Harsh Vardhan Shringla interview – India’s suave diplomat

India’s Ambassador to the United States, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, at the Consulate General of India, New York, on April 4, 2019. Photo: Peter Ferreira.

NEW YORK – India’s Ambassador to the United States Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who assumed office in January of this year, in Washington, DC, has his work cut out for him: ceaselessly promote US-India ties on all fronts, gather bipartisan support for India in condemning cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and, importantly, keep a placid front, without flinching, not show even the hint of a grimace, when things go down south on matters of trade or immigration.

Shringla’s job is to take into his, and in India’s stride, new rules and regulations put in place by the Trump administration, to navigate around future friction points. Firmly look at the sunny side of things. Put things in perspective. Press on for a better tomorrow.

In Shringla, India has chosen the perfect man for the moment.

A veteran, suave diplomat with a winsome smile, Shringla exudes old world charm, humility and grace in all his actions, words, and interactions. He infuses a mix of gravitas and effervescence in gatherings that he attends. He holds audience spell-bound by his command over the facts and figures that define Indo-US ties.

Before he assumed office in Washington, DC, Shringla last served as the Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh. In the course of a diplomatic career spanning 35 years, Shringla has held a variety of positions in New Delhi and abroad including Ambassador of India to Thailand.

Shringla has served in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, as joint secretary (director general) responsible for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives. He has also headed the United Nations Political and SAARC Divisions in the ministry. Earlier, he served as director of the Northern Division dealing with Nepal and Bhutan and as deputy secretary of the Europe West Division.

A graduate of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, Shringla has worked in the corporate and public sectors in India prior to joining the Indian Foreign Service in 1984. Shringla speaks French, Vietnamese and Nepalese apart from English and Indian languages, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.

In an exclusive interview to Parikh Worldwide Media and ITV Gold, at the Indian Consulate in New York, on April 4, Shringla delved into several important issues, including on terrorism and fake news spiraling from Pakistan, immigration woes, tariffs, India’s immense contribution to the US economy, and his memorable interaction with President Trump.

Excerpts from the interview:

Eight hundred and ninety seven million voters are going to cast their vote in India’s upcoming elections. Do you get to cast your vote? Or are you deprived of your right to vote because you are serving India in a special way?

In a week from now we will be embarking on the largest democratic exercise anywhere in the world. The logistics and the magnitude of these elections are unprecedented and staggering.

I think what the government has done this time is that it made it open voting for those representatives of India who are posted abroad in the public interest. Those who are serving in any embassy would be allowed to cast their vote. This is, in a certain way, partly electronic and partly ballot. You will get your ballot through the electronic process and then you have to fill in your ballot and send it by what we call diplomatic bag. So it is counted more as a postal ballot.

Ambassador, no doubt the US has supported India in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. Since you assumed office, you have met a lot of lawmakers. Going forward, what is the general consensus amongst these lawmakers, on how to deal with Pakistan?

Let’s be very clear on one thing. When we engage with our interlocutors in the United States, we have a range of issues that we speak about. Those involve our own relationship, which is a multifaceted one. It involves a vision of how we see our region and the world. It involves cooperation in economic areas. On environmental areas. On people-to-people contacts. There are a range of issues that we discuss.

When we talk of our neighbors, (when) we talk of other countries, the issue of Pakistan does come up. But it is incidental. I would not like you to believe that this country (Pakistan) is a primary focus of ours. It happens to be a neighbor of ours. Agreeably, a troublesome neighbor. It should not be a country that diverts us from our main focus, which is the development of close ties with other states, particularly the important partners and interlocutors like the United States.

What about fake news coming out of Pakistan. There is a flurry of fake news, and sometimes there is apprehension as to what exactly is going on. How do you make sure that lawmakers are kept aware of, kept abreast of, what is really happening, and what is India’s stance?

Well, let’s say that we are very happy that Facebook has come out very clearly in terms of policy to detect news that are fake. And as you know there is an entire cyber industry in Pakistan that is involved in the circulation of fake news, and spreading rumor and speculation on lines that are clearly, you know, both designed to spread confusion and designed to, actually, (create) rift between countries.

So, in that sense they (Facebook) have identified a large number of such accounts in Pakistan, and have shut them. And we believe that such actions are very necessary in order for social media to be an area where people can have more faith on. Can look through social media without feeling that they are constantly being influenced in a manner that is factually incorrect.

