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'We find some of the hesitations in India frustrating'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
September 12, 2012 19:00 IST
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Asia Society-organised a Q-and-A session between Nancy Jo Powell, America's first woman ambassador to India, and society president Vishakha Desai. Vaihayasi Pande-Daniel, who attended the interaction in Mumbai, presents an excerpt from the hour-long interaction

Nancy Jo Powell, America's first woman ambassador to India, addressed a gathering of businessmen and bankers in Mumbai on Monday, at an Asia Society-organised Q-and-A session between her and society president Vishakha Desai.

The American ambassador -- who hails from the small town of Cedar Falls in the Midwest, and has been working off and on in South Asia since 1980 – deftly negotiated questions relating to India-Pakistan and US-Pakistan relations, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the status of the limping/stagnant Indo-US civil nuclear deal, and bilateral relations, with cautious, bland but essentially strongly positive answers.

The 65-year old diplomat, an old India hand, who speaks with quiet simple humour, feels that as the first woman ambassador, during her tenure in Delhi (which began in April) she would like to leave a mark on issues over and above the most crucial ones, like education and child care. Powell, a career diplomat, hopes to spend less time in Delhi and more time on the road understanding how the various Indian states work.

She is working with the Indian government on a recent global call given to make sure that every child the world over reaches the age of five (since one of every five children is Indian). India's direct investment in the US is higher than China's and Powell would like to continue to grow that "reciprocal investment" that began with the Silicon Valley tie-ups -- a recent milestone was the setting up of an Indian-funded factory in Kentucky to make film for the lining of Cadbury bags and other kinds of food products.

Vaihayasi Pande-Daniel, who attended the interaction, presents an excerpt from the hour-long interaction:

Vishakha Desai: You are a true South Asia-wallah. You have been in every part of the region, except Sri Lanka. And I gather you do go there too, for the beaches. And you started very early. Tell us a little about the fact that you have known this region so well and now that you are going back as an ambassador -- what was it like then that you couldn't have possibly imagined it would be like today?

Nancy Jo Powell: Namaste, Salam aleikum.

My career with South Asia actually started in a very, very unusual way.

I was teaching school in a very small -- by Indian standards, a village of 900 people -- and when summer came I needed to get out. So I would look for programmes that would take me out of my small village. And one of these was sponsored by the US government through the PL480 money (the funding route through which US grain is used for aid abroad).

My programme happened to go to Pakistan. I was supposed to be learning how to be a better teacher about the Third World and I think I did that but I also learnt about the foreign service and I learned a great deal about South Asia that summer.

It happened to be 1975, which was an interesting time to be in the subcontinent for those of you who remember 1975. It peaked my interest. I went back and took the foreign service exam and in true American foreign service fashion, despite my great interest in South Asia, they sent me to Canada. I joined to American foreign service and went all the way to Canada.

My next tour brought me to Nepal in 1980. It was an extraordinary good tour. I was in charge of taking care of American citizens in Nepal. I called them the good, the bad, the ugly and the crazy, the dumb and the dead. This was at a time when Nepal had lots and lot of hippies coming and it didn't ruin my love of South Asia.

Air-India had a lovely programme that brought you to India with a $ 400 ticket and you could go any place in India as long as you didn't come back to some place you had already been until the very end. So I had a wonderful introduction to India. Including going to Srinagar, Agra, to Mumbai, and it whetted my appetite for additional assignments in this part of the world.

I actually finally got to India in 1992 when I went to Kolkata as the consul general and then came up in 1993 to Delhi for two years. But I have stayed in the region for two tours in Pakistan, two in Nepal and one in Bangladesh.

I think coming back to India – first of all I did come back, frequently from the neigbourhood, so it wasn't a total shock. I think if I had left in 1995 and come in 2005, it would have been an overwhelming shock to see the very, very enormous changes that have taken place.

When I came in 1980 on route to Nepal, I would come down every once in a while and I would stay usually at the Imperial (in Delhi), which was $20 a night then. They would very kindly agree to book a phone call to my parents. But I had to book it the day before and they would give me a six-hour window that I had to be in the hotel to take the call.

Now my cell phone rings. Everybody is using their thumbs. And the speed of communication, the interconnectivity through the television -- Star TV, Zee TV --  I think it is enormous to think about the consequences of what that is.

I had a chance today to go down with some young people who were doing photography in a slum neighbourhood -- I went with my camera but I have to admit I didn't get very many pictures, there were too many other things going on -- but the number of people with the telephone as you looked around, quite outstanding.

