Eric Garcetti, the United States Ambassador to India, on the India-US strategic partnership, how the relationship is wrongly overeduced to China and pushback from Indian government on the subject of democracy and minority rights. The session was moderated by The Indian Express Diplomatic Editor Shubhajit Roy.
Could you reflect on your visits – in the ’80s as a young adult and now as the US Ambassador to India – and the arc of India’s journey, and its place in the world?
In 1985, I was 14 and due to bad weather, we landed in Karachi instead of Delhi. I’ll never forget it because the Indians couldn’t get off the plane but everybody else could. After reaching Delhi, it was the usual places and it was a world that I fell in love with. In college, my roommate’s father, Bill Clark, was the US ambassador. He asked if I wanted to go to India and I came back at 19 as a more sentient adult. I didn’t follow Indian politics back then but I wanted to know the history. I started studying Hindi and reading the Vedas and Upanishads, all the religious and cultural traditions. When I came as ambassador in April, about 50 per cent hadn’t changed at all and the other half was completely different. The warmth, chaos, diversity, and sense of history, are looking backward in a way. There is still an integration of culture that is found in few places. But what had changed was the physical landscape, the roads, and the infrastructure. Not so much in Delhi but in smaller cities. Even now, there’s a real love for America and knowledge about America from India. It’s much stronger from here to us than it is from us to you, which is one of my goals to try and build.
Shubhajit Roy: What is the big idea behind the India-US global comprehensive strategic partnership?
It is because we really like each other and need each other. The world needs us to like each other and work together. It’s an interesting moment in global relations. The world feels a little unmoored, a lot of change, some good, some bad. India is experiencing this and I think India is at a place where it is wondering who are we as a nation. There are stronger challenges both domestically and globally. We’re both struggling with democracy and diversity. But we both want both of those things. It’s better than the alternative. Who wants to live in an autocracy? In India, everybody has a connection to America. One in four Americans have been treated by an Indian doctor. While people of Indian descent are just one per cent of America’s population, it’s four million people, which is a lot for us, and it’s six per cent of our tax base. We need each other for health, climate, security, and growth of the economy among other things. Be it the common threats we face or the common opportunities we have, we need each other..
Shubhajit Roy: Do you see China as a strong strategic glue which is driving a lot of the conversations, especially in defence, tech and semiconductors?
It is certainly for our militaries and for some of our international security personnel. But the relationship is much deeper. Sometimes it gets overly reduced to China. I hear people in Washington say that we need India because of China. We need India because of India. I’m from California. We grow almonds. Indians know four almonds a day is good for brain health. Minister Piyush Goyal and I were able to, with Katherine Tai, our trade representative, reduce the tariffs that were put on during the Trump administration. In terms of strategic needs, we face common challenges. I’d argue against the idea that any third country is the glue that keeps us together. We’re the glue that keeps us together. We don’t want an over-concentration of supply chains in any one country, be it China or anywhere.
Shubhajit Roy: Since the invasion of Ukraine, do you see India much closer to the US than it was in February 2022? Does India have the credibility to play mediator in the conflict?
Most countries have moved further away from a nation that’s been a clear aggressor. I don’t have to remind the Indians, who know the value of borders and of sovereignty as you live with that every single day on multiple sides. We’re standing up for an unprovoked act of aggression. This wasn’t about geopolitics and trying to lessen one country’s power. This was about one country invading another and causing great suffering. It’s very clear moral issue. I hope Russia sees just how much it has lost. It’s not just Europe’s problem. Food and energy have affected all of us and our economy. It affects Indians every single day. Maybe the governments have been in slightly different places. But when I talk to Indian people, it seems to be a pretty clear moral issue to them as well. When you have a war, you sometimes need friends of aggressors to help let them know how the war needs to end. We all can’t play the exact same role. Obviously, the US can’t go to Russia as a friend today. But maybe other countries like India, who keep better relations right now can play that role. PM Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have mentioned that. The space between us, and I don’t think it’s as wide as it was on the Ukraine issue, hasn’t stopped us from moving forward as two nations.