This phenomenon is in many different parts of the world. It is particularly disturbing that a good amount of that emanates either from Pakistan or on account of Pakistan.

Ambassador, share your memory of being in the presence of President Trump when you presented your credentials after you assumed office, in Washington, DC. Is there anything that has stayed with you?

I arrived on the 9th of January this year and within 48 hours I got an appointment with the President. I can say that the meeting I had with the President in order to present credentials is one I remember with a lot of positive sentiment because the warmth, the candor and the good will that he expressed when he met me was truly unique, I think. He was very affable, very kind. I would even say jovial, and I left with a very good feeling of his sentiments first and foremost for India, and of course, his very close relationship to the Prime Minister (Modi).

In fact, he (Trump) said he had just spoken to the Prime Minister and he was looking forward to speaking to him again, and he was looking forward to, more often. I think that reflects the progress we have made in the last few years. It’s because of the account of the leadership exercised by both President Trump and by Prime Minister Modi.  The relationship has led with a level of the principals and that makes it easier for all of us to implement the basis on which both leaders attach importance to the relationship.

President Trump has always touted ‘America First’. And Prime Minister Modi has touted ‘India First’. Both are right in their own way. But when it comes to the area of trade, there is the likelihood of certain difference of ways of looking at trade, and trade wars.

With regard to what you said about ‘India First’ and ‘America First’, I think you would have seen that Prime Minister Modi has made a statement saying there is no contradiction between ‘America First’ and ‘India First’. Both countries have priorities, but we are both engaged in cooperating in areas that are mutually beneficial. And there are lots of areas where we have complementarities. And these are areas in terms of investment, and in terms of trade, in terms of economic exchanges we are engaged in. And that is reflected in the figures.

In the year 2018, two-way trade increased by 13%. American exports to India increased by close to 30%. And, of course, the adverse trade balance, which is in favor of India, came down significantly. In the last two years, the adverse trade balance came down from around $25 billion to $21 billion, and that is because we are buying more American goods. Last year, we purchased four and a half billion dollars of oil and gas. This year onwards, we have a commitment to purchase five and a half billion dollars. Indian companies have placed orders for 300 commercial aircraft worth $39 billion. We have introduced new items to import from the United States like poultry.

In 2018, I’m amazed at the quantity of poultry we have imported from the US, which is an agricultural product, helping farmers, in the heartland of the United States. And of course, if you look at the defense basket, we have gone from zero to a decade ago, to about $18 billion in defense imports. Just yesterday, there was news of another range of defense equipment that is now ready to be supplied. And I just learnt from our air attache this morning that Boeing company is ready for delivery of the Apache helicopters.

We are doing very well. So, as I said, as our Prime Minister said, there is really no contradiction. India is a country that offers a huge market of $1.3 billion people. We have a very, very strong base of middle class with purchasing power that is comparable to countries anywhere in the world. We are also demographically a unique country because by 2020 the average age in India would be 28.2 years. So, we will be a young country. Young country means more consumption, more purchasing power. Larger workforce supporting a smaller population of people who are retired. And I think that is good news for business and corporates who are looking at India.

I have met representatives of very large American businesses that are engaged in India. Every big company in the United States is in India today. And I don’t think any one of them can say that the profit they are making is less than double digits. So, where is the issue of high tariffs, market taxes when trade is booming, and exports are booming and adverse trade imbalance is coming down. And companies are doing very well. So, my sense is that the two countries at this point of time have never seen better times. A lot of that credit has to go to the President and the Prime Minister.

India’s Ambassador to the United States, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, at the Consulate General of India, New York, on April 4, 2019. Photo: Peter Ferreira.

Ambassador, you spoke about the trade imbalance. In 2018, India’s exports were $54 billion and the US exports to India were $33 billion. Is the retaliation game, the tit-for-tat game, or whatever you want to call it, will this narrow when the trade imbalance narrows? Where do you see it headed in the next five years?

Well, our expectation has always been that we bring down the adverse trade balance. We are buying more goods from America. Not by exporting less, but by importing more. And that is part of that commitment and we are fulfilling that commitment. As far as retaliation etc. goes, yes, the US has imposed higher duties on steel and aluminum on India. We have held back on imposing retaliatory tariffs so far. And of course that is because we want to ensure that this not as you would say a ‘trade war’. This is part of a negotiation, process with the US government to rationalize trade to the extent possible and wherever there are market taxes issues we try and address them to the extent that both countries can…because we also have domestic industry, we have small and medium producers. A lot of them also depend on ensuring that the market in India is to the extent possible not distorted by a large inflow of goods by other countries. So we have to protect each others’ interests. But in that I’m sure there is enough scope. In fact, we have offered the possibility of scope for increased market access to US goods and that should in our view provide the basis for a settlement on any trade issues that are ongoing.

