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'With the 2+2, there will be a big engagement with the US'

By Alokananda Chakraborty
September 04, 2018 10:05 IST
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'I am hopeful that you will see more focused attention on this relationship,' former US assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal tells Alokananda Chakraborty.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

In the rag-rolled and dimly-lit interior of Spicy Duck, the Chinese restaurant at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, Nisha Desai Biswal looks absolutely wrong.

Diminutive for one thing, and too unpretentious in an off-white salwar-kameez and a hint of pecan lipstick.

The Indian-origin diplomat, who has served as the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs in the US department of state in the Obama administration, approaches me with a wide grin and a gushing apology for being late.

"This is the first time that USIBC is hosting its annual general meeting in India rather than in Washington, DC. So you can see that I have been really, really caught up," says Biswal, who is currently the head of the US-India Business Council, a powerful advocacy group of US companies with business interests in India.


"I have been coming here once a month, sometimes more frequently since I took up this position, and this time, my primary focus is the India Ideas Summit that is scheduled for September 5 and 6 in Mumbai," she says as she arranges herself neatly on a sofa on a slightly raised platform on one side of the restaurant where we hope we will get some quiet time.

She has been in meetings since morning and is scheduled to meet the prime minister right after our lunch, she adds with her usual understated manner.

I get the point: This lunch is going to be neither long nor rambling.

The timing of our gastronomic encounter in Delhi's leafy diplomatic enclave could not have been better.

After being postponed twice, the first India-US 2+2 dialogue is scheduled to take place in New Delhi on September 6.

The meeting will involve External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and their American counterparts, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

"So what exactly is this India Ideas Summit? It is going to be the first such, right?" I ask as we scan the menu.

"What we have done this time is upended the traditional model and created a summit where we want to showcase how the US and the Indian industries are relevant for and are contributing to the needs and challenges of the two countries. So all of our panels and our speakers and our TED Talk type presentations are really going to be focused on that impact," she says.

"I am having conversations with our governments, industry and CSR partners such as Pratham about the conference to set up the issues that we can showcase at the summit. The politics and the problems are very important, but ultimately what brings the two countries together are the opportunities that we see in our partnership," she adds.

"We want this summit to be really about that."

I look around for the maitre d'. Can he help us choose from that elaborate menu? "Let's keep it simple and less spicy," Biswal suggests.

Our friendly maitre d' says he will bring us some wok-fried shimeji and scallop dumplings to start with. We could then move to a Sichuan-style sea bass with stir-fried greens, which will go perfectly with jasmine rice!

Decision made, I ask Biswal if India-US relations have lost some of their early momentum in recent months and about the potential of the upcoming talks.

"What I would say is that the fundamental issues, principles, values and objectives that bring us together are still absolutely strong," Biswal says as a waiter places two glasses of fresh lime and soda on the table with unobtrusive efficiency.

"What will ebb and flow will be the way in which that manifests and the trajectory. India was very high priority for President Obama as a relationship that he wanted to have a big impact on," she says.

"We got really ambitious in the final years of the Obama administration and particularly after Prime Minister Modi came in. The current administration has an ambitious vision for the US-India partnership and you saw that when PM Modi met President Trump in June last year."

"But I think that the US administration has been consumed with some challenges that need immediate attention. So the 2+2 got pushed back, if that is what you mean when you say the relationship has lost the early momentum."

Point taken. And I can see she is choosing her words very carefully.

Surprising, because Biswal is known to speak her mind.

When the Trump administration announced a sweeping ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, she was among the few who took a strong stance against it.

She has also been vocal on issues that concern the Indian subcontinent and took a strong stand against China after the Doklam standoff.

Last March, following reports that the Trump administration would initiate steps to toughen the H1-B visa procedure, she had said that 'demonising' the H1-B work visa issue would become a 'source of tension' between the two countries.

I guess, she doesn't want this meeting to become a "source of tension"! So what is the expectation from the 2+2 from where she stands?

"This administration has taken some time to consolidate and capacitate its teams. We are seeing Secretary Pompeo put his own mark on the state department and some of the transitions we have seen in the executive branch are starting to stabilise."

"I am hopeful that you will see more focused attention on this relationship. With the 2+2, there will be a big and bold engagement," she adds.

The sea bass and the vegetables arrive and they look impeccable. Biswal doesn't look much of a foodie but does she cook, I ask to ease things a bit, though I have a sense of what the answer would be -- that she would like to for her two daughters, Safya and Kaya, but her schedule doesn't leave her with much time to go through her paces.

A lot of her family is in India, I have read. Biswal was born in Gujarat, and her parents later migrated to the US. After earning her BA in international relations from the University of Virginia, she worked briefly in public relations, and then joined the American Red Cross in 1993.

Shifting to government service, Biswal served at USAID from 1995 to 1999 in several capacities. She returned to Capitol Hill in 2005 and in 2013, US President Barack Obama nominated her to be the next assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia affairs.

Taking a gap year at one point, she visited her maternal grandparents in Gujarat and stayed with them "learning about her roots."

"Did I tell you that my grandparents were freedom fighters and that they had served jail time?" Suddenly there is a twinkle in her eyes.

"They were very simple people and they really had this thing in them about serving their country. That is where I come from. That whole experience changed my... well..."

"World view?" I chip in.

"You can say that. That is when I decided whatever I do has to ultimately be about serving my country. What I do today is, in a way, a reflection of that idea of who I am," she says and I notice her food has stayed on the plate though it has gone round and round several times over.

If Chinese is not her scene, is she fond of Odia cuisine? Her husband Subrat is from Odisha and she paid her maiden visit to the state in 2015.

"That was a visit I had waited for for a long time because I had been coming to India for work at least six times a year and I had also visited Gujarat, but alone. 2015 was the year when my husband and I were travelling together to India for the first time," says Biswal.

"Odia is very similar to Gujarati for me. I have no difficulty understanding, but when I speak, I mix up words," says the diplomat, finally letting her guard down.

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