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U.S. Policy from an Indian Perspective

U.S. Policy from an Indian Perspective
Appointed India's Ambassador to the U.S. just four months ago, career diplomat Meera Shankar has a lot on her plate. We discuss somewhat prickly U.S. - India relations; the Indian view of President Obama's administration and policies; the global economy and India's concern over U.S. protectionism; Indian relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan; the U.S. - India Nuclear Deal; and India's response to terrorism.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALAN RAY (Host): I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS in San Diego. One of America's strongest traditional allies in Asia for the past 60 years has been India. Now that relationship may be even more important as India's traditional rival, Pakistan, tries to deal with terrorists and the Taliban, as India now does, too.

Pakistan and India repeatedly have been near war-footing over the decades, both are nuclear powers. So the U.S. has found itself in a bit of a diplomatic bind from time to time, trying not favor either friend, nor to alienate either friend. Now that India and Pakistan appear to face a similar and common problem, is it possible they can get closer? And possibly even work closer with the United States against terrorism? We're joined on These Days by India's ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar. Good morning.

MEERA SHANKAR (Indian Ambassador to the United States): Morning.

RAY: And we'd be pleased if you'd join the conversation as well at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. First, Ambassador, let me welcome you to San Diego. I understand this is your first trip here.

SHANKAR: Yes, it is, and it's been a great trip.

RAY: Okay, now you previously were posted in the U.S. as a foreign minister back in the nineties. Is this a job, as ambassador, that you had sought? Or did this come and find you?

SHANKAR: Well, I think a bit of both.

RAY: How did you come to the position?

SHANKAR: Well, I think the Indian government selected me as the ambassador to be posted in Washington, and I was happy to come.

RAY: Okay, now you had a number of interesting postings over your career, can you talk about a little bit of your history in diplomacy?

SHANKAR: I think some of the important postings that I've done are in the Prime Minister's office in India from 1985 to 1991, which was a fairly long stretch. And being in the Prime Minister's office where you're coordinating all aspects of foreign policy, it gives you a kind of overarching view of foreign policy, which you don't get, for instance, when you're dealing with a specific issue in the foreign office. So that was an incredible experience. And, of course, thereafter I was Minister for Commerce and Trade in Washington, immediately after India's economic reforms. So, again, that was a huge opportunity and a challenge to get the message out to people in the U.S. that India was now open for business and that the Indian economy was no longer a closed economy with limited opportunities but one which was actively seeking engagement with the outside world.

RAY: Okay, now in your time in the Foreign Ministry, you worked in counterterrorism, is that correct?

SHANKAR: I was the additional Secretary dealing with UN and international security, so under the international security rubric, yes, this was also one of the areas that I was dealing with.

RAY: Okay. Your main concern, India's main concern, in those days, in the 1990s, was what?

SHANKAR: Well, we had a number of issues and many of them shared. For instance, the challenge of terrorism is something which India has faced before 1991, before the U.S. had its tragic terrorist attack. And it was something which we were trying to alert the world to but without that much success.

RAY: How much, may I ask, was the terrorism that India experienced generated internally and how much of that was – came from outside?

SHANKAR: Well, much of it, really, was externally inspired. And some of it was really what I would call the backflow from the Afghanistan jihad…

RAY: Huh.

SHANKAR: …because you had these groups which had been trained and equipped to fight the Soviet Union. And then after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the groups remained and they turned their attention to other targets and other objectives.

RAY: Okay, you can't talk about Afghanistan without talking about Pakistan. How significant a concern, a terrorist concern, not a real military concern, but a terrorist concern, was Pakistan in those days?

SHANKAR: I think quite significant because much of the terrorism that we faced in India really came from over – from outside our borders. And, indeed, there were four Pakistani groups, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jeshi Mohammad, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and one more, which signed Osama bin Laden's, you know, declaration for an international front against the Jews and crusaders and out of these groups, I think almost three or four were active in India and responsible for almost 80% of the terrorism there.

RAY: Okay, now you've mentioned groups that have Islamic backgrounds but Islam is not new, not a cultural overlay to India at all. Islam has been there a very long time.