I was in old Delhi yesterday morning -- the same thing -- and I think that is going to continue, the revolution in India.

Vishakha Desai: In terms of pace of change and pace of connectivity, how does it impact your work? And the kind of work one thinks about in international relations and diplomacy, how does it change how you make policy, for example?

Nancy Jo Powell: Number one if I make a mistake tonight, it will be out in about 30 seconds! So news, whether it is good or bad, goes very, very quickly.

I think in terms of the activities, the embassy, the consulate in Mumbai is engaged in, it make our job in many ways much easier. We can reach large numbers of people particularly using the social media and large numbers of young people who are on Facebook, who are tweeting and follow these things very, very carefully.

I think it gives an immediacy to something -- perhaps when I was here before or when I first arrived in 1980, wouldn't have made the front page of the Washington Post. It wouldn't have made the CNN headlines in America. And probably the ambassador and a few people in the embassy would have said let's let this go for two or three days and see how it develops and then we will make a recommendation to Washington.

Those days are gone. It goes very, very quickly. It also, as we have seen over the past few weeks, can spread good information, accurate information, helpful information, but it also can spread misinformation and very dangerous information at the same rate.

So working to make sure that accurate information gets out there and gets back to Washington, so that we are making good decisions based on facts, not just what happened to get picked up by a reporter and get repeated very quickly through the social media.

Vishakha Desai: President Obama has talked about this as a defining partnership (between India and the US). I see in policy circles in America there is some frustration around this relationship. Is that frustration warranted or is it a symbol of maturity that not everything is completely settled and some issues are still on the table. How might you look at that?

Nancy Jo Powell: I look at them in a number of different ways. Let me try to weave them into some kind of beautiful Indian tapestry.

I think one of the things that I benefit from is having been here in the '90s and knowing as I look out, not only has India changed but our relationship has changed with India that things that in 1995 I could not even imagine are now routine.

The degree to which our intelligence agencies share threat information, the degree to which our militaries exchange officers at the training institutions, that they do exercises. The degree to which our energy officials sit down and talk about very, very complicated chemical formulas and how India might be able to do this with US gas or vice versa -- the variety, the depth and the complexity of it are simply unimaginable -- in only 18 years, 17 years.

The other thing to keep in mind is: Americans are not terribly patient people. We want to go. We want to go full blast, full board. We have decided on a road – put the pedal to the metal and go.

So we find some of the hesitations frustrating sometimes. I think there is also not an appreciation for always just how complex some of the things we are hoping India will do are for Indians, Indian politicians, Indian business people. So I think part of that is getting a little bit better, realism about the difficulty of some of the decisions going forward, they are complex, controversial in many respects.

I think the other frustrations for Americans in terms of a general category is most Americans, particularly in business, particularly looking at the strategic side, looking at India's role in the world, see an enormous potential, particularly for our bilateral relationship. And while I can make a huge argument – and I do it all the time and I do it with a feeling of passion about it that I am accurate – we have made huge strides but there is this world out there that could include much more both in terms of numbers and amounts and in terms of additional fields where we might cooperate. And I think that is part of the frustration. The global economy doesn't help. And Americans are feeling like they would like to see places where there is potential for growth, grow a little faster.

Vishakaha Desai: I wonder, given the new developments between India and Pakistan right now, how does the US play a role in furthering some of these movements. Or does it?

Nancy Jo Powell: There is a piece of me that says facetiously that it is probably better that I am just quiet about this. But I do want to recognise, as our spokesman has done in Washington, that the United States is very pleased with the new developments including the relaxation of the visa regime, which has been negotiated but not been signed.

I personally think, having lived on both sides of the border, I am constantly amazed among my friends on both sides of the border, the ties that remain, whether they are business ties which are more nascent, but the personal ties. The incredibly warm hospitality that greets whoever is the visitor. I happened to be in Pakistan at the time, I think it was the cricket world cup. Indian friends told me that they never paid for a taxi. They were taken by people for chai. The dinner bill was ignored. And they could not imagine that.

I just saw a Pakistani delegation of parliamentarians with Mani Shankar Aiyar two weeks ago – same story. I can't believe what is happening to me on the streets of New Delhi. So I think that ability to move back and forth with much, much greater ease.

