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Address by Ms. Nisha Biswal, President, US-India Business Council at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture

December 25, 2020

Minister Jaishankar, thank you for your gracious introduction, and for giving me the honor and opportunity to give this inaugural address for the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture. It is a particular honor for me to be delivering this address before you Minister Jaishankar, a diplomat and leader whom I greatly respect and have had the privilege of working closely with. Minister, you are by far one of the most brilliant minds on the diplomatic stage today and India is well served by your bold and astute navigation of the complex currents in the world today. I also want to thank the Foreign Secretary for joining this event. I recall our close collaboration during your tenure in Washington D.C. Just as Lutyens Delhi does not reflect the reality of India, the corridors of power on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue does not reflect the real America. It was a pleasure to travel with you Ambassador Shringla to engage leaders from Kentucky to Colorado to California as we brought the US-India corridor to more of the United States. And I also want to acknowledge the current Envoy of India to the United States, Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu, someone who I have worked with on the US-India Partnership for well over 20 years, Ambassador Sandhu we first met during your first assignment in Washington D.C. and when I was in my first job on Capitol Hill. In a sense you and I have watched each other grow up and come of age in our diplomatic careers -- from those early years to where we are today. And watching Ambassador Sandhu in his current role as Ambassador of India to United States is like watching a masterclass in digital diplomacy. And it reflects the reality of the 21st century -- a complex brew of multifaceted, multi-stakeholder and multi-media engagement.

I am particularly honored to be here on the occasion of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s 96th birth anniversary. It was a very different world in the early years of the 20th century when Prime Minister Vajpayee was born and his early formative years where India was still a British colony. And yet the world sees today a very different India, in part due to the life and legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I had the honor of meeting Prime Minister Vajpayee, during his visit to the US and his address before the Joint Session of Congress in September of 2000, as well as leading a trade delegation to India and meeting with the Prime Minister in New Delhi . I had at that Joint Session the opportunity to see for myself what so many millions in India already knew –the powerful and poetic oratory, the keen intellect and the bold vision that could cross political divides and unify the nation.

Prime Minister Vajpayee, who was the first to speak of the US-India partnership as being one between natural allies, spoke before Congress of a partnership between democracies that brought unity out of diversity. He said the "American people have shown that democracy and individual liberty provide the conditions in which knowledge progresses, science discovers, innovation occurs, enterprise thrives and, ultimately, the people are advanced” .He went on to note that "India has been a laboratory of a democratic process rising to meet the strongest challenges that can be flung at it.”

Prime Minister Vajpayee understood that there was a special quality to the US-India partnership that defied labels. Ours has never been a transactional relationship, but one that is rooted in our democratic values, our commitment to a society that benefits not just the strong and mighty, but also supports the weak and progresses the poor.

He spoke of a trade and economic partnership powered by the entrepreneurial talent of our peoples where new technologies and innovations would help overcome global challenges. His drive to reform the economy, remove trade barriers, push for greater divestment of state-owned enterprises and invest in the infrastructure of a modern India is a testament of his vision of India ‘s economic rise. Because Prime Minister Vajpayee understood that a rising India could not claim her rightful place as a global power, if it did not have the economic might to sustain her people and power her industries. A strong and secure India would need to be an economic power as well as a military and political force.

And even 20 years ago Prime Minister Vajpayee recognized that the future challenges that India would face would come not from the west but from the east.

In looking at the future contours of Asia, he asked:

"Will it be an Asia that will be at peace with itself? Or will it be a continent, where countries seek to redraw boundaries and settle claims -- historical or imaginary -- through force?”

He sought an Asia where power did not threaten stability and security and where the domination of some could not crowd out the space for others.

Prime Minister Vajpayee was able to foresee what many others failed to see, he saw the potential dangers posed by a rising and unchecked China. And he saw the importance of a US-India partnership, built on the foundation of our democratic values, to advance a rules-based order that would enable a more peaceful, prosperous and pluralistic Asia.

You know as I was reading through the Prime Minister’s address, I was struck by the fact that despite its insights and audacity, the speech got very little attention in the United States. Americans, it seemed were not yet looking at India through the same lens.

As we fast forward to the present, we can see the investment by subsequent leaders in both the United States and India has advanced this partnership further. The Civil-Nuclear agreement forged by President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paved the way for the flourishing defense partnership between our two countries that we see today.

And the election of Prime Minister Modi in 2014, the first PM elected with a clear mandate for single party rule in nearly 30 years,has transformed the US-India partnership and ushered in an era of greater ambition and aspiration.

In Prime Minister Modi, India had a leader with the resolve and the political backing to take bold steps to reform the economy at home, and the confidence to assume India’s rightful place on the global stage. And in Narendra Modi, President Obama found a leader who was willing to overcome the "hesitations of history” and take the U.S. India partnership to new heights. A leader who could leverage India’s considerable clout with developing and emerging economies to tackle pressing challenges like global climate change.

