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Transcript of briefing to diplomatic community by JS (AMS) on Prime Minister’s visit to US

October 10, 2014

Official Spokesperson: Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being here this afternoon for our regular monthly interaction and briefing regarding any important events that occurred during the month.

Let me begin by introducing my colleagues to you. On my right is Mr. Vikram Doraiswami, who is Joint Secretary (Americas) and my left, is Mr. Vinay Kwatra who is Joint Secretary (Americas)-designate. Before I begin, I give the floor to Mr. Doraiswami to speak about Indo-US relations following the visit of Prime Minister to the United States. I would like to tell you that following his initial remarks the floor will be open to any questions or clarifications that you may like to ask on any specific aspect of that visit or on our relations with the United States after which we will end the interaction here and we will have some refreshments served for you in the foyer. With those introductory remarks, I will now request Mr. Vikram Doraiswami who is Joint Secretary (Americas) and was the ‘point-person’ for this entire visit, to make a few opening remarks on the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States.

Vikram Doraiswami, JS(AMS): Thank you very much. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to interact with diplomatic colleagues on the Prime Minister’s visit. I must admit that it is unusual, I am not used to the opportunity of having to brief the fellow diplomats from a podium. It’s much more normal common and much more convenientto meet with diplomatic colleagues in more informal settings; but be that as it may, I am happy to share with you a sense of the Prime Minister’s visit, give you a bit of an idea of the contours of the visit and our assessment of it. I would be happy to take questions on whatever you may wish to ask in this regard.

Just to give you the highlights of the visit itself, this was Prime Minister’s first visit, in his current capacity, to the United States. He spent a total of five days in the US. He reached the US on 26th September. The visit began in New York with his UN programs which included a speech at the United Nations General Assembly and the call on to the UN Secretary General. He also had, in and around UN engagements, a series of bilateral programs geared around his visit to the US in New York. This included a meeting with the Mayor of the city of New York; it included a call by the Director of the National Cancer Centre; which I will come to in a moment. Professor Harold Varmus- the Director, is also a Nobel Laureate. It included a series of other bilateral calls including by eminent persons of Indian origin, a small group of whom discussed the elements of their ideas on PM’s program for the transformation of India. It included a call by the Governor of South Carolina. It included a call by the former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg. It included an interaction with the leadership of a range of American Jewish groups which has been a part of our annual program at the UNGA. It included the large scale event with the Indian American community in Madison Square Gardens which was a first- we have never done it anything quite at that scale. It also included a visit to New York’s iconic Central Park where the Prime Minister participated in the Global Citizen’s festival which is essentially geared around the notion of bringing collective action to eradicate poverty- not alleviate but eradicate poverty; which is subject of particular importance in the Prime Minister’s own agenda.

PM received several members of Congress and Senators, both at Madison Square Gardens and his hotel, for a conversation. He also then interacted, at great length, with the American Business Community; which included a Breakfast Meeting with around a dozen CEOs and separate individual meetings with a separate set of six major American corporations. We are happy to share the details of those, if you would like. He also met former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and interacted also with the Governor of the New Jersey. Before leaving New York for Washington D.C., he gave a public address at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he set out his agenda for transformation of India and tried to place the India-US relationship and Indian Foreign policy in general; in the context of his program for transformation of India.

In Washington D.C., the Prime Minister had a private dinner hosted by President Obama on the evening of 29th September. On the morning of 30th September, apart from paying tribute to a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and visiting our Embassy in Massachusetts Avenue. The PM received the Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, and also received the Governor of the state of Maryland before his formal talks with President Obama. I’ll come to that in a moment also. His final engagements included a lunch hosted by Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry jointly at the Department of State and an afternoon reception hosted by the US-India Business Council; and a call hosted by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. John Boehner; which included Congressional leadership from both sides of the aisle at the speaker’s office. So, this was the contours of the program that the PM had. Our perspective and objective was that the Prime Minister’s visit should afford him the greatest possible opportunities to engage with the widest array of United States establishment which included business, congressional dignitaries, community and of course, the administration.

For us, there was also the opportunity to try and reach out much more to the American public which, just as in India, is a strong supporter of this relationship. Our objective was to put energy back into the India-US relationship and to bring it back into high gear. I think this was an objective that both our American friends and we, shared at the highest levels and I think our assessment is that we succeeded in good measure on both the sides on taking the relationship forward and bringing new energy to it.

