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We stayed closely connected with India after Uri attack: US envoy

Richard Verma, United States Ambassador to India in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: V. Sudershan   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

The U.S. backs India in its war on terror, telling Pakistan not to use its proxies across the border, says U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma, in his first interview since the Uri attacks. He spoke to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar on the full range of U.S.-India bilateral relations as well as how he feels about the bitter U.S. presidential campaign that is coming to a close.

You were in the U.S., but you cut short your trip and returned to India, after the Uri attacks and India’s ‘surgical strikes’ over what the State department called a “dynamic situation”. How closely did the U.S. and India work in the aftermath of the attack?

We stayed very closely connected, our NSAs have been in contact, the Secretary of State has been in regular contact, our intelligence agencies offered all kinds of support in the wake of this cross-border terror attack which we strongly condemned. Its important that we stay linked up, as we have for the last few years. In recent months, we have signed an agreement on exchanging terrorist information, we have a new cyber security arrangement, we have trained 2,500 law enforcement officers.

We have also been quite tough on Pakistan, and right from the President, the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and NSA, about the need for Pakistan to crack down on its safe havens, to crack down on the use of proxies, to carry out terrorist attacks. We have to stand united and we stand in solidarity with India on that front.

On the day India launched cross-LoC strikes, NSA Ajit Doval spoke with NSA Susan Rice. Was the US aware India was going to launch cross-LoC strikes that day?

I’m not going to get into the private nature of their conversation. As has been stated, India took the action it thought was necessary to defend itself, which we understand.

I believe the NSAs spoke the day before the action. But obviously if you look at the statement issued by the NSA (Susan Rice) after the phone conversation it was a strong condemnation of cross border activity, the need to bring perpetrators to justice, the need to work with India and other countries on designating individuals and groups through the UN 1267 process. I think it was a real effort to show solidarity in this fight against terror.

One question that keeps coming up is that the U.S. pays lip service to cooperation with India on cross border terror from Pakistan, but on the ground, it has little impact. Arms sales to Pakistan continue, military relations continue. When the U.S. drones attack terror camps in Pakistan, they are never on camps that hold LeT or JeM militants?

Look, its important we look at the same set of facts. If you look at our declarations on counter terror in these summits, there has been no distance between us on the need to crack down on terror.

But those are words…

Let me go to the actions. I think people may not know that US military assistance to Pakistan since 2011 is down 73 per cent, U.S. economic assistance to Pakistan since 2011 is down 54 per cent. $300 million of assistance has been withheld, and we have taken steps to protect our interests as well. The problem is a threat to Indian nationals, to Pakistani nationals, to citizens in the region.

On defence cooperation, the LEMOA foundational agreement was signed after many rounds of talks this year. How soon do you hope to complete the other foundational agreements?

The foundational agreements are a natural outgrowth of increased operational tempo of military establishments working together. The agreements will come naturally. We have moved way beyond the buyer seller relationship. This is basically a 10-year old defence relationship that has been heightened in the last two years. So we have a lot to accomplish, we want to do a big signature project in DTTI, we want to build frontline fighters right here in India, work on aircraft carrier and jet engine technologies. As Secretary Carter says, it is a strategic partnership across South East Asia, where we hope to cooperate ,but its also a technological partnership.

Is there resistance to this? We saw the Defence Minister rebuff the idea of joint patrols in the South China Sea? Are there still no-go areas in this relationship given the Cold War past?

PM Modi himself said that we have overcome the hesitations of the past. Look, no one is looking for a treaty alliance, no one is calling for joint patrols in the south china sea. I think this will go at a pace that the leaders are comfortable with. No faster, no slower, and it has been a rapid pace so far. When we needed to get our citizens out of Yemen, we called India and they helped to evacuate people, and it was on an American made plane. That’s real life application of what’s possible.

How about the pace of India’s bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group? Earlier this year India’s statement after the failed bid in Seoul linked the NSG membership and the need for predictable supplies to complete its climate change commitments. Now that it has ratified the Paris Protocol, is it safe to say NSG membership could happen soon?

I never saw that linkage. I only saw the commitment that the Prime Minister and the President gave to each other, and you saw that play out spectacularly earlier this month. If you asked President Obama how we got past the Paris finish line, he would say it was because of the leadership of PM Modi. We have a lot of work to do on clean energy financing, we are excited about where the civil nuclear deal is headed to and fully intend to keep our June 2017 commitment for the commercial agreement. In addition, we think that India is ready and should be a member of the Nuclear suppliers group, and are working quite vigorously to ensure a successful outcome.

No trade off between the two?

None, whatsoever.

U.S. envoy Peter Lavoy spoke of an outcome in terms of India’s NSG membership by the end of this year. Do you share that optimism?

That’s the goal we are all working towards, and I share that optimism.

What has changed since the June meeting? One concern is that the U.S. hasn’t done the heavy lifting it could have. In 2008 President Bush directly called Chinese President Hu to make the waiver happen…

I think the President [Obama], Secretary of State and other advisors have all been involved. Ultimately the NSG is a consensus organisation and it takes a lot of hard work. And we will work with our colleagues that support India’s entry. No one can predict what the outcome will be, but I can tell you, its one of our top priorities in the relationship right now.

