can do the same. People should welcome that conversation.
What do you think will be the relationship when it comes to China?
I think it’s important that the U.S.-India relationship be about U.S.-India relations and not about any third country. Look, we are in competition with China, obviously, militarily, economically, from a technology point of view. And yes, it is a concern. I don’t think either the United States or India aspire to contain or control China, or we certainly don’t aspire for conflict with China, but we have to be prepared.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said a few weeks ago that India will never be part of an alliance system. Do you think that an India-U.S. military alliance is something that that is a possibility in the future?
No. And I agree with the foreign minister, the notion of a mutual defence treaty or a formal Alliance is a product of the 20th century. What we ought to be looking at is a is a product for the 21st century and that that is not going to be strictly about military tools, that is going to be about economics values, making sure India plays a leading role in international institutions. I think there’s huge opportunities with supply chain diversification and our global health cooperation…an alliance without the Alliance or treaty framework is what we seek.
What would be Mr. Biden in South Asia policy in terms of the India Pakistan equation? He has received Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, has been a votary of a larger role for Pakistan in the Afghanistan discussion….
I would go back to the critical role that [Biden as Vice President] played in trying to bolster the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, trying to reduce the number of foreign troops, including U.S. troops that were there. I think everyone wants to see a peaceful, stable, democratic Afghan Government succeed and be able to respond to the threat posed by extremist groups, the Taliban, other outside governments that are playing a role there. Regarding Pakistan, you’ve heard the [Biden] say directly, that cross border terrorism is not something that anyone could ever tolerate. The people of Pakistan have been victims of terrorism too and it’s important that this kind of threat be brought under control. Just look at the strong role [Biden] has played over 40 years. I’m quite confident about his security credentials, and his ability to help stabilize a difficult set of situations that pose a threat to peace loving people in South Asia and beyond.
You are also a key figure at the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum this week, where U.S. Vice President Pence and EAM Jaishankar will be among the speakers. What sort of expectations do you expect to see articulated, particularly on India’s economic reforms, and on PM Modi’s Atmanirbhar policy?
I’m very excited about the conference. Ultimately it is about what our two countries can do together to solve the problems of today and the future. So, what is that that is about adopting a more clean energy future? It’s about infrastructure development, how can we be a part of the story? It is about defence cooperation, what are the additional reforms required on our side on export control reforms on India side for us to continue to be that top security partner? It is about obviously trade and investment and what are the additional reforms needed for market access for intellectual property protection. It’s about global health security. How do we work together to build and develop a next vaccine to make sure the next pandemic doesn’t impact the world community the way the way it has? It’s great to have forums like this, that not only bring together government officials, but bring together the leaders in the private sector and academia and civil society in both countries, so that we can we can figure out how to solve problems together. I am optimistic about our cooperation our future together. It doesn’t come on its own. It doesn’t happen just by default. No, our two constitutions were really built on the notion that we must continue to work hard in each generation and make sure we’re doing things better than the prior generation.
At present Mr. Biden is ahead of U.S. President Trump in the polls. Do you expect a Biden-Harris win in November?
We’re living in a divided country, an exceptionally polarized population, and we really need a president who can bring the country together, who can treat people with respect and dignity and can treat incoming immigrants with respect who can treat all people, minorities, people, again, like I said, if my family’s background, religious tradition with respect, someone who can heal really deep wounds in the in the nation and not exploit our divisions, I think the majority of Americans feel that same way, regardless of political affiliation. So, I don’t take anything for granted in American politics, which is a rough and tumble game, and obviously, anything can happen. But there’s a very clear choice here. And, you know, we’ll leave it for the pundits to predict what happens.