The United States has a vision. It has gone under various different names. The new silk road. The traditional routes of a variety of things depending on people's sensitivities but the idea. is to look at regional integration particularly of the economies, India, with not only your size, your location but the importance of the business community in India, is clearly essential to this and I think the ability to be able to link to Pakistan, and I offer my experiences in Nepal and Bangladesh, they have benefitted from India's growth. Pakistan probably less, because there is so much less trade.

Vishkaha Desai: It is election season in America. Candidate Mitt Romney has actually not said much about India. And I know you are a career diplomat, so you can't say anything, but I will try any way! You obviously were at the Senate, you know the congressional situation, you know the caucus people, what is your prognosis of the US-India relationship if Governor Romney actually wins the election?

Nancy Jo Powell: I am a career diplomat. (Laughs).

Let me just make one observation along those lines. I have been struck, and I think I agree with commentary that appeared in the last couple of weeks in several places in India suggesting that in either case the relationship between the United States and India has arrived at a place that both candidates have very, very little to difference between them. The platforms have different language but it says pretty much the same. I have been amazed at the attention that has been paid to public platforms in India because I don't think anybody paid any attention to them in the United States. I think they do reflect a commonality of approach to India.

The Senate hearing that I did for part of my confirmation to come to India was bipartisan, both Senator (Richard) Luger and Senator (John) Kerry were there as the two senior representatives of their party. I think that said volumes about the India relationship and about the two parties and I think I better stop.

Guest: What were the two things that your predecessors have done, that you think that you will do differently

I am tempted to say that I am going to get out of the embassy more than they did.

Let me answer it in a way that reflects both on what I just said but also on a changing India.

I think there is a need for all of us in the American mission to be out and about in India. The role of the states, whether it is in your politics, but particularly as we deal with the economics, as we deal with particularly education issues. A great deal is going on in your states. I have been making an effort when I was in Lucknow and Varanasi over the summer.

I am going to Kochi, where we don't have diplomatic representation but I will be meeting with the Kerala chief minister and then with the UP chief minister so I think the times demand a different approach.

Certainly, Ambassador Wisner began that and I think I can build on that. He was doing that particularly with the IT industry in Bangalore and Hyderabad even during my time but it something we continue to work on.

I think the other thing I would hope is that by the end of my time that we would have tied up some of these agreements, which frankly are complicated and perhaps could have been spelled out a little more in better detail in reaching the agreements and just making sure that as we go forward, we are a little more transparent with each other as to what the liability law is going to look like or what the administrative arrangements are going to require. There is plenty of room on both sides. We have reached a place now where we can be a little more clearer with each other with what the requirements are for the next step.

You are the first female ambassador to India. Often people say it is all gender neutral. I happen to believe that it is not. I think that Senator Clinton being a female secretary of state has made a huge difference in terms of the kind of issues that she has tackled. Tell us a bit about – I know you are passionate about this – tell us your vision of what you want to do that actually does relate to our gender?

I (had) a real awakening moment as the director general of the foreign service from people who pointed out, depending on if you joined in the mid-Clinton administration you would have worked for three women secretaries of state and for the first one of colour. There are people in the foreign service who now are at the mid-level, who have never worked for a white male as a secretary of state and I think that is pretty neat!

I am intent on learning all I can about the defence industry, despite the fact that it is very difficult for me. But I think women have arrived at a point, Secretary Clinton has certainly proven this, Secretary Rice, Secretary Albright engaged on any subject in the diplomatic field and I feel that particularly in India, I have been given an opportunity because of the breadth of our dialogue, the depth of it, we are able to do that, whether it is our defence relationship, whether it is the child survival initiative. My own personal passion is education. I am desperate to find some way to help teacher education here because I grew up in a tradition of that and I think it is very, very important but that is a personal passion and I have to find a way to find an outlet for it.

I think I was very surprised to really sort of realise that I was the first American woman to be the ambassador here. At this point in our history we shouldn't have any more firsts. There is still one big glass ceiling -- I know about that glass ceiling. But particularly in the diplomatic corps, those first American female ambassadors will be few and far between. Are you a bit despondent about India's present policy paralysis?

Nancy Jo Powell: I am a career diplomat… (Laughs)

We are hoping that particularly as I mentioned before on the economic policy both the analysis of what is needed in India, but also what it would take to encourage greater American investment, greater involvement in trade, we are hoping some of those things, that have been on the table for a while, will move and will move soon.

Image: Vishakha Desai (left) with Nancy Jo Powell at the interaction between them | Credit: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in Mumbai