If it is consensus, then how is it possible that one member alone can hold it up? Are there others besides China?

Sometimes in international diplomacy, these are tough slogs, but I am optimistic. I don’t quite know the date of when we will get there, but we will get there.

Could I ask directly, is the U.S. engaging China on this issue?

I would answer more broadly, we are engaged with every member of the NSG on India’s candidacy. We have to go through a process, which we are going through. There is a lot of support for India’s candidacy, lets not get ahead of the process.

Is the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal itself in trouble? First the land acquisition problem for GE ran aground in Gujarat, next financing for the Westinghouse deal by US Exim Bank has run into trouble, and they are all contingent on Japan deal. Are we on track to sign a commercial contract in June 2017?

Absolutely. The chairman of the Exim bank was here last week, a team from India will go out in early November to discuss financing for the Westinghouse deal. None of it is easy, or it would have been done 8-9 years ago. We have overcome our challenges on liability, we are working on the commercial contract. There is a lot of momentum behind the deal.

Another issue has been government actions against U.S.-based NGOs that even John Kerry took up. The Hindu has reported on the cases of Ford Foundation, now Compassion. Why is this such an important issue, given Indian officials say it’s a matter of legal procedure?

Civil society in both our countries have played a huge role. Our governments would not function as well without civil society in education, nutrition, healthcare, climate change. We fully expect NGOs to be legally compliant on all bases, that’s non-negotiable.

At the same time, we think a lot of NGOs have done a lot of good work in India and to the extent that they run into challenges with the government I think it is part of our responsibility to work through those challenges. We would do that for an American company or citizen, and also for NGOs and will continue to do it. I will say we have had a lot of good dialogue with the government that has been productive and we hope to have more in the future.

It’s productive because the government has lifted many of the restrictions on NGOs like Ford Foundation and Compassion. Is the U.S. arm-twisting India over action on NGOs?

The great thing about being partners, and we are equal partners is that we come to the table on issues that are difficult. In the last two years, we have been able to solve so many important issues for both our people and we will keep doing that.

As someone who was on the Clinton team earlier, where do you see yourself after the November elections, and before the Obama administration demits office, what is the one Indo-U.S. agreement you would like to see through?

I serve at the pleasure of the President whoever the President is. I do think the civil nuclear agreement is one that people look at which was transformative because it brought the U.S. Congress to get to know the U.S.-India relationship. This is one I would like to see to the finish line, and I would like to see a shovel get into the ground.

All eyes are on the U.S. presidential election — with Hillary Clinton widening her lead. Should we expect another 4 years of Democrats in the White House?

We’re in the final stages of this election. I have been in and around Washington for many many years and I think the best thing to do is wait until the results are in on election day.

Do you think the U.S. will stay the course with India, especially when it comes to issues of terrorism, nuclear issues, climate change, defence cooperation, no matter who wins?

First, I would say there’s no doubt that we have had the strongest two years in our relationship that we have ever had. There’s a lot of credit that goes to PM (Modi) and President (Obama), but there’s also been decades of credit that is paying off now. We have some 40 government to government dialogues that just build a base in our two systems due to which we are able to tackle our big problems.

The US-India relationships is non-partisan. I joke with people all the time that the biggest caucus in the US House of Representatives is the US-India caucus with 340 reps. What other issue could bring those numbers to the House in these times? So that is the trajectory we are looking at, given that relations have soared both under Democrat and Republican ties, and that will be continued in the future.

So are you saying India is a unifying figure for the U.S.’s polarised polity? Even Donald Trump says he loves India…

The U.S.-India bilateral is up at the top of successes for both administrations (Republicans and Democrats). In a world fraught with danger, and uncertainty, people in the U.S. look to this relationship not just as rhetoric, but as one that can solve problems: nuclear, climate change, HFCs, counter terror cooperation. Our trade relationship is four times bigger than it was just eight years ago.

We are the largest market for India. Last year we issued the highest number of visas, 1.1 million, or had the highest number of students coming, 140,000. People forget our defence relationship is only a decade old, but we have more than $15 billion in Defence trade already. No government can set that back.

As a second generation immigrant to the U.S., how worried are you, personally, by the polarisation in the U.S. over race, ethnicity and gender issues?

I started working in politics when I was 18 years old, I started working in the House of Representatives as an intern. And I was drawn to politics because it was a way to bring together people, lift them up and inspire them. And it was a motivating and unifying experience. I still believe in the promise of politics. I am also a proud immigrant as you said and very proud to have roots in India where I have visited my parents’ home here.

When they came to the US in the early 1960s, they started over, and I remember my mother studying to pass the immigration test. And I remember her passing it, and being sworn in and how proud she was of her life as an American citizen. But my mother spoke with an accent, my mother wasn’t Christian and my mother wore Indian clothes and cooked Indian food, and she was a special needs teachers, paid her taxes.

In short, my mother was a great American. I hope that doesn’t get lost in this election in the context of what it means to be an American and what the American dream is all about. I will certainly keep standing up and fighting for that vision.


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