An imminent shuffling of positions in the U.S. Congress could have particular significance for India with Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera likely to take over the crucial Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation. The committee, which is currently headed by Democrat Brad Sherman, was in the news recently for an October 22 hearing on human rights in Kashmir and South Asia that caused a diplomatic and political challenge for the Indian government. While Dr. Bera is a strong proponent of closer India-U.S. ties, his potential leadership of the Asia subcommittee does not mean the Indian government will get a blank cheque from the body on Kashmir and related issues.
Key to Dr. Bera taking over the position from Mr. Sherman is a vote for the chairmanship of a subcommittee on capital markets. Mr. Sherman is in the running to head that subcommittee due to a series of shifts that are happening as a consequence of the death of Elijah Cummings in October, which left the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform vacant. In general, a member of the U.S. Congress holds no more than one committee or subcommittee chairmanship at any given time.
Contingent on Mr. Sherman shifting out to the capital markets subcommittee, Dr. Bera could be voted into the Asia subcommittee as early as the end of this week. A vote for the capital markets subcommittee is being held on December 4 afternoon, a Congressional aide told The Hindu .
Dr. Bera, a physician, is a California Democrat and has been a proponent of strong India-U.S. ties. While he was co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans in the 114th Congress (January 2015- January 2017), he co-sponsored an amendment to the annual defence authorisation bill recognising India as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ of the U.S. As recently as September, he co-sponsored a “Sense of the House” resolution (i.e. advice, guidance from the House of Representatives) that India should be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
A source on the Indian side told The Hindu on December 4 that they had hoped Dr. Bera’s leadership of the Asia Subcommittee would bring objectivity and impartiality to the committee.
Following the October 22 hearing, it was reported that Indian officials had been taken by surprise by the focus of that day’s panels on India’s actions in Kashmir relative to a discussion on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror in the region.
Nevertheless, Dr. Bera’s support for India and strong U.S.-India ties does not mean the Indian government will get a free pass on Kashmir and human rights and related issues, two separate sources on Capitol Hill and one former Congressional staffer told The Hindu .
During the October 22 hearing that focused on human rights in Kashmir and also discussed, among other things, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, Dr. Bera had emphasised India’s foundation as a secular democracy and called for an easing of restrictions in Kashmir.
“The strength of India is its basis as a secular democracy and its history as a secular democracy. As the world’s largest democracy, the core foundational basis of a democracy is the protection of minority rights. And I understand that democracy is complicated…,” Dr. Bera said. While indicating that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir was an internal matter to India, Dr. Bera did make an “urgent plea” for India to allow journalists into the Kashmir region.
“The sooner we can get back to normalisation of communication and press and others being able to visit, I think it’s in India’s interest to do that, and certainly in the world’s interest...,” Dr. Bera had said.
Dr. Bera is currently chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Korea. Given this latter position, Dr. Bera’s potential chairmanship of the Asia and Nonproliferation Subcommittee is likely to see him, at least initially, focusing on the Korean peninsula and related nuclear issues in his new role.
The Hindu made multiple attempts to reach out to Dr. Bera’s staff, but could not get a comment from his office for this story.