Chester Bowles, the only US ambassador to serve India twice, for more than seven years (1951-53 and 1963-69), was told by US president Harry Truman before his first India posting, “The first thing you’ve got to do is to find out if Nehru is a Communist.” At the height of the Cold War, Bowles developed a close personal rapport with Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, who trusted Bowles’s discretion, would turn to him directly when he wanted Polaroid films or a Ford sedan for his personal use. In fact, Bowles was often criticised in Washington for acting as the Indian ambassador to the US for advocating more US aid to India. Despite his best efforts and having dealt with three prime ministers — Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi — the Indo-US relationship never gained the momentum Bowles wanted, as is evident from his book A View from New Delhi.
Four and a half decades later, in the summer of 2014, when Richard Verma got a call from national security advisor Susan Rice, he was surprised by the offer. “She told me, ‘President Obama wants you to go to India’. I asked her, ‘To visit?’. ‘No’, she said, ‘As the US ambassador to India’,” he recalled on Wednesday night at the Roosevelt House, before friends, diplomats and family.
Verma was coming after a particularly low point in the relationship between India and the US, as the Devyani Khobragade episode had marred years of hard work on the ties. With US President Barack Obama agreeing to visit India as chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations in January 2015, he arrived as the first Indian-American to serve as the Indian envoy, after a last-minute Senate confirmation in December. “He was sent to clean up the damage, and he was the Fix-It guy,” an official recalled.
Verma, whose term has been cut short abruptly with the change in the US administration, saw a fresh momentum in the ties during his term — something that Bowles would have been envious of.
While there hasn’t been a “nuclear deal moment” in the past two years, there have been some substantive outcomes. This is particularly true for defence, where India was granted ‘major defence partner status’, and New Delhi, in a rather radical departure, signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States, which will allow their militaries to work closely and use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies.
The nuclear deal was also operationalised in this period, with the civilian nuclear liability issue being resolved and Westinghouse moving forward on nuclear plants.
The two sides have developed closer interaction on counter-terrorism than ever before, acknowledge Indian and US diplomats. The Paris climate change agreement too fructified during Verma’s term, though the negotiations got a fillip from the top.
Under Verma’s leadership, the visa regime stabilised, with the number of Indian students in the US reaching 1.6 lakh, the highest ever. Trade numbers are up too, and the two countries are collaborating on the Asia-Pacific region more publicly than ever before.
While many of the decisions were also the result of the frequent Modi-Obama meetings — nine, at last count — Verma’s experience on the Capitol Hill and the Legislative branch came in handy. “He was someone you could deal with to get things done, since he had the ability to bring in his network on the Hill, his legal experience, and was able to come with solutions on tricky issues,” a top Indian official who dealt with him told The Indian Express.
Within the American diplomatic mission, Verma was always known as the “nuts-and-bolts guy” who would be into the “details” of every aspect of the relationship. He famously has a yellow-pad which he divides into four squares and writes his to-do lists and then strikes out what is done.
However, there were some failures during his time. The two major ones include India not being able to make it to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar not being listed as global terrorist by the UN — both faced the Chinese wall despite the US backing India’s diplomatic outreach.
A political appointee, Verma was known to speak his mind at times. In the backdrop of the regulatory action against several NGOs, including the Ford Foundation, he made one of his most important remarks, expressing “concern” on the “potentially chilling effects” of the regulatory steps taken against NGOs in the country. Again, last year, at a time when student protests were on at JNU, he said that free speech is the “central tenet” of what India and the US “hold dear”.
Verma visited all the 29 states during his time in India, and tweeted from each.
However, mostly, he was a naturally quiet ambassador — unlike predecessors at the Roosevelt House known for their flamboyance or outspokenness or deep access to the prime ministers of the country.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1961-63) was an internationally acclaimed economist who came to India first as part of the team drafting the second five-year-plan by Prof P C Mahalanobis. In his book Ambassador’s Journal, Galbraith talked about his easy relationship with Nehru and even easier access to Teen Murti House. When the India-China war broke out, Prof Galbraith had an unprecedented role and voice in India’s war campaign. Senior Army generals and the Ministry of External Affairs officials were in and out of Roosevelt House, keeping the Ambassador briefed.
Kenneth B Keating (1969-72) is remembered for his valiant role in speaking about the genocide in East Pakistan, along with consul general in Dhaka, Archer Blood, and had earned the wrath of US president Richard Nixon, who even called him a “traitor” and had threatened to fire him.
Richard Frank Celeste (1997 to 2001) had the unenviable task of managing the relationship after the Pokhran-II tests, and bringing it back on track with the famed Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks.
All these ambassadors, including the recent ones such as Robert D Blackwill, David C Mulford and Timothy Roemer, had one thing in common — they were all political appointees. Of the 23 US ambassadors since 1947, 16 are said to have been political appointees. Of the seven in the last two decades, five have been political appointments.
Mulford (2004-09), who saw through the negotiation of the historic Indo-US nuclear deal, wrote in his book Packing for India, “…the reality in India, and the historic record since independence in 1947, is that US ambassadors to India have been prominent political appointees, known personally to the US President. US Foreign service officers, however skilled and well-prepared, are not seen in the same light as senior political appointees with direct access to the President.”
As US President Donald Trump takes charge, all eyes are set on the next nominee to the Roosevelt House. Already, Asia policy expert like Ashley Tellis and Indian-American businessman Shalabh Kumar’s names are doing the rounds, but Washington insiders say that the transition team is still talking to a couple of potential candidates and that they are nowhere near making a decision.
As concerns over H1-B visa cuts, more emphasis on job-creation in America and protectionism loom large, many feel that the Indo-US relationship will be on “auto-pilot”. But, as an American diplomat summed it up, “Diplomacy is like gardening… You have to work hard every day for better outcomes.”