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'An exciting time in the US-India relationship'

By Aziz Haniffa/Rediff.com
Last updated on: December 03, 2014 11:12 IST
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Richard Verma, right, with then US secretary of State Hillary Clinton, centre.'President Obama will make a historic visit to India in January, becoming the first US head of State to attend India's Republic Day and the only sitting US president to visit India twice.'

'There's little doubt the relationship has been re-energised, with renewed enthusiasm to take our partnership to the next level.'

Nearly three months after President Barack Obama nominated Rahul 'Richard' Verma as the new US ambassador to India, the ambassador-designate appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC on Tuesday, December 2.

Verma needs to be confirmed by the Senate before he can take office in New Delhi, hopefully before Obama travels to New Delhi as the chief guest for India's Republic Day Parade.

It will be the first time an American President has been the chief guest at a Republic Day parade and the first time a member of the Indian-American community has been appointed the US ambassador to India.

Obama, Verma has said, will press for the full implementation of the US-India civilian nuclear deal when he meets with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of his confirmation hearings, Verma acknowledged the 'great disappointment in the full implementation of the agreement' which has remained in limbo for the past six years, 'mainly because of the liability issue, although there are a couple of issues to be resolved as well.'

However, he argued that 'I am encouraged by the fact that President Obama and Prime Minister Modi came together and discussed this issue in great deal in September and I have no doubt it will come up again,' when Obama visits New Delhi.

Verma noted that 'one of the important developments that came up at their meeting was the establishment of a Contact Group to try to press this issue forward and get a solution.'

'It has to come to a solution,' he told the Senators, and pointed out that 'the prime minister himself has said he wants to triple the amount of nuclear energy use in India.'

'It isn't just an American companies concern,' Verma said, 'it is also Europeans and others, including Indian companies, and so I am hopeful we can resolve this liability issue in a way that will live up to the promise of the accord that was reached years ago in this body.'

Senator Robert Menendez, who chairs this powerful Committee, asked Verma what his strategic vision was for the US relationship with India and how that strategic vision deals with India's non-alignment, which he said, 'creates a somewhat insular circumstance that concerns me.'

'How do we get them to be a larger player that they should be in strategic questions that we care about?' the Senator added.

'We have to articulate a vision you and others in this Committee have articulated,' Verma said, 'which is the US and India upholding the liberal democratic rules of engagement not only in South Asia but also in East Asia, ensuring maritime cooperation, freedom of navigation... the kinds of cooperation that we engage in where we have to think much broader than a transactional relationship... a strategic partnership that we can both have and can achieve.'

'That's the vision statement and we have to operationalise that... we have to operationalise that for our defence relationship, through our economics, energy and climate, and there are a lot of ways and the richness of this partnership is really unlimited.'

Menendez's point was well taken, Verma said, adding that 'we've also had challenges which come from India's history -- proud history -- of non-alignment and sometimes we get frustrated when they don't join us in international campaigns or international efforts more publicly.'

But, the ambassador-designate reiterated that 'I would say that the trend lines of our partnership is very strong and that we have to do it over a period of time -- we have to do the hard work that our bureaucracies are doing -- and the fact that the two leaders of both countries came together and articulated a very strong strategic vision statement for both countries really bodes well for the relationship and the time is now to build upon that.'

Menendez hoped 'We can get the prime minister to engage with us in a more robust way that we have seen so far.'

'There are a lot of great expectations,' the Senator asserted, 'I hope that this can be taken more than the niceties that have appeared,' and argued, 'there are a lot of substantive questions, one of them is the question of intellectual property rights and while the Trade Representative is largely in charge of this, the messaging that you will send as US ambassador is incredibly important.'

'It makes no sense to have trade agreements if at the end of the day,' Menendez said, 'you can't have them enforced and it makes no sense to produce some of the greatest ingenuity of the world if at the end of the day, other countries with impunity will take your ingenuity and use it without recognising the intellectual property rights that created it.'

'So, with India, we have some challenges in this regard,' he reiterated, and noted, 'We have a Special 301 report of the US Trade Representative that found that India's intellectual property protection lacking. A strong IPR regime will help India and at the end of the day attract international investment and technology that it wants for economic growth.'

Menendez called for Verma to commit to him that if he is confirmed that he would 'drive this issue with the Indian government, particularly as well with the pharmaceuticals industry as one element of the IPR industry that I am concerned with.'

Verma pledged that 'Mr Chairman, you will have my commitment to make this a top-tier issue,' and noted that 'there was some encouraging progress at the Intellectual Property Working Group that just met. You will have my commitment that I will make this the regular engagement with the Indian government to try to achieve stronger intellectual property policy and framework and also stronger enforcement.'

Menendez remained sceptical and said, 'The announcement by the Indian commerce minister to look at the new IPR policy is encouraging, but some suggest that that was a prelude to the visit so that it wouldn't be pressed and I just want to make it very clear that we are going to keep pressing this issue.'

'I am a big supporter of the relationship and it's got enormous potential,' the Senator told the ambassador-designate, 'but you've got to live up to your agreements.'

Image: Richard Verma, right, with then US secretary of State Hillary Clinton, centre.

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