SHANKAR: Yes, indeed, our Muslims in India, we are the second largest Muslim country in the world, actually, after Indonesia. And our Muslims are moderate, by and large, and participate in the democratic mainstream. So we never equate any religion with terrorism but it is individuals who take to terrorism or extremism.

RAY: Okay. How much of this problem is the internal conflict there? You have large Hindu population, you have, certainly, a large Muslim population. How much of the problem is generated internally that way because of the conflict between groups like that?

SHANKAR: Hardly any.

RAY: Okay.

SHANKAR: Hardly any. Most of it has been externally inspired. And, in fact, it's a challenge for India to ensure that its Muslim community continues to remain moderate. Indeed, it's a very positive feature of India's system that all our communities choose to exercise their choices within the democratic mainstream. In recent years, we've seen some impact of extremism, particularly where India Muslims have gone outside and worked. They have absorbed some of those impulses. But the basic challenge has been primarily from outside.

RAY: Okay. There – that wouldn't, though, be true of people who would be Hindu radicals, for instance, those would be homegrown pretty much.

SHANKAR: Yes. That would be homegrown but it's something which most people don't really subscribe to. And in successive elections, the Indian government, the Indian people, have shown that they don't support extremism of any kind, that they are really for a middle road.

RAY: Okay, can I ask you, I know this is going to be a little off the page, but I know India has been going through elections or there is this election process, can you talk just in the briefest terms, how complex the election process is in India? Because I understand the elections actually go on for some weeks.

SHANKAR: Yes. Well, it's because we have about, you know, this – in this election, almost 400 million people, voters, were involved. There are thousands of constituencies. And essentially the election commission, which is a constitutionally independent body and has its own powers, they decide the schedule which will enable administrative arrangements to be put in place in all the states. They consult with the government about the schedule for the elections but the eventual scheduling of the elections is a decision for the election commission and they do it based on their assessment of the administrative resources they would need.

RAY: Now you have more eligible voters in India than we have people living in the United States so that's got to be a difficult accounting process if nothing else. How much of it is still done by hand? And how much of it is electronic?

SHANKAR: Well, it's electronic at the moment. You know, we've switched for several years to electronic voting and that's the system that we are following.

RAY: Okay, we talked a little bit earlier about Pakistan. Certainly still a major and critical player in India's present and its future. But has the Indian government position or feeling about Pakistan changed since the Musharraf government was put out?

SHANKAR: I think it – the Indian government wishes Pakistan well. We would like to see Pakistan move in the direction of greater stability, greater prosperity, and greater moderation. However, the dialogue that we had with Pakistan received a serious setback because of increasing acts of terrorism against India, which were directed from Pakistani soil. First, there was a terrorist attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul where U.S. news reports indicated that elements from within Pakistan's security establishment may have been involved. India was still willing to give the benefit of the doubt in this case and we continued the dialogue, which was quite a difficult decision to take. But then thereafter we found that there were the Mumbai terrorists attacks which were on a scale and of a kind which really impacted very adversely on Indian public opinion. And following the Mumbai attacks, the composite dialogue was suspended and, of course, our Prime Minister has met President Zardari recently and they have directed the two foreign secretaries to meet to discuss what steps Pakistan is taking to bring to account those responsible for the terrorist attacks against India and what steps they intend to take to prevent further attacks.

RAY: It does seem, as I recall, that Pakistan has actually now said that, indeed, the Mumbai terrorists were – that action originated on Pakistani soil. Does that admission itself actually help improve the dialogue and the connections between India and Pakistan?

SHANKAR: We have shared evidence with Pakistan. We have shared information with Pakistan on the Mumbai attacks. And this information and evidence is not something which is purely a result of Indian investigations. Investigators from other countries whose nationals were involved were also part of the process and helped us to piece together the evidence. Pakistan is still to take action against those involved and we would like to see this case proceed to its logical conclusion.

RAY: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. We're talking with the Indian ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, and we'd be pleased if you would join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. There have been moments of strained relations between the United States and India and some of that has had to do with the problems of nuclear proliferation but some of that also has had – has been economic. There have been, in terms of U.S. jobs, a lot of American jobs ended up in places like Mumbia and Chennai. Is that situation getting better in terms of how India and the U.S. deal with each other and talk to each other?

