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Indian American Biswal takes charge as Obama's point person in S Asia

Last updated on: November 22, 2013 18:40 IST

Indian American Biswal takes charge as Obama's point person in S Asia

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC

United States Secretary of State John K Kerry on Thursday afternoon formally swore in Nisha Desai Biswal as the new Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, saying, “This is by far one of the best parts of this job, is when you get to recognise extraordinary talent and you see families and friends, colleagues, people come together to celebrate extraordinary talent and service to our country”.

The ceremony in the East Auditorium of the George Marshall Center in the State Department, was packed to capacity with over 350 guests, including Biswal’s family, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, India’s Charges D’Affaires at the embassy in Washington, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, several ambassadors to the US representing South and Central Asian countries, erstwhile and current US ambassadors and scores of Congressional staffers and policy wonks and South Asia experts from DC think tanks.

Biswal, who succeeds Ambassador Robert Blake, now creates history by becoming the first Indian and South Asian American to hold this portfolio.

Kerry, who said, “I’m thrilled to be here” quipped to much laughter that “when I was thinking about my remarks today, somebody asked me if I had read Nisha’s most recent op-ed. And I said I have enough trouble keeping up with her Twitter account”.

“And from some of the timestamps on her tweets, I want you to know, it’s obvious she’s already operating on South Central Asian time because they’re all hours of the night and day,” he added, to even more laughter.

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Image: Nisha Desai Biswal sworn-in by US Secretary of State John Kerry as the new Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia.
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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But then he got serious and laid out the facts about Biswal’s superb track record in public service from senior Congressional staffer to administration official, a couple of stints with NGOs and then back on Capitol Hill and back in the administration as Assistant Administrator for Asia in the US Agency for International Development -- and one of the most trusted aides and confidantes of USAID Administrator Dr Rajiv Shah, before President Barack Obama nominated her as the point person for South and Central Asian Affairs -- which was exclusively reported by Rediff.com, months before the formal announcement by the White House.

Kerry said, “I will not be the last person to mention the incredible energy of this woman and her focus and her enthusiasm for what she does,” and declared, “Think about the message that we’re sending today, which I am excited about --the story of a woman who left a small town in India at age six to come to America and now becomes one of the most important leaders in the Department of State”.

“It’s a great story -- it’s the American story, and it’s proof of the power of the American journey,” he said. “It helps capture how in every generation, immigrants revitalise America and renew us and help to remind us of our common roots and then go on to write the next chapter of American history.”

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Image: Nisha Biswal sworn-in by US Secretary of State John Kerry as the new Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia.
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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Kerry reminisced, “The first time that I met Nisha, she was volunteering on my presidential campaign in 2004. And part of her role was traveling door-to-door in American towns like York and Gettysburg and Lancaster. And I’ve heard her speak about sitting across the tables from NASCAR dads and soccer moms discussing subjects like the role of faith in American politics and what makes America exceptional and so forth.”

The secretary noted, “It’s sort of like a Norman Rockwell painting for the 21st century, folks. It provides a powerful sense of what it is that makes America different and sets us apart”.

“It also gives you a sense in any case if anyone remembers why we won Pennsylvania that year. Thank you, Nisha,” he added, to laughter and applause.

 Kerry said, “Nisha’s colleagues say that she is somebody who speaks softly and carries a big stick. The truth is she doesn’t need to speak too loudly about so many of America’s strengths because whether it’s women’s rights or human rights or a belief in the power of education and equal opportunity”.

“Nisha has lived every single one of those lessons. And she leads every single day with those lessons in mind. She takes charge of our efforts now in one of the most complex, dynamic regions of the world”. 

Kerry said, “And as she wrote recently, over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. That’s her challenge, our challenge. And there are many in the region -- frankly, some in this building -- who look at this sort of transformation potential with trepidation”.

He acknowledged, “The risks of the moment, obviously, are real, and none of us should be blind to them. But I know that Nisha confronts these challenges in the same way that she’s met every other challenge in her career. She knows that the greatest risk actually comes from not seizing the opportunity.”