We need to learn to not preach. There was conscious paternalism of talking down to India. Americans think that India is this country only in need of aid and development. That’s not the India of today
Shubhajit Roy: When President Obama talked about minority rights, there was a very strong pushback from the top brass of the Indian government. When anything is spoken about democracy, how do you read this pushback?
We live in a democracy in the US and we’re always proud to exercise that. Whether it’s former presidents or the average person on the street, they can speak their mind. There’s been a great love for India. It’s a remarkable thing in American politics to have across very different administrations and parties — a steady linear progression and the deepening of this relationship. People here in a democracy are free to speak their minds as well. I don’t think Americans will stop speaking of our values, nor should we expect Indians to not speak. We need to learn that lesson to not preach. It was a big part of my job when I came here, to see the places where there was conscious paternalism of talking down to India when Americans think that India is this country only in need of aid and development. That’s not the India of today. But sometimes we’re unconscious about it. Where Indians will hear an American and just think, I know where they’re coming from, and criticise them without hearing, we do the same.
Anil Sasi: There are still some things that fester — export restrictions on India and the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) benefits. When do you see this relationship on the strategic side being elevated to something we see between, say, the US and Japan or the US and Taiwan?
I have high ambitions in this space. It takes time for all sorts of complicated reasons. Our bureaucracy, your bureaucracy . India is still the highest tariffed major economy. Even if you’re not American, for any country, there’s the suspicion and the legacy of colonialism. It’s the anti-free trade kind of consensus between both our parties in the US. There are a lot of headwinds, but I think if there’s one place where there are tailwinds, it’s here with the US-India trade relationship. I agree that the GSP would be low-hanging fruit. We’ve got one more of the seven trade disputes left on poultry. I’d like to see that get resolved. There are certain things that we can’t do. Certain products and certain issues are just too important to the Indian way of life and economy. But let’s go everywhere else. And let’s talk about how we get there for semiconductors or when we have policies that come out on things like laptops. What can we do in pharma and pharmaceuticals? About nuclear liability?
When you have a war, you sometimes need friends of aggressors to help let them know how the war needs to end. The US can’t go to Russia as a friend today… But countries like India, who keep better relations right now can play that role
Soumyarendra Barik: What is India doing right in the chip space and what are the fields where it’s lagging behind? What is the reason for no real interest from any eligible company vis-a-vis semiconductor device fabrication?
There’s a lot of focus in Indian policy, rightfully so, on price. If we help the price to be cheaper through incentives or tax breaks, the investment will eventually come. But three other things need more focus. Semiconductors are far more complicated. You have to have the workforce and it’s not a workforce that can be trained in a six-month course. This is very complicated engineering and more importantly, manufacturing. I think India recognises that. When I talk to companies, they want that. It (India) is still an unpredictable place to do business. Labour regulation might change, taxes might change overnight, you might not have any heads up on something when a new regulation comes in. Every CEO is both excited and has one foot in, but they don’t have two feet in yet because they all have some horror story. Maybe there’s a state government or maybe it’s the Centre, somebody did something where that investment suddenly wasn’t along the lines. Not just American but I think most multinational companies need like 10 years of predictability, especially in the semiconductor space where you don’t turn a profit early on. So I suggest holding tight.
Ritu Sarin: After the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, what are the new levels of intelligence sharing that have been initiated? There were reports that real-time US intelligence stopped a Chinese incursion in March this year.
This has never been closer. We’re going to be very respectful when asked. Our countries have talked about how we can share more information to keep each other in the world safer. I’d say it’s steadily progressing, formalising. We want to share intelligence on everything — this should be open source at least between governments — on food security, climate indicators and oceanic biodiversity. At the military level, it’s never been closer. In law enforcement , it’s breathtaking. We had multinational drug operations that were in Central California, which thanks to intelligence sharing, had us go after some really bad guys who were in the US. It’s happening in intellectual property such as people who broke the law taking Indian artefacts. We’ve got a 500-pound Buddha waiting in Arizona to repatriate. We are talking about a long-range way to have a memorandum of understanding so that we can help more Indian artefacts and art come back. India has been wonderful on telephone scams. Over an estimated $1 billion has been taken from Americans from Indian phone scam operators.Tthe Indian government’s been great. In the most strategic places, we will be there for India, as well as in the most human places.
