Sandeep Chakravorty on the Campbell Conversations

Dec 8, 2018

When we think about America's international relations in Asia, the discussion usually focuses on China and North Korea. But India is a key nation in the region, and could prove centrally important in our future relations there. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Sandeep Chakravorty, Consul General of India in New York City. 

Reeher: Let’s start with a look back. India is today seen extremely favorably by Americans. There was a recent survey that found that India ranked sixth in terms of Americans’ favorability ratings of other countries. But it wasn’t always that way, especially in the Cold War, so tell me a bit about that background history of India/U.S. relations.

Chakravorty: I think you’re very right when you say that, and it has never been like this, or it wasn’t like this before…We established our diplomatic presence here in 1941, which was six years before we became independent. But right after becoming independent, the Cold War politics started. And because of many reasons, including geography and geopolitics, India was not on the side the U.S. would’ve preferred. And India espoused to a policy of nonalignment, which was not seen very favorably by the U.S. And for various reasons, the preferred partner in south Asia for the U.S. was Pakistan, our neighbor with whom we had a major dispute…Things deteriorated a lot during the 1971 Bangladesh war where we felt that the right cause was against genocide in Bangladesh, and the U.S. was supporting Pakistan. So, that was a low point in our relationship. And then, in 1974, when we had our first peaceful nuclear explosions, U.S. didn’t take kindly to that…Things started to look up only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s, early ’90s and in 1991, when we opened our market and we were a socialist economy…Since then, our relations have started to look up, but I think the major upturn in our relationships happened only after 1998. And then, we had a second round of nuclear deaths, and then U.S. really noticed India and our market reforms were gathering steam. And from 2000 onward…I think the last 18 years have been very productive.

Reeher: What do you think is driving the good relationship at its base? Is it shared economic interest? What do you think is really kind of driving this change?

Chakravorty: You see, in 1994, a U.S. diplomat known as Ambassador Dennis Kux, he wrote a book called “Estranged Democracies.” So, when he used the word “estranged,” you presuppose a relationship. There is affection. You’re talking of spouses. So, I think there is a bedrock of commonality, of shared values, of democracy. And India never posed any threat to the United States. There was lack of interest in India because of the Cold War…and also because maybe India was not economically significant for the United States. But in the last two or three decades, the old Cold War disappeared…and India became economically resurgent. India started rising. Our growth rate reached almost 10 percent. There were more opportunities, more business.

Reeher: Thinking about the present day now, and even looking into the future, why is India so important to the United States? I can think of different areas in which it may be important, but I was curious to hear you tell me, why do you think India will be important to the United States now and into the future?

Chakravorty: I will give a few reasons to explain my point. One is, of course, people may not recognize it, but I think because we are democracies, I think there is a great deal of understanding. There are certain things which we will not do to each other or to others. There is deep respect for the rule of law…And we also value the American system, the American democracies, respect for rule of law. That is one. Secondly, the economy is growing. India is the fastest-growing economy in the world. We clocked 8.25 percent in the last quarter, and this growth will be sustained. A lot of predictions would say that this growth rate will remain; it will not decline. And we will be, in the next four or five years, the third largest economy in the world. After U.S. and China, then it will be India. So, you have to deal with India. The growth in the world will come from India. The jobs in the world will come from India. Innovation will come from India. India’s going to become digital. I know there’s massive digital revolution going on in India, so the future of India is digital…It’s not only values. It’s also economic interest. And we are a force of stability in Asia. We are not in conflict. We do not export terror. We are working together on terror. Another turning point, if you’ll allow me to just roll back a bit, was 9/11. It created a special bond between India and the U.S. because earlier, when we used to talk of transnational terror, there were not too many takers until the tragedy of 9/11 happened and we realized that terror knows no boundaries. And I think there is a great deal of counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. So, from the security angle, from the geopolitics, U.S. sees India as a valued partner, and we believe in this relationship.

