“My mother was born in what is today Pakistan.
A product of the partition, her family would resettle in Northern India shortly after 1947. My father was the only literate person in his family. My mother would go on to get her Master’s degree. And my dad would get his PhD and become the first person in his family who could read and write.”
And then this idealistic young man would relocate to a land of opportunity – the United States of America with 24 dollars in his pocket in the early sixties. Convinced that in this world, it’s not your position but your disposition that matters, the Vermas, plodded on. Today one of their children is the US Ambassador to India, overseeing arguably the largest U.S. Missions in the world, four consulates across India and nearly every agency of the U.S. government. Meet Richard R.Verma, lawyer turned diplomat and the first Indian American to be posted to New Delhi as Washington’s envoy.
When the Obama administration announced Verma’s appointment after a six month hiatus owing to Nancy Powell’s truncated tenure in the aftermath of the Devyani Khobragade flashpoint, a Huffington Post headline screamed: “President Hits A Home Run.” Just as well as President Obama once quipped that in foreign policy, sometimes “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” The average waiting period for a Senate confirmation for nominees cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is 237 days. Quite remarkably,Verma made it in a week! “It is a great honour to return to the country where my parents are from some 50 years after they first left here.”
The appointment may have been smooth sailing but his early years were rough. “My brother, three sisters and parents – stuck together like glue, having fun, getting through the tough times, but settling into our new home and making new friends in Pennsylvania. It really does take a village to make it and we had so many good friends, relatives and neighbours who helped us along the way.”
Armed with law degrees from Georgetown University Law Center (LLM) and American University’s Washington College of Law (JD), Verma went on to serve the U.S. Air Force as a Judge Advocate and even earned the Meritorious Service and Air Force Commendation medals. Private practice caught his fancy and he became a partner at the global law firm – Steptoe & Johnson and later Senior Counselor to the Albright Stonebridge Group. But his real calling seemed to be public policy and diplomacy. Verma functioned as the Commissioner to the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism Commission and as a Co-Author of their landmark report – “World at Risk.”. As a former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama Administration, he led the State Department’s efforts on Capitol Hill and served as a senior member of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s team. Not to forget assignments as the Senior National Security Advisor to the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid and in the House of Representatives for longtime Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee, Jack Murtha.
Just how diplomatic can he be? I put his skills to the test with carefully crafted ‘lawyer to lawyer’ sort of posers. Sample a few.
Was President Obama’s parting note of caution to India to guard against sectarian divisions based on reports of recent incidents like attacks on Churches in Delhi?
“President Obama gave a very clear vision of how both the United States and India share democratic values and are built on inclusivity and diversity. Those values are what create economic growth, and allow people to live freely. The President offered his remarks in a spirit of partnership.”
How has President Obama’s recent visit to India bolstered Indo-US ties on the geo-political front especially with regard to our fight against terror?
“Counter-terrorism cooperation is a pillar of our partnership with India. President Obama and Prime Minister Modi are committed to make the U.S.-India partnership a defining counter-terrorism relationship for the 21st Century. They expressed deep concern over threats posed by groups like Al Qaida and ISIL and called for eliminating terrorist safe havens and infrastructure, disrupting terrorist networks and their financing, and stopping their cross-border movements. Our counter-terrorism partnership with India has deepened since the 2008 Mumbai attacks and has the potential to expand further. We will continue to engage India through the Homeland Security Dialogue and the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism”
What are the stumbling blocks to the aspiration of achieving $500 billion in U.S.-India bilateral trade? You had mentioned intellectual property enforcement as a concern. What about red-tapism in India?
“ Our annual trade already amounts to $100 billion, which represents a very significant increase over the last several years. We look forward to increasing this figure to $500 billion. In January, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi affirmed their shared commitment to facilitating increased bilateral investment flows and fostering an open and predictable climate for investment with a high-standard Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). U.S. Foreign Direct Investment in India already amounts to about $25 billion. Indian FDI in the United States has already gone beyond $10 billion. A high standard BIT could help us increase these investment figures dramatically. Our companies are eagerly watching the progress on the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the proposed bankruptcy code, as well as movements on simplification and predictability of taxation. We support India’s goal of developing an IP policy that aims to foster predictability, clarity and transparency for inventions and creations.”
It’s not easy to make a veteran diplomat give you a juicy headline! But having moved away from mainstream news, that was not my agenda.
Despite his tight schedule, the Ambassador maintains an active social media presence with regular tweets @USAmbIndia and posts on facebook.com/India.usembassy. “I know that India’s social media is an increasingly influential space. I noted with interest how Prime Minister Modi has used Twitter so effectively and that there are now over 100 million Facebook users and over 40 million Twitter users in India.” As I browse through his tweets, I gathered that he likes South Indian filter coffee and has been impressed by the Nehru Memorial Museum and the Nizamuddin Sufi Shrine.
How different is law from diplomacy? A handmaid or diametrically opposite? “I think there’s a close connection, particularly today where international law, institutions, customs, and norms matter more and more”. With an attorney wife, “two lawyers in the family makes for some spirited debate around the dinner table!” The eyes of his twin angels and an elder daughter light up whenever stories of their grandparents in India are recounted.
A few years ago, Verma was ranked among the Top 50 Most Influential Indian Americans. In the five months that he has been in the hot seat, that ranking has probably reached the top; also as the most unassuming Indian American leader. After I had emailed my request to feature him in this column, courtesy my good friend Vikram Raghavan, Lead Counsel at the World Bank in Washington DC, I got a very warm update from the Ambassador: “Sanjay, I haven’t forgotten about the interview.” I’m sure that grace and humility has a lot to do with his early struggle in life. “That’s the American story – and increasingly the Indian story. So, I won’t forget those beginnings. And I will continue to work hard to ensure others have the chances I was given too.” Quite like his President.
Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor, IVLP alumnus & Former Resident Editor –NDTV 24×7