SHANKAR: Well, I think I would like to clarify that this is something which is a two-way street. And two recent studies, one by the India Brand Equity Foundation and the Confederation of Indian Industry, which show that between 2004 and 2007, the Indian connection with the U.S. added value of over a hundred billion dollars, $103 billion to be more exact, to the U.S. and helped to sustain 300,000 jobs in the U.S. both directly and indirectly. And this was by way of trade because India bought a lot of airplanes and Boeing aircraft from the U.S. This was by way of investments by Indian companies in the U.S. and it was by way of the synergies between Indian and U.S. companies, which enhanced the competitiveness of U.S. companies and thereby enabled them to expand their business.

RAY: Okay, I know it's early in the Obama administration years but do you have a sense of some kind of change in the tone of connection relations between the U.S. and India since the new administration came into the United States?

SHANKAR: No, I think the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said that she would like to build on the strategic partnership between India and the U.S. and take it to what she calls the third level. And, of course, the important thing about this relationship is that it has bipartisan support in the U.S. as also cross-party support within India.

RAY: Okay, now you mentioned Secretary of State Clinton, she'll be in India. Will you be there to meet her?

SHANKAR: Yes, I will be there.

RAY: Do you have specific things in mind with which you'd like – or about which you'd like to talk to her?

SHANKAR: Oh, we will talk about the whole relationship and how we build this relationship, what will be the structure, the dialogue structure that we want to put in place because we may expand the dialogue to new areas such as education and health, which are very important and where opportunities will increase as India reforms its higher education center in – sector in the country. And…

RAY: Now you mentioned that, you know, there's a framework for building with Secretary of State Clinton and the Obama administration, but there are foreign policy experts who say that India was pretty much ignored when President Obama actually was putting together his foreign policy agenda, do – you don't – not have that sense?

SHANKAR: No, I don't think so. And, certainly, we accept the statements by the U.S. government that they would like to give this relationship priority. The Obama administration has also faced a number of crises which they inherited, both domestic as well as external, which obviously consumed a lot of energy but it doesn't mean that the relationship with India is not something which will be important.

RAY: Can you talk a little bit about how the recession in the United States has affected India?

SHANKAR: Well, I think that we have not been directly impacted but there was a secondary impact. Our banks and our financial system remain sound because they're operating largely within India. They weren't – And they're – the norms within which they functioned were quite conservative and prudent. For instance, our lending for housing, the banks insist on a 30% down payment and their assessment of the extent of the loan, or capacity to repay, is based upon the existing income of the applicant, not on the potential income which will accrue from the property to be acquired. So it's a fairly conservative lending regimen. So our banks and financial institutions were sound but we were hit by the secondary impact because foreign institutional investors began to withdraw money from the Indian stock markets so our stock values went down. Then there was a credit crunch. All export credit dried up. External commercial borrowings dried up, and that affected our companies. And then our export industries where hit and many of these are labor intensive. Gems and jewelry, leather, textiles, garments, these are industries where we are still facing very high levels of unemployment.

RAY: Okay, can – I want to go back to one strategic issue that we talked about a little bit earlier and I don't want to get – let our time together go away without talking about this. You mentioned the problems in Afghanistan. You mentioned that there have been people coming through Pakistan, for instance, from Afghanistan, the former jihadists. Has the U.S., in any way that you know of, approached India about being more present and more militarily active in Afghanistan?

SHANKAR: We are very active on the development front in Afghanistan. We provide over $1.2 billion of development assistance totally to Afghanistan. And given that India is a developing country, this is a very large commitment from India. We are helping to build schools, to build hospitals, to repair transmission lines. We will be building the Afghan Parliament. We are doing a lot of schools, and a large number of grassroots projects to facilitate Afghanistan's development, including a very large number of scholarships for Afghan students to study in India. I think that this is the best way in which India can contribute to the situation and to stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. We have consciously chosen not to have a security profile in Afghanistan in order to avoid playing into regional sensitivities.

RAY: Okay. Let's go to the phones. 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Kanal (sp) in Sorrento Valley. I hope I have pronounced your name right.

KANAL (Caller, Sorrento Valley): That's correct.

RAY: Okay, welcome. You're on These Days on KPBS.