In terms of further objectives, the intention was to revive positive sentiments in corporate America and also in Congress and among the community in support of the relationship and in support of transformation of India. I think, again, in these the visit achieved its objective. A lot of positive energy came out of the visit around the PM and the new government’s approach to the transformation of India. In reaching out to each of these elements in American society and the establishment, as you will see from the program, the program was geared to enable the widest possible interaction with each of these segments of American establishment. So, if you look at the Congress and political leadership, PM’s interactions afforded him an opportunity to meet with a wide array of Congressional dignitaries from both sides of the aisle. It enabled him to meet a number of important political actors who could possibly have an important role in coming few years also, quite apart from his engagements with the administration.

With corporate America, as you know the importance of meeting each of the CEOs of the highest possible levels and engaging with them on specifics relating to their issues and to try and address their areas of interest in economic and infrastructure development programs in India. So, that was to try and re engage with corporate America and bring corporate America more in support of the economic development agenda in India. In terms of community, the three million strong ethnic Indian Community is an important growing political actor, with strong vested interest in strengthening of the bilateral relationship. So, PM’s effort was to mobilize them on a common platform in support of the relationship. I don’t know how many of you have large communities in the United States, but I suspect most of you do, it is often a fact that many of community associations stand to pull in different directions. The PM believed that it is essential for the community to coalesce around a positive agenda which supports the relationship. Over and above that, reaching out to the larger American audience, we did things that we have never done before in terms of our visits to the United States or be it visits anywhere. This includes the Prime Minister participating in a public event in non-India, non-bilateral relationship context which is the Global Citizen Festival. It had 60 thousand young people present, not all of whom necessarily had a context or interest in India, but had the larger interest in poverty related issues. It was more connected with popular icons, Hugh Jackman was present, for instance, as maybe some of you saw. So, it was certainly a new element in our effort to reach out to American society, the PM writing an ‘op-ed’ in the Wall Street Journal was again a first for us. We’ve not had, if I am not wrong, a Prime Minister writing an ‘op-ed’ in any Foreign Media before and we followed that up with a joint ‘op-ed’ signed by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, which again is a first. So, the intention was to place the relationship and the foundations of the relationship on an entirely new peg which I would modestly submit that we were pretty successful in doing.

Over and above that, there was another context we were looking at which is to try and bring our relationship with US as well as our larger foreign policy outreach, much more strongly in alignment with the domestic transformation agenda of the PM. So, in the Vision Statement and in Joint Statement, if you look at them carefully, there was certainly a strong effort to try and mirror many of the programmatic elements of interests to both sides in PM’s transformation of India agenda which includes infrastructure development, manufacturing, skill development, education (try to find ways in which our education system gets more capacity), new technology partnerships in everything from National Defence University to water and sanitation. It includes urban development, the idea that 3 existing cities will be upgraded in partnership with the United States. It also includes Science & Technology where we already have strong partnership with US. But to build upon that, to create new areas of synergy, everything from Joint Cooperation and exploration of Mars to new programs for a joint satellite launch together. That, essentially is also for us a newer ground, a ground that this government has pushed very strongly which is to try and harmonize developmental agenda in ways in which there is mutual benefit for our foreign partners also. So, we see that as having moved forward significantly as well.

In terms of the discussions that we’ve had, I think in each of the areas of interest to both sides, we had clear and frank discussions between the PM and the President, as befits strategic partners; and the first meeting that they had at the dinner on 29th September was really a good opportunity for both the leaders to get to know each other, it was a conversation in which the two leaders talked about their approaches to technology in governance. Both are very technology friendly leaders, their ideas of how best to deploy the technology to improve the connect between people and government, to increase participation by public in governance as well as ways in which technology can be used in driving the social agenda- which is better health services, better e-governance, better poverty alleviation schemes- in each of these things there was good synergy and chemistry between the two leaders on their own agendas. So the conversation had very good feel to it because it really was an opportunity for both the leaders to explore each other’s mind on these issues. In the more formal conversation that took place; President Obama was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary Kerry, NSA Rice and a number of other senior officials- we discussed regional issues, we talked our region, we talked about larger
Asian context, we talked about global issues and we talked about our bilateral relationship in everything from defence to trade & economic relations; and the two leaders talked about the ways in which we can take the partnership forward. Some of it is reflected in the Joint Statement and the Vision Statement that you will have access to.