(With India), for any country, there’s the suspicion and the legacy of colonialism… There are a lot of headwinds, but I think if there’s one place where there are tailwinds, it’s here with the US-India trade relationship
Amrita Nayak Dutta: What has been the intelligence support from the US during the three-year-long military standoff with China. What are the other critical defence technologies that US is looking to share with India?
We’re here with open ears whenever asked and have deeper personal relationships, and technological relationships than ever before. But I’ll leave it at that. We never presume and we never go further than what India asks of us. We’re on parallel highways, once in a while weaving around, sometimes heading towards each other. Now we’re in the same car. The Prime Minister’s state visit was one stop. G 20 is the next stop, and then we’re getting back in the car together and moving forward. The government can’t control all this; some of it has to come from the private sector. Sometimes, we have to say we’re just the US government, we can’t make a private company produce that widget. But we’ll push them and help because we know how important it is to the relationship. Obviously, the historic engine steel is the biggest game changer in our military production history. There’s certain things that GE has that they wouldn’t even share with the US government. But the 100 per cent of everything we can control is being shared and it really changes, I think, the next 30 years. We would love to do that in other realms but they’re complicated by democracies.
Liz Mathew: PM Modi, in two of his internal meetings, mentioned that countries like the US are engaging with India and trying to sign new deals because they are seeing that the the BJP is coming back to power next year.
We engage with governments, not parties. The engagements have been effective, productive and I think they’re material.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Restrictions in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act have been an area of concern. Many NGOs and think tanks are not getting funding. There have been raids on organisations like Oxfam or the Centre for Policy Research besides minority concerns. Have these been voiced by people outside of the government?
Democracy, human rights, a strong civil society are cornerstones of American values. Whether it’s an India or any country, we engage on those at the highest levels, and at the lowest levels. We engage with them, not just government to government, but government to civil society besides particular cases too. Sometimes they’re American international NGOs with whom we engage to just try to find out if there is a violation of law and how we can help rectify that? And if not, why is this happening? We just hope these don’t become irritants, and are quickly resolved. And we respect India and India’s laws. If anybody’s not adhering to specific laws, we will be the first to help out. What makes it more difficult is when you don’t know why. And that’s when we engage at a higher level.
Manoj CG: What is the level of engagement that you have with India’s Opposition leaders?
I’ve had great conversations. I’ve gone to different states that have different leaders not of the majority party. We have very free, frank, open conversations. I was a mayor so I understand that all the power doesn’t always exist in the nation’s capital, as much as our national leaders always feel that way. It is just our protocol that governments engage and that winds up being majority parties. Opposition figures are absolutely free to engage with us.
Anil Sasi: What are your views on the Data Protection Act and interest from the already invested American companies in the new e-commerce policy.
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There’s been a lot of positive movement from where it was first drafted to what actually passed. What I hear from many American companies, there’s a great deal of satisfaction and protections that they thought they were lacking. If we play by certain rules, these are perfectly reasonable things for any nation to protect its people, data, etc. I am inspired by India’s digital public infrastructure. India has leapfrogged even the US in getting the chaiwala to accept a UPI. These things really expand access to capital and reduce corruption. There have been many positive things that I hope the US will learn, and will maybe be a partner with India. At the same time, we look very closely at legislation and its impact on American companies. I hope that India will recognise that American companies, retail or financial, have invested a lot to make access to capital easier, faster, and stronger. We care a lot about reducing the cost to consumers. So sometimes you’ll have American companies who have very different perspectives — one that wants to see the price of a transaction come down, and another who lives off of the price of transactions. We have to balance that too. I think India’s got it right in that you want to empower the citizen and protect the citizen.
Muzamil Jaleel: You are on the board of Human Rights Watch and studied ethnic conflicts and nationalism. Is there anything that you saw or heard, which worried you?
When you see suffering based on whatever it is, it could be a woman not safely getting to work, it can be between religious groups, I feel that pain and suffering as a human being. But I also want to be very careful. America has a long tradition of talking down sometimes to countries. We need to be equals. We need to come from a place of humility about the challenges we face and engage with each other.