KANAL: Thank you very much. Welcome, Ambassador, to San Diego. I hope you like it. The question I have is what steps Indian government is taking to wring the hearts of people in – particularly in Kashmir Valley. It seems like everything – whenever something goes wrong or even goes on the sheet against the Indian government so how you can win the hearts of people?

SHANKAR: Well, I think that's a very important question and we are engaged in a lot of development activities in Kashmir. The recent elections in Kashmir, the state elections, saw over 60% of the population participating despite calls for boycott by separatist groups. In a democracy, people do vent their opinions and their differences, and that's something which we will always allow. But in the long run, it is India's objective to ensure that Kashmiris feel themselves comfortable within the Indian mainstream.

RAY: The U.S. and India recently signed an Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement. What does the United States get out of that and what does India get?

SHANKAR: Well, it's a very important agreement. For India, it enables us to access international cooperation for civilian nuclear energy development. And given the fact that India's energy needs are going to multiply, it will enable us to meet these needs in a way which is also more responsible in the context of climate change. For the U.S., it provides them a market for cooperating with India in the field of civil nuclear energy but it's useful in terms of easing global pressures on fossil fuel demand, which is pushing up prices. It helps the whole area of energy security if it reduces dependence of a large market like India on fossil fuel, and it's beneficial from the environmental point of view as well. Beyond that, I think it's important that we were able to resolve this issue in a mutually acceptable manner because it helps us to, in a sense, transcend one of the issues which had limited the potential of the two countries to cooperate.

RAY: Now there's been some talk that the Obama administration was actually delaying full implementation. Is that your observation?

SHANKAR: Well, no, we are looking at negotiations or discussions on some of the arrangements which remain to be put into place, flowing from the India-U.S. agreement and we hope that we should be able to conclude those within the timeframe agreed upon.

RAY: Okay. You've been in the United States before. This is your first time in San Diego. How – Two nations are very different, yours – your India and the United States. How are they alike?

SHANKAR: Well, I don't think we are that different. We are different levels of development and that imposes, certainly, a different set of priorities and concerns. But in many ways, we are in – we are similar. First of all, we are democracies. Secondly, we are large, diverse societies, where people from different religions, people from different ethnic backgrounds, linguist groups, all come together to form the nation. Thirdly, we respect the rights of the individual and fundamental freedoms. And finally, of course, for India, we are also a federal structure like the U.S. where the states have a strong identity of their own and there is a constant dynamic in terms of the power balance between the center and the states with the movement being in the direction of greater economic decision making power to the states in recent years.

RAY: May I ask, this is your first stop in San Diego, your first visit here. What brings you here?

SHANKAR: Well, I came to deliver the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the San Diego University, University of California San Diego. And this is quite incredible because this was the 26th annual lecture in the series and it commemorates, actually, the scholarships which are given by the Indo-American community here to meritorious students. I think they've given 400 such scholarships to American students over the past 26 years. And this year they gave the award to 17 students which – who got the scholarship plus four more who were given the AVID scholarships, so about 21 students were given scholarships and I think that's an important element of the Indo-American society, giving back to America.

RAY: If there were a single thought you'd like to leave San Diego as you go toward the Gandhi lecture and then off to your other work as ambassador, what would that be?

SHANKAR: I would say that Gandhi's message is extremely relevant today. It's not something, you know, which needs to be put on a pedestal and then admired from afar. It has relevance in the day-to-day lives of individuals, of communities and of nations.

RAY: And I think it would be useful, might be useful to point out that Gandhi actually came to prominence based largely on issues that were economic.

SHANKAR: Yes. Well, he used economic issues as a symbol of Indian independence. You know, the U.S. had the Boston Tea Party where they dumped tea, chests of tea in Boston Harbor. In India, one of the issues that we faced under colonial rule was the destruction of our local artisanship and crafts-based industries because of the skewed tariff structure where imports from the UK were allowed without duty and exports from India were taxed.

RAY: Another commonality between our two countries.

SHANKAR: So another commonality, yes.

RAY: All right. Ambassador Meera Shankar, thank you very much.

SHANKAR: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

RAY: The Indian ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, and can – what time will your lecture be? Where will it be, do you know?

SHANKAR: I need to now go back to the hotel.

RAY: Okay, you should go then. Thank you very much.

SHANKAR: Thank you. Thank you.

RAY: You're listening to These Days on KPBS.