And, therefore, preclude the possibility of reciprocal duties on certain products emanating from the United States. So my hope and expectation is that over the next month or so we should be able to come to certain agreements or understandings which would be mutually beneficial and satisfactory. And for that of course, we need to have a government in place to be able to go through an electoral process. For the new government to engage on these issues. At this point of time, everybody, the political leadership, is engaged with the electoral exercise. There is a model code of conduct under which we cannot make any major decisions. So, we have to allow for a little more time, based on which we can conclude the agreements which are satisfactory.

My point always has been that it has to be a win-win situation. It cannot be a zero sum game in which you slam the door and neither side makes progress. That’s a slippery downward slope which we don’t want to go.

Despite all the US-India bonhomie, of late, ministers from India have stopped speaking on immigration issues, on the H-1B visa front. So, do you see it as a lost cause, in terms of speaking of Indian skilled labor in the US, under the Trump administration?

The issue of immigration is something that the US has to deal with. But as a country that is affected, we are fully engaged with the United States in explaining our position. And needless to say, our point of view is that the H-1B visa provides the United States with the possibility of having access to technically qualified people who offer competitiveness to US industry. Eighty three percent of all H-1B visas are utilized by US industry who are paying, I’m told, as much as $40 billion in order to access the H-1B visa, to the US government.

The fact of the matter is that if the US is the top country technologically, there has to be a basis for that. I have always maintained that some of the finest minds from India are here in the United States, studying here. We have 227,000 students who cumulatively contribute $6.4 billion to the US economy. Many of them come not only for wisdom that they get from the courses that they undertake but also the experience and expertise that comes with working for a short term in the United States.

That is where the H-1B visa comes in, and most of them are from the STEM program. And if they can join for a certain period of time and contribute to the high tech industry I think that is again a win-win for both of us. Because from what I can see is that there is a shortfall of 2.4 million people in the high tech industry. These are US figures. And if you have that kind of shortfall, it doesn’t make sense to deny an H-1B visa. You have to be targeted where you want to address the issue of immigration.

I would not even call the H-1B visa an immigration visa, since it is a temporary visa status, for people who work here, more as guest workers. And that I think gives you an important technological edge and competitive edge. If you deny that edge then it has an impact.

The second thing is that many Indian companies have invested in the US – and they have invested more than $20 billion and there are many new investments that are on the anvil, particularly in the high tech areas, developing R&D facilities, R&D labs, developing new apps in the US, looking to recruit US citizens. Infosys, for example, has committed to employing 10,000 people in the United States. All US citizens. But there are not that many people with expertise to join that company. So they (Infosys) are going to campuses, providing on-the-job training, and recruiting people.

Indian IT companies have added value to the extent of $53 billion to the US economy and I think looking from that point of view, this is a partnership that has to be seen in that context. It cannot be seen in the larger rubric of immigration and what you feel is a threat to the economy. You have to see it as a focus but pointed contribution to the US economy and an area where both of us can work closely together, in a win-win situation.

Talking of the win-win situation, and moving towards another area, which is very important and made all of us look at India with more pride, relates to our achievement in the field of space. India is now amongst elite nations after its anti-satellite tests. When you heard about that, how did that make you feel? NASA scientists said some debris will cause harm. Indian scientists claimed otherwise. What is your reaction?

I think the US has been very supportive of the anti-satellite tests we did. I think there is a great deal of appreciation for the technological achievement and also the circumstances under which we have undertaken this test. NASA administrator made a mention of the debris but he also mentioned that this debris will disintegrate soon and will not pose any threat to the international space station.

At the same time they (NASA) have confirmed that they will collaborate with India on the Chandrayaan-2 mission. It is a clear endorsement from NASA that India continue to be a principal partner in their collaboration with other countries. And that India and the United States will work together in fields of space development for the benefit of both our populations.

(Note: This edited interview was conducted jointly by Sujeet Rajan, Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media, and Ashok Vyas, anchor and News Director, ITV Gold. It would also be broadcast on ITV Gold. Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, the Founder and Chairman of Parikh Worldwide Media, and Chairman, ITV Gold, sat in on the interview too.)



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