PIOs make their mark

PIOs make their mark

PIOs make their mark, Australia, the UK and Portugal have already posted envoys and sent officials of Indian origin to New Delhi over the past few...

The United States has appointed Richard Rahul Verma as envoy to India in time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit. Verma is one of the few Americans, and among the many Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) to have made their mark in the world of diplomacy.

Australia, the UK and Portugal have already posted envoys and sent officials of Indian origin to New Delhi over the past few years. Australian Foreign Secretary Peter Varghese, a Malayalee, was sent to India as High Commissioner to douse anger over ‘racist attacks’ in Australia. The British High Commission has posted two deputy High Commissioners to India as part of the effort to “reflect British multiculturalism in all fields”.

Ethnic Indians have performed well wherever they are across the globe. In July, the outgoing administration of President Hamid Karzai, appointed Sham Lal Bathija as Afghanistan ambassador to Canada.

The Obama administration counts over 30 Indian-origin officials. Elsewhere, too, this is happening. Indians are gaining increasing acceptance. Willingness to adapt, to work hard and knowledge of English language are some of the positive attributes of the Indians that carry them far. India’s own image matters. Its economic strides have created a positive image. But scandals like the Commonwealth Games have painted India negatively.

In New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri or to government in Washington, London or many of the world capitals, ethnic Indians at work in key positions is no longer a rarity. Since data on this is not easily available, perhaps, more Indians reach there than the Chinese who have the world’s largest diaspora. The Indians come second at an estimated 25 to 30 million.

Verma, a US assistant secretary of state, before he began preparing for his New Delhi assignment, was a senior counselor at the Steptoe & Johnson law firm and the Albright Stonebridge Group, a business advisory company led by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

The New Delhi post has been vacant since the departure of the previous ambassador Nancy Powell, after a disastrous stint during which India and US got into a bitter spat over diplomatic privileges and protocol.

With the impending Modi visit, which the Obama administration used to the hilt to repair a relationship soured by Modi’s own being kept out for a decade, the announcement of Verma’s appointment was crucial. Understandably, he did a lot of back-room tasks and networking for the new job for which he would need the US Congressional approval.

Verma is the second Indian-American in a job that involves India after Nisha Desai-Biswal, the current Assistant Secretary of State for South and South Central Asia, a region that also involves India.

Verma, 43, graduated from Georgetown University (LLM), Lehigh University (JD), and American University (BS). He is considered a leading practitioner in the fields of national security law, international regulatory compliance and public policy.

He worked with Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and for long with Senator Harry Reid, besides having extensive experience working on US export controls and economic sanctions. He has served in the United States Air Force as a judge advocate.

During his August visit, Kerry had Nisha Desai Biswal by his side. Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, too, had Arun Kumar, and defence secretary Chuck Hagel brought with him Puneet Talwar. As assistant secretaries in the Obama administration, they are key operational level officials who manage major programmes and implement policies. Of sub-cabinet level rank, they are appointed by the President, with the consent of the US Senate, and assigned to assist a specific cabinet secretary. Although fourth in the pecking order after Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, and under-secretaries, they are points persons in specific areas.

Indian-Americans have been routinely making the assistant secretary grade from the time George Bush nominated Bobby Jindal to be assistant secretary of health and human services for planning and evaluation in 2001. Generally though, they have had little to do with India. But Nisha broke the mould. From a family that emigrated from Dahod, Gujarat, when she was six, she is the first assistant secretary of sub-continental origin who is given direct charge of the region that includes India and Pakistan.

Jindal is now serving second term as Governor of Louisiana, widely perceived as one who could make a bid for the US’ vice presidentship, or may even run for the president in 2016. Jindal has never been to India. But that does not matter either to Americans or Indians. A first generation migrant, Arun Kumar moved from University of Kerala to MIT. He became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and then founded and led KPMG's US-India Practice. He is also the co-editor of Kerala's Economy — Crouching Tiger, Sacred Cows.

Indians are often accused of adopting or appropriating any ethnic Indian anywhere – even if he/she has never been to India or have had nothing to do with the country of their fore-bearers. Why not? India does not demand loyalty from them. It’s policy towards its diaspora, as enunciated by Jawaharlal Nehru, has been that they should be loyal to their adopted homes, work and prosper there.

It is no surprise that nothing in the US government careers of these ethnic Indians points to anything other than their loyalty to the United States. The problem, if at all, has been with the Americans, a multi-ethnic society that they are, to accept this diversity. A US Congressman recently mistook Kumar and Biswal to be Indian officials, ostensibly because of their brown skin. The Obama administration, on its part, has hardly concealed its desire to use them for its India outreach, while recognizing their contribution America.

"America's prosperity rests more than ever in the strength of our links to this region. Nisha's experience and the success that so many Indian Americans bring to the American table show to everybody in the world the deep ties that we have between the United States and India. And I know that we're going to unlock the enormous potential of stronger economic, security, and cultural ties between our countries," Kerry said at Biswal's swearing in.

Talwar too is part of that unlocking mechanism. Hagel brought him for networking after the Americans lost the multi-role combat aircraft bid last year, to lobby for American arms to India as part of the job.

India’s pride, however, can be a neighbour’s envy. Pakistan was most uneasy at the presence of an ethnic Indian official in key position with the late Richard Holbrook, who was Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan-Afghanistan.

By all indications, this trend will continue, globally. But the catch is that India should not expect too much from them. Their loyalty, as it should be, rests with their adopted homes.

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