In a significant development for lately troubled India-US relations, five past US ambassadors to India on Wednesday sought a fair deal for Indian companies on immigration.
But their call – contained in a letter to congressional leaders Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi – goes beyond the immigration issue.
It was the first show of support for India in last many months dominated by calls to press New Delhi to speed up reforms and correct allegedly discriminatory business practices.
And it gave India a much needed respite days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit later this month to meet US President Barack Obama before the UN general assembly.
“We are concerned that the high-skilled visa provisions in legislation currently contemplated by the Senate are not in US economic interests and they complicate our relations with India,” said the ambassadors – Thomas R Pickering, Frank G Wisner, Richard Celeste, David C Mulford and Robert Blackwill – in the letter.
The senate passed an immigration bill in June that would make it difficult for H-1B dependent firms – such as Infosys and TCS – to continue hiring cheap foreign workers.
That part of the legislation, which otherwise tries to address other more pressing issues for the US, specifically targets Indian firms, at the behest of their local rivals.
But there is not much support for the senate bill in the House of representatives and the timing of the letter by the ambassadors, therefore, takes on a different meaning.
It is intended, said business community sources, to counter the aggressive lobbying by US firms against India on business issues that has jeopardised bilateral ties lately.
Though India has given in in some case – temporarily suspending preferential market access in the electronic sector – pressure continues to be mounted on it for more.
The ambassadors said in the letter: “Our ongoing bilateral dialogue with India and not punitive legislation has in the past helped resolve differences.”
“Departing from this approach will not solve these problems; it risks provoking “tit for tat” retaliation, which denigrates this important relationship.”
India has been under unprecedented pressure lately from US businesses on intellectual property rights and to open up retail and financial services.
A bipartisan group of more than 170 lawmakers wrote a letter to president Barack Obama complaining about Indian trade practices before the India-US strategic dialogue in July.
Kerry did raise these issues at his meetings.
Soon after, India’s finance minister P Chidambaram, commerce minister Anand Sharma and planning commission vice-chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia came here to address those concerns.
But the pressure continued, with the US International Trade Commission announcing recently an investigation of India’s allegedly anti-US discriminatory trade practices.