In terms of overall outcomes, I think for us it would be that the leaders were able to make it clear- their interest in taking the relationship forward, to keep the energy that they both have generated behind this relationship intact and to have it transmitted through the bureaucracies on both the sides; to take the pace forward. We were particularly appreciative of the several important and warm gestures from our hosts- the dinner that was hosted by President Obama, President Obama’s gesture of personally accompanying the Prime Minister Modi to visit the Memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., very nice symbolism about it- obviously great optics. This was also reflected in some of the special gifts that they exchanged with each other; over and above the usual formal stuff. The Prime Minister gave President Obama specially produced copies of Martin Luther King’s visit to India in 1959 which included photographs and audio recordings of his speeches. President Obama shared with Prime Minister the memorabilia of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the United States in 1890s.

So that covers my overall packaging of the relationship and the visit for you. I think, in summary, I should add that the task ahead for us is now to implement the high-paced work plan that has been charted out for us by both our leaderships. I think there is great interest in taking this process forward very quickly and as you will see in coming weeks, the traffic flow in both ways at the senior government level will only increase very sharply; for which I am very grateful that I will be leaving and somebody else will have to do this! Thank you very much.

Official Spokesperson: Thank you Vikram. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the floor is open for questions. Before you speak, I would be grateful if you could identify yourself.

Question:I am Jonathan from British High Commission. Thank you very much for the briefing. That was very useful and informative. I was just wondering, with the two of the biggest topics of today being the Ebola crisis and the threat of ISIL in Syria and Iraq- did they feature in those discussions between the President and Prime Minister?

JS (AMS): Thank you, important questions and they lead to the larger sense which I should have mentioned of, what was the overall vision of the visit for us- which is to take the partnership to a level at which we are not just looking at what each can do for the other; but to actually take the relationship beyond it being the sum of its parts, in other words to what both us can do in areas of common global interest. So, to answer precisely what you have asked, the Ebola issue was discussed, both at the level of the NSA and subsequently at the summit level. As you will see from the Joint Statement; we have already pledged to step up our efforts to deal with the challenge. We have announced a certain amount of monetary contribution; our businesses in West Africa are doing their bit to try and scale up capacity in everything from telecom capacities to hopefully being able to provide transportation from some of our companies which are based out there. Our American friends were keen that we try and find ways of doing even more. We need to find out what more it is that we can do. We also have certain capacity constraints that prevent us from being able to deploy human resources in large numbers. As you know our medical system also has its own challenges in terms of number of doctors available, but yet we are looking internally to find what further we can try and help to deal with this because we recognize that ‘in a borderless world, this is a borderless challenge’.

As far as ISIL is concerned, you would have noticed in Joint Statement, we have actually mentioned this. We recognize the challenge that it poses to us, we have a certain set of concerns also based on our own circumstances, with our own people, some of whom are in harm’s way out there. Nonetheless our own view about terrorism is well known. We have very strong views on terrorism being something that needs to be dealt with comprehensively and not in a segmented approach. So, to the extent that we can be useful, we will be. We also have our own views about how action is to be taken which, since you are from the British High Commission, I suppose you know very well what I mean by that. Our position on that account also needs to squared up. So, as long as there is larger internationally mandated process, we will step in to whatever is the international process on that.

Question:I am from the Palestinian Embassy. I want to ask about the meeting between Prime Minister and Mr. Netanyahu on the sidelines of UNGA. I also want to ask if he did not have time to meet President Abbas.

Official Spokesperson: Meetings on the margins of the General Assembly are always a factor of availability of people and scheduling. Let me tell you that we did ask for a meeting with President Abbas. Unfortunately, given the timing of his departure from New York and Prime Minister’s visit there, it did not work out. But Prime Minister was keen and we did express an interest in the two leaders’ meeting. Then there is a factor of logistics; because our PM actually arrived on 26th evening. By then most leaders had finished their statement and were ready to leave; and our statement was on 27th. So, all our bilateral meetings were only after the statement because the statement was in the morning. All the international commitments that the PM had were scheduled after his statement in the morning; by the time he finished, it was midday on 27th. Therefore, there was some scheduling issue there and we couldn’t work it out. That said, Prime Minister did meet Prime Minister Netanyahu as India & Israel have a relationship which is a very robust and vigorous relationship. It does not impact on our position on Palestine. You are aware of our consistent stand on that and that has been reflected in the new government’s position that they have taken.