Reeher: I had a question for you now, council general, about…how people in India tend to view America and Americans. I’m thinking about how the citizens view this country. How do they think about it as a country, and how do they view Americans as a people?

Chakravorty: I think it’s a very good question. You said that there was a survey in the U.S. that India ranked sixth. I think if you do that survey in India, America will rank No. 1. I think there is a great deal of goodwill toward America. Even President Trump is very popular in India. There are even temples dedicated to the president of the United States in India. And I’m not joking. You can look it up on the net. So, a great level of positivity is there. Our prime minister spoke in the U.S. Congress, at the joint session of Congress in 2006, and he said that both the countries have overcome the hesitations of the past. We do the maximum number of military exercises with the United States…It is a work in progress. We are working on many dimensions, but I think it has to be more textured. We have to connect at greatest levels. Two hundred and seven thousand Indian students study here. That’s another aspect of our relationship. More and more American universities are sending their students to intern or to study in India…Indian companies are investing in the United States. Our companies are creating jobs. These things didn’t happen 10 years, 15 years back. We are buying defense equipment from the United States. Earlier, U.S. defense equipment was not available to us…Amazing frontiers are being attached to India, and I don’t see anything holding us back. I think only our creativity and our capacities will hold us back.

Reeher: What do you think are the biggest challenges that India is going through now and that it’s going to go through in the near future?

Chakravorty: I think our challenges are domestic. India is a huge country. It’s a diverse country. It’s a multi-ethnic country. So, our challenge is maintaining internal order, jobs for our people. India is the youngest country in the world…So, every month, we have to create at least 1 or 2 million jobs. So, I think our challenges are education, health. So, if we can meet our domestic challenges, I think the external challenges are a cake walk for us – if I’m using the word rightly. So, I think our challenges are internal, and I think we are aware of that and are working on that. A lot of transformation of India is happening, whether it is our infrastructure, our railways, our roads and the digital world. We believe our future is digital and we are moving from digital payments to services on the mobile phone. India has the largest mobile phone network in the world – 1.2 billion mobile phone connections are there. And our future is there.

Reeher: Shifting the topic a little bit, but as the council general for India and the United States in New York City, I understand that you’ve been very keen to try to streamline the visa and the passport services for Indian citizens. Coming back to Trump again, has the Trump administration’s changes in immigration policy had any kind of impact on that at all? Has there been any effect?

Chakravorty: There has been some effect, particularly because we believe that our skilled workforce has contributed immensely to the United States…I think we have contributed enormously to this digital revolution that the world has witnessed and America has witnessed and from which America is taking profit…So, we believe that it is important for these companies to prosper, you need this flow of brainpower. God has been kind in distributing brainpower quite equitably, if not graciously. And natural resources, he has divided brainpower quite equitably. So, we are 1.2 billion people. Now, you are entering into the world of artificial intelligence. Some people say they have only 10,000 programmers who can do artificial intelligence. So, by statistics, we will have the most trained in India. We are the largest population in the world. So, I think free flow of human capital is very important, and U.S. has benefited from that, so we need in our conversations with the U.S. government, we talk about that. We need to allow that. Otherwise, it’ll stifle the growth in these sectors.

Reeher: Tell me how you see the importance of arts and culture fitting into the broader issue of international relations. What’s the connection there?

Chakravorty: I am a firm believer in soft power, of cultural diplomacy, because I think, end of the day, when you eat other country’s or other person’s cuisine or you dress like him or you sing his songs, then you are really influenced. That is the real power…I believe our soft power is very effective in the United States, and the best example is yoga. If you tell somebody yoga is from India, they’ll believe it’s an American invention. So, that makes me feel very happy that Americans believe yoga is American – I’m the happiest person on that. Then, also, cuisine, our music, Bollywood, so I think end of the day, this is the real connector. It’s not money. It’s not power. It’s not weapons. When you start behaving and talking another person’s language, when you listen to his music, when you dance according to her tune, then you are really influenced. And I think that’s the future of mankind and hope for mankind.