Keynote speech to be delivered
Frank F Islam on US-India relations
At the Indian Independence Day celebrations hosted by the NCAIA
Distinguished Guests, NCAIA Members, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you, Dr. Banik, for that generous introduction. You have introduced me on several occasions and always find a way to make it special. Thank you for our firm friendship.
I believe I have spoken at NCAIA Republic Day and Independence Day events one half a dozen times. I guess you’ll keep asking me back until I get it right!
Seriously, it is truly honor to be here with all of you to address my topic for this evening: the current state of US-India relations. I will in a moment.
Before, I do so, however, let me extend a welcome to our special guest tonight, Ambassador Jha.
Ambassador I understand that this is the first major Indian American community event you are attending since you landed here. Thank you for joining us.
I know that are you are not new to the United States, having served as Consul for Press & Consular Affairs at the Consulate in New York City more than a decade ago. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. and Washington is a lot more chaotic place these days than it was during your last stint here!
Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy your tenure as ambassador. And, I am confident that you will play a pivotal role in taking U.S.-India relations – which are already in excellent shape – to a new height. We look forward to working with and being a resource to you during your service here.
Before I give my Remarks, let me wish you all a happy 70th Independence Day of India. Let us take a moment to remember the sacrifices made by leaders of the Indian Independence Movement and the timeless ideals of freedom movement they led, a movement that inspired leaders all around the globe. It was their vison, idealism, commitment to democracy, secularism, and pluralism that made India an exceptional nation in the world. India’s commitment to democracy, diversity, and secularism, and rule of law is unmatched and unparalled in the world.
Now back to my topic – the current state of U.S.-India relations. In my remarks, I will examine that current state by putting it into context in terms of the past, the present and the future of those relations.
The Past State of U.S. India Relations
Those of you who immigrated to this country in the 1960s and ’70s, probably remember how indifferent the United States and India were to each other in those days. Despite both being quality democracies, the two countries were as distant in their foreign policy orientation as in their physical distance.
There was literally a 10,000-mile chasm between the two countries. You would most likely also remember that a visit from an Indian prime minister, back in the ’80s and even into the ’90s, was hardly noticed by the media in this country.
Then , at the beginning of the 21st century things began to change.
President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, took the ties to the next level during his nearly-weeklong visit to Delhi in March 2000. President Clinton made the first U.S. presidential trip to India since 1978.
After that President George W. Bush, a Republican, removed a major irritant in the relations. He did that by delivering the landmark civil nuclear deal.
These engagement by three different U.S. Presidents and two Indian Prime Ministers has laid a firm foundation for a strong partnership based on shared interests.
For India, the importance of the nuclear deal cannot be overstated. I know that many of you in this room lobbied hard for the deal and were present at the State Department when Secretary of State Condi Rice and then-Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee signed the historic deal on October 8, 2008.
The Present State of U.S. India Relations
This brings me to the present or current state – which really began with President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
President Obama is the only US president who visited India twice. His first visit was in 2010. His second visit was as a guest of honor at India’s Republic Day celebration in January 2015. He was the first American President to be the chief guests at India’s Republic Day Parade. This visit cultivated warm and deeper relationship with India.
During his first visit, President Obama famously declared that the U.S. and India were “indispensable partners” and that the U.S.-India relationship would become one of the “defining partnerships” of the 21st century. I agree with President Obama that the US-India partnership is indispensable for Global peace, security, and prosperity.
I was fortunate to be part of the President Obama’s business delegation during his second visit. That gave me a ringside view of US-India relations, as we met with a number of high-ranking Indian political and business leaders. What I saw on both sides was the desire to take bilateral business relations to the next level with the recognition that this would be a win-win for India and the United States.
The Future State of U.S. India Relations
I do not want to dwell on the past nor to be stuck in the present. The past and the present are merely stepping stones to the future. So, let me move on and talk about the future that I see for U.S. –India relations.
I must state that I have never been more bullish about the future of the relations between our two great countries. That is true for four reasons.
Reason number 1: In this country, there is a bipartisan consensus about the need to maintain a close relationship with India. Be it a Democrat in the White House, or a Republican president leading the country, one thing that everyone agrees upon is that relations with India are important. Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Trump, a Republican, demonstrates that he is as invested in US-India relations as his three immediate predecessors were.
