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'N-deal to change India's image abroad'

india Updated: Dec 22, 2006 11:30 IST

At the end of the 90 minutes he spent at the Hindustan Times House on Thursday morning, it was apparent why India's Ambassador to the United States, Ronen Sen, has been called India's most successful envoy abroad.

Ambassador Sen, in a freewheeling conversation with editors of the Hindustan Times, spoke at length of his experiences, his vision for the future of Indo-US relations and why he thought the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation deal was important. Sen, the only Indian diplomat to have served as Ambassador to Russia, Germany, Britain and now, the United States, also worked as Secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy, besides a long stint at the Prime Minister's office.

Setting the ball rolling, a relaxed Sen moved with ease from domestic politics to the international high table, as he fended a series of questions and ideas from HT editors. When a glass of water spilt on the table in front of him, Sen laughed off the incident, saying the Russians viewed it as a sign of good luck.

Emphasising that the multi-faceted initiatives to take Indo-US bilateral relations to a new, higher plane have been based on the principle of mutual benefit, Sen recounted how he had told US Senators and Congressmen who were unsure of how to react to the proposed US civil nuclear cooperation to vote for the deal only if they were convinced it would equally benefit the United States.

The huge bipartisan support in the US Congress for the J Henry Hyde Act is testimony to how effective his interaction with leading US opinion-makers has been.

"Take the initiatives of the past year and a half," Sen said. "Every one of them has been based on the principle of mutual benefit."

A key architect of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation deal that most people had initially said was not doable, given the audacity of the concept, Sen said the deal was just "one part of the intensified engagement between the two countries that would help harness high technology to meet the needs of ordinary people, particularly in rural India."

Citing the Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, "involving not only the governments, but also corporate India and corporate America," as a "technology-driven vehicle that would bring about the second green revolution in India," Sen spoke of tangible benefits that would flow from the 100 million dollars allocated for the first three years of the Initiative to benefit rural India. Similarly, he said, "the Science and Technology Agreement seeks to promote R&D projects between the two countries for commercial application."

The civil nuclear cooperation deal was "unprecedented, not only in the scope of what it proposed," Sen said, to provide India access to technology and fuel to raise its nuclear fuel generation and assist the rapidly rising development process, "but also in the way it had changed perceptions about India in the rest of the world."

Sen talked of the employment intensive aviation sector, poised to dramatically take off after the two countries signed the Open Skies agreement in 2005. Three major US carriers, Continental, American and Delta, now operate non-stop flights to India from American cities, while Jet Airways is set to begin non-stop operations to the US from August 2007. Air India will also increase the number of flights it operates to cities in the United States. Increased air traffic between both countries would have multiple spin-offs in the form of employment potential in the tourism, hotel and services sector, the Ambassador pointed out.

"The focus is now on our air cargo sector, since India is a very expensive destination," Sen said.

The goal of the next phase of engagement in the air cargo sector is to improve efficiency and reduce costs, he said.

Sen touched on every aspect of the bilateral relationship, from defence cooperation (and co-production of hardware outlined in the 10-year memorandum of understanding), to high technology cooperation. From agriculture and cooperation in the Unity of Democracies to cooperation in disaster management (the post-Tsunami collaboration being most visible and beneficial). From collaboration against pandemics like HIV/AIDS and Avian flu, to the Open Skies Agreement, mutually beneficial cooperation has characterised the bilateral relationship over the 18 months since Singh's visit, he said.

India and the US now have a Trade Policy Forum, which the United States so far only had with the European Union and China.

The Ambassador lauded the contribution of the two million strong Indian American community in the United States, saying their efforts had helped bring the two countries closer.

"The community has come of age and played a remarkable role in promoting closer cooperation between the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest and fastest growing democracy," he said. "Despite the differences in approach, they (the Indian American community) have helped bring a convergence on major aspects of the fundamental areas of interest between the two countries, which will bring stability to international relations across the globe."

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