The United States ambassador (charge d’affaires) Kathleen Steph-ens, on her first visit to Gujarat, rode the Delhi-Ahmedabad Swarnajayanti Rajdhani Express “to feel the pulse of Indian life” and became the first American ambassador to do that in India. Freight train infrastructure, in fact, is one of the areas, according to Stephe-ns, that US could help India set up, besides renewable energy.
Emphasising the role of Gujarat in setting the development model for India, she said that India needed to become more “business-friendly”. Stephens’s is the first and the highest-level diplomatic visit to Gujarat after Narendra Modi became PM and the US ended its diplomatic cold shoulder to the state, following the visa denial to Modi after the 2002 riots. Modi is scheduled to visit the US next month.
Asked if the US had lost out on business opportunities in Gujarat because of its disengagement with Modi for nearly a decade, she told a select media gathering on Wednesday, “American businesses have been pretty active here.the challenges, even in Gujarat, frankly, is the business atmosphere — sometimes red tape or regulatory issues — have discouraged businesses. Again, I know that Gujarat is trying to address those issues, there is now a commitment at the national level to address them.” Stephens cited an index on “Ease of doing business” that ranked India at 138th position, and said, “India is not even in the top half. It is all about making all of India, including Gujarat, more business-friendly.”
She said that the US looked forward to to an active role in the Vibrant Gujarat summit coming up in January 2015, “though the details and extent of participation had yet to be worked out”. The Gujarat development path, she said, has been compared to South Korea’s, which is manufacturing-driven. “Clearly, Gujarat has a lot to contribute to the discussion on what’s the development model for India and what’s the development model for the 21st century.”
Asked what areas was US looking at business-wise, Stephens said it was interested in renewable energy, and certain areas of infrastructure and freight engines. “US would not be the first and only partner to build roads but back to railways.things like freight engines, we move so much freight, we have the best technology in that area,” said Stephens. To a question on how the dialogue resumed with Modi as PM, she said that President Barack Obama set the tone by congratulating Modi as prime minister-elect and inviting him to the US. And this was followed by a series of visits by senators and US secretaries, including secretary of state John Kerry. “In each case, we had an opportunity to meet prime minister Modi. The fact that he was ready to talk about how we can go forward in this relationship, we took as a very positive sign; These were very, very positive meetings. We’re well placed and the signals from the government have been very clear… The architecture has been set for a broad and deep relationship”, according to her. Praising Modi’s speech on Independence Day, she recalled the “numerous times he said, ‘Come, make in India’, there was a clear message, for India that he wants to focus on manufacturing”.
The US engagement with Gujarat had been robust and, “it will continue to be robust and I think this is a nice moment to be in Gujarat. And, honestly, I have heard prime minister Modi talk about his experience in Gujarat. And it feels good to see it”, said Stephens. She said that the US was partnering with India for a National level Tech summit in November and one of the reasons for the visit was to prepare their offices for that.
About the train journey, she said that she loved trains. “It is so much a part and parcel of Indian life. One of the challenges that you face when you come here as a diplomat — a foreigner, not speaking the same language — is how you are going to feel the pulse of life…I saw a bit of poverty, power plants, transmission lines. I do believe, seeing makes it more real,” she said, adding it was more comfortable than the three-day train journey she took in China 30 years ago. She visited the Sarkhej Roza, apart from meeting US business firms involved in solar energy, community leaders and civil society.