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November 30, 2005

Former United States Senator from North Carolina and erstwhile Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards � who is being tipped as a potential Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential elections -- has declared that fighting poverty is the "cause of his life".

He is now director of the Centre on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In conversation with Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa, Edwards outlines issues important to the partnership between America and India. "...Like our changing economies, the dramatic progress that India is making, security issues like the fight against terrorism -- and I know how important that is to the people of India -- and of course the issue of poverty, which is something that I've been working on very extensively here in the United States." Excerpts:

Note: This interview was conducted before Edwards' three-day visit to India November 15 to November 18.

The Bush administration believes relations with India have never been better. Do you agree?

Yes, I do. First of all, we are natural allies, you know -- these two large democracies with strong economies. So I believe it's a very natural thing for us to be aligned in interests.

The new US-India civilian nuclear agreement has come in for a lot of criticism in Congress by both parties, not because they oppose a US-India strategic partnership but because of concerns over proliferation. The emerging concern appears to be that since India is not a member of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], giving India an exemption in the realm of transfer of civilian nuclear technology could compromise Washington's professed nonproliferation commitment. Where do you stand on this issue?

I am generally supportive, but -- and it's an important 'but' -- it's very critical, particularly given the show of good faith, it's very critical that both sides meet their responsibilities and obligations.

With respect to India, of course, that means assuring that this technology is only used for civilian purposes; that it is not used for create new nuclear weaponry and that it doesn't get into the hands of others outside of India, who could use it to harm either America or India or any other country.

So, I believe it's an enormous responsibility on both countries, under this partnership. But in general, I think it accomplishes� I think it is consistent with what I said earlier -- the idea that we should have a strong partnership, we're natural allies, we've become closer over the course of recent years, and I think this is a natural extension of that.

A controversy that has somehow gotten linked with the nuclear deal is India's relationship with Iran. While India voted with the US and the European Union on September 24 to censure Iran for not complying with its obligations under the NPT, India's vote in end November at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] on whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council or not is going to be closely watched by Congress. The feeling seems to be that the way India votes will determine whether Congress supports the nuclear deal or not. Do you believe the two issues should thus be linked?

First of all, the fact that India voted with us recently is a show of good faith. It shows India's recognition of the importance of dealing with the nuclear threat that Iran could pose, and the next vote falls in the same category.

Complete Coverage: The Iran vote and after

And so I think for our ongoing relationship with India, including the civilian nuclear partnership, it is important that India continues to show that they recognise the potential danger of Iran, and particularly an Iran with nuclear weapons. So I believe America will be looking to India for support.

The US has not, for all talk of partnerships, supported India's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, despite apparent support from Congress. For instance, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] addressed a joint session of both Houses during his visit to Washington in July, the most resounding applause was for the five lines in which he made his case for India's candidacy. Do you consider this an aberration on the part of the US?

What we have to realise is this is an ongoing relationship, and it's a relationship that is maturing over time. It's a relationship that I believe -- particularly because of the efforts of President Clinton and others -- has become stronger over time, and I think it is important for us to realise that these kinds of relationships do take time to strengthen and develop. It's the natural way these things occur, and so for all other issues, not just the one you asked about, we need to continue to work on this relationship, on our natural partnership, and understand that nothing happens overnight.

Complete Coverage: PM's US visit in July

That said, how would you rate India's case, that it has the credentials to warrant a seat on the Security Council, as a permanent member with veto power?

I'd rather stay with what I just said, because I think this is the proper way to think about this question. At least from my perspective, this is a growing, strengthening relationship and a very important relationship for America. We're natural allies; India is a huge democracy that values its plurality, just as we value our democracy here in this country. There is a huge potential in the relationship, but it's like any relationship -- we have to continue to work on it and allow it to mature.

During the 2004 presidential election campaign, outsourcing was a big issue for the Kerry/Edwards ticket. Both you and Senator John Kerry were quite outspoken on the subject; Senator Kerry in fact termed the heads of corporations who outsource work as so many Benedict Arnolds. So much so, that it seemed to trigger a backlash among Indian-American businessmen and among a sizeable section of the community. There was within the community the feeling that India was being made the whipping boy; that much of this was election-oriented political rhetoric. What are your feelings on outsourcing today, and have they changed? On another level, the rhetoric appears to be dying down � do you think the controversy has dissipated?

First, what India and the people of India are doing is competing -- and some of the work that they have done in the area of technology and innovation is very impressive. All of us recognise that hard work and ingenuity, particularly the kind of hard work and ingenuity we are seeing in this area by India, will make India stronger and more competitive and will help lift up and provide good jobs fore people who work in India.

But it's also important in this context for the people of India, and the government of India, to understand our perspective on this too. Our concern is equally with what outsourcing does for American workers, for American jobs; what it does for the kinds of jobs that have traditionally supported our middle class in this country.

I've spoken at length about the need for America to invest much more strongly in research and development, in education, in areas of science, math and technology, in graduate education in those areas, for the reason that for our workforce to be competitive globally -- and this goes to the heart of the issue that you are asking about. And for the new jobs that are being created in America, it's going to be critical for Americans to be well-educated. Not just well-educated generally, but well-educated in areas where we are seeing real growth in India -- things like math and science and technology.

And I might add, if I'm not mistaken, I think that for students coming from outside the United States to our universities, there are more Indian students at our universities than from any other country, two years ago India replaced China as the number one country in terms of students pursuing higher studies in American universities and colleges. That's a very good thing for us, to be able to exchange education and ideas with some very bright and talented young people.

Some Indian Americans, like Dinesh Shastry and Swadesh Chatterjee, were quite involved in your 2004 election campaign. Leading from that, how integral do you think the Indian-American community is today to the psyche and the political and social fabric of the US? Also, do you get the sense that the Indian-American community is sufficiently involved politically and socially, to the extent that they are becoming empowered in the mainstream?

First of all, Indian Americans were very active in my own campaign and they are great friends and advisors to me. I value their ideas, not just about America's relationship with India but on everything, on all the issues that affect the American people.

What I want to do is to ensure that they stay involved in the political structure in this country. I want the Indian-American community to recognise and understand that we value our relationship with India for all the reasons I've talked about earlier.

To answer your question, I think the bottom line is we need the Indian-American community because it's good for America, and we need to keep the kind of Indian Americans who for example have been helping me in politics, we need to keep them involved in the political process � not just because it is important to them, and to the community, but because it is important to America.

The big question � have you given serious thought to a presidential run in 2008?

Right now, I am spending most of my time in this fight against poverty. We also want to make sure that my wife, Elizabeth, is completely well [immediately after the presidential campaign last year, Mrs Edwards publicly announced she had been diagnosed with breast cancer]. Yes, she is doing very well just now, thank you. But I have these things on my plate, and a presidential run is not something I have given serious thought to at the present time; it is obviously something I will have to think about at some point down the line.

Photograph: Getty Images

Also see
Column: Do we really need the nuclear deal with the US?
'It is the best nuclear deal India could have got'



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