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Biden as Obama's VP: Why India can breathe easy

Aziz Haniffa in Denver, Colorado | August 28, 2008

"I am Indian, I am Indian," Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's [Images] running mate Senator Joe Biden exclaimed jokingly. His light-hearted comment was to address India's apprehension over the landmark legislation to provide a massive $7.5 billion economic aid package to Pakistan over five years, unveiled by Biden and his colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar, 'to promote an enhanced strategic partnership with the people of Pakistan'.

When I grilled him on the chances of the India-United States civilian nuclear deal being consummated this year, given the tiny window of time frame in the Congressional calendar, Biden said,  "I am going to push like the devil, if they (India) get their end done. I am an optimist. I am not going to say it (the Congressional clock) has run out."

Joe Biden is Obama's running mate

Earlier, he had told rediff.com that the massive aid package to Pakistan would have iron-clad safeguards to prevent any of these funds being siphoned off to the military or intelligence services, or being used to sponsor terrorism that could pose a threat to India and the international community, including the US.
 
In exclusive interviews with rediff.com over the years, Biden had spoken of how the US and India in the decades to follow would be "the two closest nations in the world." He has served as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Republicans were in control and then as chairman when the Democrats wrested control of this powerful panel.

Nuclear deal is in US interest: Biden

"My dream is that in 2020 the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States," he had said, and predicted, "If that occurs, the world will be safer."
 
Thus, needless to say, there was all-round elation in the Indian-American community, the pro-India business and industry lobby, and his appointment was hailed by leading South Asia experts like former Assistant Secretary for State for South Asian Affairs in the Clinton administration and foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign Karl F Inderfurth.

Community activist Swadesh Chatterjee has been acquainted with Biden since the earlier part of this decade. He had invited Biden to be the keynote speaker at the major event hosted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry at St Regis Hotel in downtown Washington, DC, and then introduced him to the Indian American community by arranging for fund-raisers, to be hosted on Biden's behalf, by leading DC high-tech entrepreneurs like multi-millionaires Hemant Kanakia and Ken Bajaj.

An interview with Senator Jospeh Biden

"I am so delighted because there cannot be a better person than him in terms of foreign policy experience and credentials for the betterment of US-India relations," he said.
 
"And Biden is the kind of guy, whatever he speaks it comes from the heart. He does not mince words and he says what he believes in. So, I believe this is a dream ticket," he said.
 
Chatterjee, who has become a close friend of Biden's over the years and served on the Finance Committee of Biden for President, said, "I was the only Indian American who was with him from  the very beginning and we have maintained our friendship ever since."
 
"So, I am now going to put every effort of mine to get this dream ticket elected to the White House," he said.
 
Chatterjee had formed the US-India Friendship Council -- a coalition of  the Indian-American community's political, and specialty organisations -- solely to push the US-India nuclear deal through Congress.

'No N-deal if there's arms race'

He acknowledged that Biden's selection by Obama should now effectively take care of any doubts not only about Obama's foreign and security policy inexperience as his critics contend, but also any reservations that Indian Americans may still have considering that Obama has introduced a 'killer amendment' during the deliberations on the nuclear agreement in the Foreign Relations Committee -- of which he is a member -- although he ultimately voted for the deal on the floor of the Senate.
 
Obama has clarified in recent months that he supports the deal in its present form and will not seek any modifications when the 123 agreement reverts to US Congress -- if and when the Nuclear Suppliers Group endorses it.
 
"The whole idea of picking Biden, the way I see it -- a guy with so much foreign policy expertise and gravitas -- should now take care of the critics who argue that Obama doesn't have any foreign policy experience, with everything that's happening in Georgia and around the world. Nobody can question this ticket and this team now," he asserted.

Closing N-deal very difficult now: Biden

Chatterjee reiterated, "So, for US-India relations and for Obama's perceived weakness in foreign policy and to complement that weakness perception, there cannot be a better person than Biden."
 
He acknowledged the irony of the situation as Biden, 'the man who can make it happen' when the nuclear deal does revert to the Congress, is going to be busy on the campaign trail and may not be there to push it through in the Senate.
 
The other protagonist on behalf of the deal in the House, Congressman Tom Lantos, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, died several months ago, and the gavel of the panel passed on to Congressman Howard Berman.

N-deal: Berman's salvo was not expected this early

Berman is an avowed critic of the deal and author of several 'killer amendments' when the agreement was being debated in the House.
 
"I agree, it is an irony of course and he is certainly going to be very busy so we'll have to work very hard with his staff and other supporters of the deal to make it go through the Congress when it comes back from the NSG," Chatterjee said.

"We have to make sure that Biden makes clear to them that they have to deliver on it even if he doesn't have the time to work on pushing it through. But, I am concerned," he admitted.

In 2020, India-US will be two closest nations: Biden

Chatterjee, who is also a guest at the Democratic National Convention, said, "I am hoping to see him here because there are a lot of events with him and I hope to talk to him. We have to see how we can change our strategy and make it work."
 
Other analysts felt that with Biden on the team, even if the deal spills over to an Obama administration, India can rest easy that the agreement would be reintroduced and treated as a foreign policy priority.
 
Inderfurth, currently a professor of international relations at George Washington University, said, "I've been a longtime fan of Joe Biden. I worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was a member and I was a deputy staff director. I have followed him for a very long time and he's exactly what I think Obama needed in terms of completing his ticket with a clear expert and experienced practitioner in foreign affairs -- that's where I believe this is going to be a big help."

Obama is not ready for presidency, Biden had said

"So, it was a great choice, and he brings other things to the table as well. He's not only the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee but he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee before that. He knows the Senate well, he knows the Congressional bureaucracy, the foreign policy establishment and even though he's never been a major rival for the presidential nomination, he has always acquitted himself well."
 
Inderfurth added, "He is an excellent campaigner and will be a tremendous asset to Obama."
 
Acknowledging the indispensable role Biden played in pushing the enabling legislation for the nuclear deal, Inderfurth said, "In terms of India, in terms of South Asia, you cannot find a more knowledgeable person than Joe Biden. And indeed, right now, the Biden-Lugar legislation on Pakistan is the most important piece of legislation in terms of foreign policy on the Hill. It's trying to reorient our foreign policy toward that country to make it more comprehensive -- not just one that was individual-based and transactional as it was before."

"It is also clear that Joe Biden understands the importance of bipartisanship. He and Richard Lugar have worked together when Democrats have been in the minority and Republicans in the majority when Lugar was chairman and vice-versa. The two of them have worked together across the aisle and I think that is something else that Obama wants to pursue as well."

Inderfurth said, "So, it was important that not only did Obama reach out to bring in somebody with a great record and experience in foreign affairs, but also one that has been bipartisan in his approach."
 
Inderfurth also said India and the Indian-American community shouldn't be concerned about Biden's absence when the agreement reverts to the Congress. "He hasn't left the Senate. He's still chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He will know when he needs to be back in the Senate to attend to business," he pointed out.

"And, I have no doubt at all that he will attend to that business. He will come back and he will do what he has to at that time. He is not going to be an absentee chairman of the Committee since he has given his commitment to the deal," he said.

Image: Senator Joe Biden addressing the Democratic Convention at Denver

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

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