Modi card helped India fend off US trade sanctions

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 02, 2014 13:11 IST

The UPA government leveraged the general elections to persuade the White House to block the US pharmaceutical industry’s attempts to put India on the US trade blacklist, say a number of US and Indian sources.

The US trade representative’s office was expected to list India as a “priority foreign country” when it issued its annual report on Wednesday. This would have opened India to trade sanctions. Instead, the report effectively announced another year-long review of India’s policies.

Indian officials over the past several weeks repeatedly asked different US agencies: “India will elect a new government in two weeks. Do you want to start the relationship on this note?” Washington sources say this line was echoed within the US interagency debate over the USTR report.

The difficult part was to get this message into President Barack Obama’s relatively closed circle of advisors. Especially since US trade representative Michael Froman was seen as hostile, soured by years of battling New Delhi at various trade fora.

This required India to do two things. One, stitch together a coalition of lobby groups in Washington who would loudly support New Delhi’s case. Two, neutralise the primary advocate for sanctions against India: US pharma giant Pfizer.

The Indian embassy lined up as many US corporations as it could find to lobby with the US Congress and White House in favour of India. This initially was defence and aerospace firms, but eventually drug-makers like Abbott Labs were roped in to publicly declare their support for India’s patent regime.

India also had two avenues into the White House. One was State Department South Asia department head, assistant secretary Nisha Biswal. Biswal has a mentor and direct line to the White House in Obama’s powerful chief of staff Denis McDonough. Indian officials also found a sympathetic ear in US deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken.

One diplomat said, “This was the first time since the nuclear deal that India had used such a diverse network to lobby.”

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