This view on relations is not just limited to the executive branch. Even in Congress, relations with India is one of the few subjects on which both Democrats and Republicans agree. A case in point is the size of the two congressional India caucuses — which are among the largest country-specific caucuses.
Reason number 2: There is a consensus among the best strategic thinkers and foreign policy minds in this country that the geopolitical interests of the United States and India would be best served if the two partners can commit to working together on common goals.
Whether it is in managing the rise of China, combating terrorism, religious and sectarian extremism, stabilizing Afghanistan, or preserving peace in myriad battle-torn areas of the globe; whether it is in tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time, such as climate change; whether it is in providing nutritious food, clean water, clean energy, safe shelter and decent healthcare to the underprivileged of the world; or whether it is in educating, skilling and giving jobs to the youth of the world, everyone in this town agrees that if the US and India work together as “indispensable partners” , a tremendous amount can be achieved.
Reason number 3: I am extremely optimistic about the bilateral relationship in the growing business and commercial relations and defense cooperation, between the two nations. Being a business person, this is one area I can speak with some authority.
Thirty years ago, in 1987, the total volume of trade in goods between the United States and India was less than $4 billion. This year, in just one month, in May, the United States imported goods from India worth more than $4 billion.
Last year, the total value of goods the two countries bought and sold from each other was nearly $67 billion. So far, India-US goods trade has seen rapid growth. Granted, when one compares the volume of trade that America is doing with China, Canada and Mexico, we are not anywhere near their neighborhoods. But, we are going to get there.
Last, but not least, my 4th reason for being bullish is because the foundation for our bi-lateral ties is rock-solid. That foundation is the people-to-people relations between the citizens of the United States and the citizens of India. It is important to note that Indian Americans play a critical role in US-India partnership.
People of India and people of the United States have always admired each other from afar; have appreciated the contributions of each other to our civilization. American thought leaders from Mark Twain to Martin Luther King Jr. marveled at India, its humanity and ancientness. Indians of all color, creed, and all faiths have held America and the ideals it stands for in high regard.
Nearly four-million Indian Americans today make this country their home. Our contributions to America’s economy, cultural, social, and political fabric have been documented so thoroughly that it’s not worth repeating — especially to an audience like this.
Suffice it to say, as President Obama pointed out during his 2015 visit to India. The President said, and I quote: “The United States has the largest Indian diaspora in the world,….they make America stronger, and they tie us together — bonds of family and friendship that allow us to share in each other’s success.”
Those are my 4 primary reasons for substantial optimism about the future of U.S. India relations. I am aware of the fact that there are some issues where the two governments have differences in a number of key areas. There are some issues of contention. H-1B visa is one such issue. But compared to the differences the United States has with some of its gigantic trading partners, such as China and Japan, the H-1B visa is a minor issue.
In summary, that is my perspective on the current and future state of U.S. India relations. It is an extremely positive one. The prospect of a meaningful expansion of US-India engagement is better today than at any point in the past.
Over the past two decades, US-India relations have blossomed. But, in my opinion, the best is yet to come. Having made that prediction, in closing, let me leave you with this final thought.
In his immortal Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Nehru, said of the independent India: “A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes.”
India’s star has risen. And, now it is rising in conjunction with that of the United States. I must caution all of us, however, that the future is promised to no-one or no nation.
One of Prime Minister Nehru’s favorite poets was the American Robert Frost.
A couplet from a Frost poem that captured Nehru’s imagination reads:
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
For me those two lines sum up the work we all have to do on the US-India relations front. India –US relationship has come a long way but miles to go overcoming challenges. We, as Americans and as Indian Americans, should continue to play a constructive role in advancing the ties between our nations.
We did that in the run-up to the nuclear deal. There will be many more such opportunities in the future, and we should be ready for them.
In playing our role, we should remember: We are the ambassadors of the United States in India; and we are the ambassadors of India in the United States. Therefore, we should play that role carefully and responsibly.
Once again, thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts this evening. It’s indeed an honor to be here.
Thank you and God bless you!