The Modi-Obama years saw a partnership that elevated not only the bilateral relationship –which President Obama called "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st Century”—but it saw the US and India working together to tackle global issues. It was clear from the very beginning that road to Paris would have to go through New Delhi. But perhaps the greatest transformation of the Modi-Obama years was to broaden the appeal and importance of this partnership beyond governments and beyond political leaders. The people-to-people bonds, the cultural and educational ties and the rising influence of the Indian diaspora helped make this a partnership not one between governments but between two nations. Now the Indian diaspora of which I am a proud member, is often credited for much of the progress for the stronger ties between our two countries. Certainly, the Indian American community, which has played such a key role in shaping the political, cultural and economic landscape of the United States played its part in shaping the relationship as well. But the most consequential factor is the rise of India itself. India has always captured the imagination of America, from its struggles for Independence to the cuisine and culture which have seeped into the American mainstream. But the growing Indian economy, the lure of India’s massive market and manpower and the burgeoning leadership on the global stage finally awakened Americans to the promise and potential of India.

And this was reflected in the emotional response in India to President Obama’s Republic Day visit , the first by an American President, and it was reflected in the rousing reception to PM Modi’s address before the joint session of Congress, which grabbed headlines across the country .

Now if the Obama years saw the US-India relationship seeking to reflect the aspirational values of both democracies, in science, education, health and environment, then the Trump Presidency brought a realistic and sharp focus on the exigent priorities and rapidly changing geopolitics of Asia. The last several years have seen a more aggressive and assertive China that sought to leverage its growing economic clout to advance its strategic ambitions, often at the expense of its neighbors. The words of Prime Minister Vajpayee, some 20 years ago, foreshadowed the challenges that we are seeing play out across the Indo-Pacific. And in the face of these destabilizing actions, the United States and India have forged a closer partnership and cooperation. The 2+2 has brought a greater strategic consultation and cooperation between our diplomatic, defense and intelligence actors. And the Quadrilateral and Trilateral Dialogues have been elevated in their importance and have engaged at both the ministerial and leader-level. India, which had already been designated as a Major Defense Partner in the last Administration, was granted STA-1 category access to the most advanced technology –which had previously been reserved only for our treaty allies. This ambitious record of achievement between our two governments over these past four years has helped to forge a convergence and consensus not only between our two countries but amongst our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific and will likely continue not just in the next Administration but well beyond.

And yet, as we look to the future, to the road ahead of us, we need to regain that focus on the broader aspirational underpinnings of our partnership that Prime Minister Vajpayee spoke of in that address to the Congress.

As we come out of our COVID-imposed isolation, and look at the world around us, I am struck by how a go-it-alone approach to the pandemic has left us all weaker and struggling to overcome a virus and regain our economic footing. It has left our global institutions flailing for resources and relevance. And it has left our societies vulnerable to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. Where our global alliances and institutions once preserved order and stability, there has been a void which has been filled by a bare-knuckled assertiveness by powers that thrive in a weak global order.

If we want the US-India partnership to stand the test of time and be that defining partnership of the 21st century and beyond, we must build it to withstand the changing political winds that blow across our respective landscapes.

Today I am speaking not as a US Diplomat but as the President of the US-India Business Council, an institution that was founded 45 years ago at the urging of our two governments. So, when I speak of building an enduring partnership, we can look to this institution as well.

Back in 1975, when there was scant trade between our two countries, leaders in both governments had the foresight to anticipate that a growing economic relationship was not only desirable but necessary and called for the establishment of a U.S. India Business Council.

USIBC was founded to be a champion for trade and commerce between our two nations. But today’s USIBC is a champion of the fundamental ties that bind us –the ties of shared values, and shared aspirations and a trusted partnership that will carry forward the ambitions of both nations and its people.

In a world ravaged by pandemic where businesses and communities are struggling to overcome the alienating and isolating impact of this virus.When our global institutions are weakened and our traditional alliances are being tested, the time has come for the United States and India in partnership to rise to their full potential to build the better future we know is waiting for us.

With the incoming Biden-Harris Administration, there will be a renewed focus on restoring our global alliances and strengthening our global institutions.

And the advances of the past 4 years and the strategic convergence which we have seen deepened in the current administration will continue but they need to be buttressed with a broader focus on our shared democratic values. And our geopolitical ambitions need to be paired with a firm grasp and strategy for engaging the geo-economic realities of the Indo-Pacific.

On the democracy agenda, we have underplayed the commonalities that we share and often focused on the differences between us. Yet, as two large and complex democracies, we have many ties that bind us.

Let us institutionalize the deepening relations between our Congress and your Parliament in a Parliamentary Democracy Partnership that encompasses both chambers and all parties in both countries.