Question:Thank you Joint Secretary. The subject of minority rights in India including that of safeguarding religious freedoms, religious tolerance and women empowerment, is so dear to your government. I’d like to learn from you if the Prime Minister had an opportunity to discuss these issues during his visit to that country. If so, could you share with us some insights regarding these issues?

JS (AMS): Some of these issues were raised by the Prime Minister; it’s visible on the CFR website in his conversation. I think he gave a robust answer on this. I think Prime Minister’s position on all this is well known. His interview with the noted CNN personality Farid Zakaria conveys his sense of views on minority rights. With a specific request to a question at that point of time in the CNN interview on the Muslim community, I think he made his views abundantly clear for those who had any doubts. He also spoke of this in the context of his discussion on terrorism with President Obama. He made it very clear in his views, and both my colleagues were there, that terrorism is not and should not be associated with any one religion. It is an issue which goes beyond that. He spoke of how terrorism is essentially a challenge between those who stand for humanity and those who oppose it; and that is not related to any country or any community. We spoke of how India and US and other such countries need to work much more strongly to rally around the large global sense of all communities in support of action against terrorism. So, I think his views on religious freedom and minority rights are pretty clear there. In so far as the Sikh community is concerned which is another minority community in India, he made his views clear at the Madison Square Gardens event where he talked about patriotism and long history of sacrifice by Sikh community in India also. So, I think he underlined his views very directly. If you were to ask, was there specific question on this subject- No, there wasn’t.

Question:I am from the Ghana High Commission. Recently India made its position on the WTO issues and some of those stance my own country supports strongly because that’s a defence of our farmers. I want to know if the divergent view at the WTO was also a subject matter of discussion and what was the outcome?

JS (AMS): Yes, as you might expect, it was an issue that we discussed. I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I were to tell you that it wasn’t going to be discussed. We clearly have strong views on the subject. I think the Prime Minister has said, both in public and in private, that we stand a 100% in favour of trade facilitation. We need to do it in India for our own sake. We are not doing anybody a favour if we move forward on that. So, he has already said it very clearly that this is something which we will do in any case. But for us, food security is a paramount concern. We have far too many poor people who are dependent both on the provision of affordable food and far too many farmers who are dependent on guaranteed prices in terms of procurement. So, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. I am not a trade specialist, so I am not going to go beyond that but our sense is that the way in which these issues have been dealt with shows a certain skew against dealing with the concerns on food security fast enough. This is significant political question for the Prime Minister. So, we believe that these issues do need to be addressed equally. It’s not just about moving ahead on one and then thinking about it in some future date. So, this was discussed- PM made his views clear and our Joint Statement says- "the leaders discussed their concerns about the current impasse and its impact on the multilateral trading system and directed their officials to consult urgently along with the WTO members on the next steps”. So, we want to come to a solution but it has to be a solution that works with both sets of interest in mind.

Question:I am from the German Embassy. On the PM’s trip to the US, there was talk in the press about focal point for trade and investment concerns in the Prime Minister’s Office; I don’t recall seeing that in the Joint Statement. Can you elaborate a little bit on that, how that is going to play out?

JS (AMS): I am not responsible for what the press says. This was not on the agenda at any point of time but if you look at what has been announced and come in our outcomes, we have set up a platform for investment in infrastructure and for investment per se. Both of these will be housed on our side in the Ministry of Finance and the intention of the first one which is the infrastructure platform, is to bring together a mechanism by which line ministries and other actors, as necessary, can come together and expedite clearances and put forward very strongly for work to happen in infrastructure sector, both American and Indian businesses. In so far as investment is concerned, our specific outcome is to try and have a single point problem resolution facilitation arrangement, to try and speed up capital market development and financing of infrastructure also. So, the intention is not to have the Prime Minister’s Office take on line ministry jobs but to have a coordinating ministry, like the finance ministry, lead on both fronts in investment, in other words facilitating investment in a manner that develops market structures here and also to speed up investment in infrastructure.

Official Spokesperson: Since we have run out of questions, thank you very much Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. May I invite you to share a cup of tea with us in the foyer.