Kerry pointed out how ‘this week in Bangladesh, Nisha showed how she never misses a chance to speak up or stand up for America’s values. She spoke forcefully about the need for leaders to rise above partisan differences and find a peaceful way towards the ballot box.’

He reiterated that ‘all of us know that the countries she’s going to represent are complicated and have been going through enormous challenges. America’s prosperity rests more than ever in the strength of our links to this region.’

Kerry spokes of how “Nisha’s experience and the success that so many Indian Americans bring to the American table shows to everybody in the world the deep ties that we have between the United States and India,” and he predicted, “I know that we’re going to unlock the enormous potential of stronger economic, security, and cultural ties between our countries.”

“Two billion people -- that’s what she’s going to be engaged with,’ he said, and pointed out, ‘They create $2 trillion in economic output every single year.”

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Image: John Kerry speaks during Nisha Desai Biswal's swearing-in ceremony at Washington, DC
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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And then to sustained applause Kerry said, “We are invested in that region’s prosperity for the long haul and in naming Nisha Biswal as the Assistant Secretary today, we show the strength of that commitment”.

Then with Biswal’s husband Subrat Biswal holding a copy of the US Constitution on which Biswal placed her left hand, Kerry administered the oath of office and then hugged the first Indian American Assistant Secretary of State for the subcontinent.

McDonough, then took to the podium to tell the audience that when he got a note from Biswal inviting him to attend her swearing in, “I was eager to come notwithstanding the schedule Secretary Kerry referenced,” because “ wanted to underscore that as the President puts together his team for the second term, he has in his mind somebody like Nisha -- a young mom, talented career professional, somebody who comes from an amazing story as the Secretary just told, and who represents in so many ways the ideals of the America that he grew up in, and that he feels so strongly about everyday”.

Both he and Kerry had rushed from a meeting with the Chinese Vice Premier and a Chinese delegation that was visiting DC for high level bilateral discussions.

McDonough said, “And, so, as I contemplated the opportunity to come over, I was eager to be here because this is the kind of person the President wants to the build this government around”.

McDonough declared that Biswal “is and unyielding defender of this country’s ideals and unmatched and unrivalled patriot for everything that we want to advance. And, she is a tireless advocate for our interests in this region that is so vital to us and to our long-term interests”.

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Image: The oath of Nisha Desai Biswal
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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After she was showered with a surfeit of kudos by Secretary Kerry and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, when she came up to the podium, Nisha Desai Biswal, was clearly emotional.

As she began to speak, her voice began to crack. But she quickly composed herself and got into her groove and delivered perhaps one of the most comprehensive and substantive expositions of why the region she would now formulate policy for, was vital for US interests -- a tour de force that clearly manifested the quintessential professional in her and her deep commitment of more than two decades to what has been thus far an undeniably impeccable public service career that was now on the tarmac, once again, poised to take off to even greater heights.

But if the comprehensiveness of her speech showed the intense preparation and homework she puts into everything she does, that has been hallmark of her Type A personality, not to mention her professional track record, it were the last few lines that clearly the were the most moving.

Biswal said, “From throughout my childhood and throughout my life, I have sought the opportunity to serve my country, the United States of America, in the way that my grandparents, who were freedom fighters in India, served their country and to be part of something that is greater than myself”.

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Image: Biswal speaks during her swearing-in ceremony at Washington, DC
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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“And that is why I am so honoured by the responsibility that has just been invested in me,’ she said. ‘As the Secretary noted, and as Denis noted, it is indeed a high honour to represent the United States and to lead our engagement with such a vital region that is shaping global politics and economics for the 21st century”.

Biswal pledged, “As Assistant Secretary of South and Central Asia, I will devote every ounce of my energy towards making sure that we, the United States, the Department of State, and the Bureau for South and Central Asia do everything possible to bridge from the Asia we see today to the Asia that we know is possible tomorrow”.

