Ami Bera is the only Indian-American sitting in the US Congress today. A physician, he is consulted by the White House on public health issues but he also has a passion for Indo-US relations.
Representing a district in Northern California, he is a member of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee and its subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
Bera, in India for a five day visit, spoke to Pramit Pal Chaudhuri of his desire to reinvigorate a flagging Indo-US strategic partnership and how India Inc needs to hard-sell its contributions to the US economy.
On being an Indian-American:
My story begins with my parents who migrated from Gujarat to the US in the 1950s. There was always a strong sense of family and community as I grew up.
I believe I’ve been elected because I am an Indian-American who represents certain values like a belief in education, hard work and family. These values are ones that have served Indians well, as they have served me well.
On Indo-US relations:
My desire to become a member of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee is not merely happenstance. I wanted to join because I wanted to make the Indo-US relationship stronger and deeper.
The relationship has plateaued a bit in recent times. I think that’s because both countries have become more inward-looking thanks to domestic politics and economic problems.
The US is coming out of a recession – we still haven’t gotten out of the woods yet – so hopefully this will give us a new opportunity to see how we can drive together.
On the US Congress and India:
People in the United States are fond of India and Indians are fond of Americans. It was one of the reasons despite the fact that I ran in a district that had a population that was less than one percent Indian and less than 10% Asian – I was still able to defeat a long-standing incumbent Republican.
I think every US congressman has an interest in India, but not all of them have a deep understanding of the country. The Indo-US nuclear deal was a high point in the relationship because it brought together the Indian-American community and so many congressmen.
The India Caucus remains the largest single-country caucus on Capitol Hill even now.
On India and the US working together on Afghanistan:
This is my perspective, the perspective of one congressman. Afghanistan, post-2014 when most US troops are scheduled to withdraw, is the one area where we, India and the US, need to come together. India has a critical role to play in this.
Afghanistan is heading for a second presidential election and there needs to be a successful transition there as Hamid Karzai steps down. I was in Afghanistan a few months ago, talking to people there on the ground. President Karzai stated he would not be running again.
India has large investments in Afghanistan and could help support an economy that will be badly hit as the US’s military spending there declines. That investment will need security, however, and the US could still be in a position to contribute to that.
That’s where I’d like to see the conversation between the two countries on this region go.
It would be in the interest of both India and the US that Afghanistan did not fall apart, that the whole thing did not fall apart, after the US withdrawal.
It is in both countries’ interest that a stable Afghanistan did not unfold into chaos. To see America’s longest war effort come to naught, this would have an impact on the American psyche as well. But the US public is fatigued, it is tired of war.
On congressional complaints about India’s economic policies:
On the economic side, the complaints from the US Congress about India’s policies are because of US companies having problems on intellectual property rights in India, problems on the transparency about how decisions are being made.
They are expressing their frustrations through their Congressmen, which is how our system works.
I understand how India would perceive this and my name is noticeably absent from these letters of protest. I think it is better to keep such issues out of the political debate.
Indian companies have to also make their own case much better. They have to tell individual congressmen how Indian investment is helping to create jobs in their specific districts. There is a need to educate US congressmen, expose them to the opportunities that India offers them.
The information technology revolution of the past few decades has been driven by the Indian-American community. I’ve been to Bangalore and seen the similarities in its start-up culture and entreneurship with that of Silicon Valley.
I want my colleagues in the Congress to see this – I’ve seen it, but it’s more important that they do. I don’t see our two nations a competitors but rather collaborators.
On Indian IT firms complaints about the US immigration bill:
The legislative discussion around the present immigration reform bill is largely about border security and citizenship for undocumented migrants.
The Senate version of the bill has already been passed, but the House one is still pending.
Indian industry needs to make the case as to how many jobs they’ve contributed to the US economy.
The danger is that if the immigration issues that are troubling Indian firms become a political issue then resolution will be much more difficult. It has become a political issue in India but there is no desire to do so in the US.
On Indian-Americans and bilateral ties:
The Indian-American community needs to have an issue to bring them together again. In my view, that issue to the creation and strengthening of a real strategic partnership between India and the US.
For example, the two should work together on post-2014 Afghanistan. The US and India both work closely with Israel, it may be worthwhile to look at a trilateral relationship of these three democracies.
India has an opportunity to be the anchor of stability in South Asia and become a key player in the US’s rebalance to Asia policy. These are all elements of a strategic partnership, one where both sides are equals.
The Indian-American community has representation in government. Over the next decade I hope we’ll see four to five other Indian-American congressmen. There are already many congressional staff members of Indian origin.