Let us ensure that our state and city leaders are connected in a meaningful way so that delegations of Mayors and Governors in the US are visiting India and yours are coming to the U.S. Now COVID has allowed us to initiate these visits virtually through our Destination India series. But we need to create institutional platforms that will regularize the state and local relationships between our two countries .

And let us rebuild the educational exchanges and opportunities that allow Indian students to study in America, and that support greater exposure to India for US students and faculty to ensure that our educational and cultural ties continue to grow.

That leads me to what we here at the US Chamber and at USIBC focus on most of all and that is the economic agenda.

The geoeconomics realities are such that for either the US or India to succeed and be competitive with the production capacity and efficiency of China, it will require us to work together and develop more effective and efficient economy in our respective countries.

With the US and India as the two large economies outside of the two major trading blocs in Asia, it puts particular emphasis on our bilateral economic ties.

Let’s face it, trade policy in democracies like ours is not easy and it is not politically popular. If it were, well the US would have been part of the TPP and you might be looking at the second Administration of the President Hillary Clinton.

And yet the ability to create high-standard trade that establishes the rules and opens the markets will also create enormous opportunity for our people.

Despite the fact that we have been not been able to conclude even a small agreement between our two countries, we have seen the promise of a growing economic partnership drive greater trade and investment in both the US and India. Two-way trade and investment has reached $146 billion, an increase of nearly $50 billion in 5 years.

Now India was fastest growing large economy in world for five years between 2015 and 2019, averaging about 7% growth per year—more than China and US investors recognized this, so that, by the end of the period, FDI into India from the US hit a record high of $4.2 billion.

Of course in 2020, with the onset of the pandemic, India’s economy was forecast to contract by as much as 10%, although let me note that those numbers are likely be lowered as the economy has made significant gains in the final months of the year.

This economic resilience, which in part reflects India’s consumer culture and strong growth fundamentals, is an important facet of its enduring appeal as a destination for foreign investment, particularly from US investors.

In April -June, the FDI equity inflows from the US understandably fell off a cliff, declining by nearly $650 million, to less than half the $1.4 billion in the same quarter the year before. Yet in the following quarter – July–September 2020 – FDI from the US increased ten fold to about $6.5 billion. To put this in context, that is double the amount for the entire previous fiscal year from the US—and that investment has come across sectors.

We have seen the U.S.- India energy trade has truly blossomed, making the US one of India’s largest energy suppliers and India one of the key players in investing and advancing renewable energy in the United States.

As we look to the future, we must build on these successes and deepen our economic convergence. We must align our trade policies and help rebuild each other’s economies. Only then can we build the partnership that can,in the words of Prime Minister Modi, aspire to benefit not only the American people and the people of India but truly benefit the global community.

It will require a partnership on Climate that re-engages the Paris Agreement and goes beyond to address the transformation that is needed in our society and in our economy.

It will require a partnership on healthcare that goes beyond COVID to address the IP, pricing and market access issues . So that American and Indian companies can work together to develop the next generation of medicines, vaccines and medical technology that will help overcome not just COVID 19 but the countless other health challenges facing our world.

It will require building the resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can help generate future jobs and power businesses not just for today but also for future generations. And not just in our two countries but across the Indo-Pacific and across the globe.

It will require bringing in the defense manufacturing and supply chains that can help India acquire the tools and technology it needs to strengthen its defenses and secure its borders.

And as our companies are looking to de-risk and diversify their supply chains, we must forge a trade relationship that supports India’s efforts to be more competitive and encourages and incentivizes manufacturing and supply chain investment in India.

Together we must build the digital architecture that will connect our communities while securing their data and usher in a new era of digital commerce without sacrificing either security or sovereignty.

We in the business community are ready to do our part to help usher in the investment, build the factories and generate the opportunities that can expand the circle of opportunity and create inclusive growth that can lift people out of poverty in both countries.

For just as the United States and India need each other and are invested in each other’s success, so too do government and industry need each other to succeed.

Now the coming days and months will be deeply challenging for both countries. The U.S. and India will have to deploy a tremendous amount of attention and resources to stem the spread of COVID, while also deploying approved vaccines across our broad geographies. We will need to take bold steps to rebuild our economies. And we will need to be attentive to the dangerous currents in the Indo-Pacific to ensure that the region continues to be a zone of peace,prosperity and pluralism. None of this will be easy. But working together all of it is possible.

As I conclude, let me leave you with the famous line from the poem by Prime Minister Vajpayee,

"Aao phir se diya jalaye, Aao phir se diya jalaye"

Let us once again light that lamp.

Thank you again Minister Jaishankar for giving me this opportunity. I warmly wish the people of India good health and prosperity and best wishes for the year ahead.

December 25, 2020


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