“And finally, I want to introduce my family, who has stood by me, encouraged me, put up with long nights, late nights, long absences. First, my husband Subrat, my soul mate, my conscience, my toughest critic, and my strongest supporter. And my daughters, our daughters Safya and Kaya, who remind me every single day why we do what we do, what the stakes are, and why we must strive to do better”.

Biswal also introduced her parents, Kanu and Lata Desai, and in-laws, Nilambar and Anu Biswal, and my brother Pinank Desai who’s here”.

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Image: Kerry greets Nisha Desai Biswal's family members during the ceremony on Thursday
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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She said, “My parents and my in-laws lived the classic immigrant experience as they left India in search of opportunity. And in so doing, they fulfilled their dreams and found that their dreams are the American dream, and their experience is the American experience”.

At the outset, she paid tribute to Kerry and her close friend McDonough, with whom she had worked on Capitol Hill more than a decade ago and thanked the audience that packed to capacity the East Auditorium of the George Marshall Center of the State Department ‘to share in one of the most momentous occasions in my life.’

Biswal said, it was a high honour for to work “under a Secretary who is such an exceptional leader. His vision, his drive, and his commitment to excellence are both inspiring and, I have to admit, just a little bit intimidating”.

She said, “His compassion, his commitment, his values, and his vision are an honour and a privilege for me to be able to work under and to represent. I had that opportunity in 2004 to be able to talk about that vision, and I got to know a little bit what his passion is, and it’s such a tremendous honour to be able to be part of his team”.

Biswal also recalled that she had had “an opportunity in 2008 to campaign on behalf of President Obama, and to understand his vision of the world, his life story, his experience, and to be able to connect with the way that he has connected with our country and really with the world”.

“And it’s such an honour for me that Secretary Kerry and President Obama have placed in me their faith and their trust to take on this very important job,” she said.

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Image: Nisha Desai Biswal gestures during her swearing-in ceremony
Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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Biswal also profused thanks McDonough, declaring that “I am so humbled by your presence here today, and by the trust and confidence that you have placed in me and demonstrated over the years, often envisioning for me things that were bigger than what I was envisioning for myself”.

Biswal also took time to thank all of her former bosses on Capitol Hill, particularly those she had served under when she was a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, particularly then Congressman David Obey, one of the most powerful and influential legislators, who had been on tap to attend the ceremony, but had to cry off at the last minute as his wife had taken ill.

Biswal also thanked her most recent boss, Dr Rajiv Shah, administrator, US Agency for International Development and the highest ranking Indian American in the administration, saying, “For the past few years, I have had the privilege of working for the President at USAID, with the very dynamic leadership of Raj Shah and with an extraordinary team of professionals as we sought to reenergise and revitalise USAID into the world’s premier aid agency”.

And then it was time to expound on her new portfolio and the importance of the region, which she described as “a region of extraordinary geographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity -- a region of great natural beauty and vibrant societies, and as the Secretary noted, it is a region in the midst of great transition”.

She argued that while ‘most people in the room will immediately think about the very looming transition in Afghanistan, with its elections in 2014 and with the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces, and indeed that is a critical transition… it is not the only one”.

Biswal noted, “In fact, there are political transitions in five of the countries of South and Central Asia between this fall and next spring, and many are apprehensive about the elections that lie ahead. But there’s also great opportunity in the region as we seek to support an integrated and interconnected landscape of trade and economic opportunity”.

“The rebalance to Asia is fundamentally about the recognition that this continent, including South and Central Asia will play a growing role in global politics, security, and economics in the 21st century, and that the prosperity and security of the United States is vitally linked to the prosperity and security of Asia,” she said.

Biswal spoke of how, “With the nascent political transition in Myanmar, there is a historic opportunity to connect the countries of South Asia with the countries of Southeast Asia in an integrated economic landscape. And we see India, already an economic and global power, making key investments in infrastructure to capacitate that connectivity with the economies of ASEAN”.

 


Photographs: Photograph Courtesy: US Dept of State

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