India’s ambassador to the United States, Amb. Harsh Vardhan Shringla told an Atlanta Council on International Relations luncheon downtown Jan. 30 that the relations between the two countries are increasingly positive with potential to become even more so.
Although he added that depending on the viewer, the relationship could be seen as a glass “either half full or half empty,” he acknowledged the personal and historical ties binding the two countries.
He then thanked former Atlanta mayor, U.S. congressman and ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, whose interest in India and its founder, Mahatma Gandhi, date back to his student days, for attending the luncheon.
The ambassador also said that he was gratified to be honored by both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly with resolutions marking this visit to Atlanta, the first city outside of Washington to which he has traveled since assuming his post on Jan. 11.
And he said he was grateful of having had the opportunity to meet Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
In his conversations with the governor and the legislators he said that he noticed a desire on their part for Georgia to open a commercial office in India in keeping with the initiatives of Florida and Mississippi.
He then cited what he termed positive momentum between the U.S. and India in their political relations, their strategic interests, their security arrangements, their economic and commercial ties, their scientific and technological initiatives as well as the development of people-to-people relationships.
And he referred to common democratic values including freedom of speech, a free media and an independent judiciary. “We both share these values,” he added, “and it should have been natural for us to have had better relations since we became an independent nation.”
The initial distance in relations between the two, he said, was rooted in the Cold War that was heating up following India’s independence in 1947. “India wanted to be nonaligned,” he added. “We didn’t want to be an ally to a protagonist and largely maintained our independence.”
Reflecting on the early years of India’s independence from British rule, he said that its economy was in “shambles.” “There was a shortage of food and basic necessities. The majority lived below the poverty level and the country’s priority was on development and meeting the most basic needs.”
These beginnings contrast dramatically with India’s state today, he said, citing the liberalization of its economy including a growth rate of at least 6 percent for two decades with an rate of even more than 7 percent last year. “The private sector has been the prime mover as well as the country’s willingness to reach out to other nations such as the U.S. By increasing our engagement, we found that common ground that was missing for so long.”
To underscore his point, he cited $5 billion in bilateral trade between the U.S. and India during the 1990s compared to the current estimates of $140 billion. Last year, he said, bilateral trade was up 18 percent and exports to India from the U.S. up almost 30 percent.
When asked by a guest why President Donald Trump called India “the king of tariffs,” the ambassador quickly riposted that if tariffs were so high why had bilateral trade been able to rise 18 percent last year. Mr. Trump’s comments were made during a news conference in October and were primarily focused on barriers to entry for Harley Davidson motorcycles.
The rise in U.S. exports, Amb. Shringla said, could be explained in part by the growth of India’s middle class. He foresaw further growth related to increased exports of oil and gas from the U.S. to his country as soon as India undergoes preparations to receive them.
He also said aviation was an area destined for “burgeoning growth” with 300 civilian aircraft already in the pipeline to arrive in India during the next five to seven years.
The ambassador claimed his comments were “off the cuff” because of his recent arrival to Washington, but he entertained questions on a wide variety of topics from the luncheon guests and during a press conference that followed the luncheon.
Among these topics were: the state of negotiations concerning H-1B visas that allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty occupations; common defense policies and multilateral initiatives; economic development; people-to-people initiatives and the state of democracy in both countries.
H-1B Visas: He called these visas “a high priority” and called for “clarity” on the issue from the current administration. “We are trying to work with the current administration. Essentially we have significant investment in both countries — $50 billion – in two way investments. This has a lot to do with technology and the human resource factor is critical.”
Addressing India’s concerns about a brain drain to the U.S. of India’s brightest students studying abroad with many seeking H-1B Visas, he recalled the time he spent in the Ministry of Higher Education during the administration of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s.
At that time, he was concerned about the brain drain but was told by one official not to be concerned because at the time the India economy couldn’t absorb all of the highly trained students and that in time some of them would return on their own volition, which is what is happening.
Common Defense: He said that India supported the U.S. initiative to emphasis an Indo-Pacific framework which inherently places India at the heart of defense policies rather as an appendage to an Asian strategy focused on East Asia.
Without addressing the specific military implications of this new policy of the Trump administration, the ambassador spoke positively of the increased cooperation uniting the communication technologies among participating aircraft and ships.
He also underscored India’s actions as a first responder to natural disasters in the region. India, Japan and the U.S. are working more closely together, he said, in their dealings with natural disasters and have had joint initiatives dealing with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh which has been inundated with Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Multilateral Relations: Amb. Shringla cited India’s 55 development projects including construction of dams, highways and ports in Afghanistan and he said that he could not foresee these projects being abandoned or India to withdraw until the country was free of the perpetrators of terrorism.
Economic Development: He encouraged investment in India’s states, but cautioned that some states were more receptive and better prepared to receive foreign investment than others. Economic developers in the Southeast would be familiar with his discussion of the competition among states. The ambassador added that the government’s implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) is an effort to create more of a common market among the states to cut back on the extent of local red tape that investors have to deal with.
He also underscored the many initiatives including “Make in India,” to attract and develop manufacturing, “Digital India,” to address cyber defense and Internet connectivity, and its “Smart Cities” initiatives that are open to foreign investment and collaboration to improve the country’s fiber optics, underground railway, sewer systems and other basics of an urban existence. He added that the government anticipates 40 percent of its population will live in urban settings and preparations for their arrival are underway.
And he pointed to a National Investment Fund that offers funding for appropriate projects.
People-to-People Relations: The ambassador heralded the accomplishments of India’s diaspora populations, now numbering 4 million around the world including professionals in many fields, for raising the county’s profile in a positive way and establishing mutually beneficial relationships including cross-border investments. He added that India now has invested more in the United Kingdom than the UK has invested in India.
The State of Democracy: While upbeat about India’s prospects and its improving ties with the U.S., Amb. Shringla was forthright about “roadblocks” that can get in the way. Both governments in coming months will be preoccupied with elections: the U.S. with its presidential election and India’s with its parliamentary elections. He predicted that the Indian elections would be “competitive and hard fought” with 880 million voters participating at 1 million voting booths. While he didn’t share his opinions about the U.S. elections, he did promise to return to Atlanta when he is more knowledgeable about the United States and not limited to “off the cuff” remarks.
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