From North Carolina, a bottom-up view of the India-US partnership | World News - Hindustan Times

From North Carolina, a bottom-up view of the India-US partnership

Apr 27, 2023 02:12 PM IST

HT travelled to North Carolina last week to track ambassador Sandhu’s engagements in the state.

On a warm late April morning, in the premises of the Hindu Society of North Carolina in Morrisville, a grand hall was buzzing with activity. Guests registered at a desk put up by the United States (US) Small Business Administration office. Indian-Americans, of all hues, could be seen exchanging cards. An idli breakfast was available for those who wanted a bite. And the front row was reserved for the special guests who would address the one-day event on the India-US business connection.

Ambassador of India to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu meets with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the US Department of State, in Washington.(ANI) PREMIUM
Ambassador of India to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu meets with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at the US Department of State, in Washington.(ANI)

As North Carolina governor Roy Cooper walked in, along with the Indian ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu, a Gujarati-origin small business entrepreneur turned and said, “Imagine this. We are in a town in America which has one-third Indians. Most small business owners here are Indians. The Indian ambassador is here. And the state governor makes it a point to come and inaugurate the event. This couldn’t have happened 15 years ago.”

While the India-US relationship is often viewed from the prism of New Delhi and Washington DC, American states — which, in the US federal system, are far powerful than their counterparts in the Indian system— are significant players in bilateral ties. It is here that the strengths that India brings to bear, with its demographic strength, student population, corporate firepower, diaspora’s influence, market lure and tech ecosystem, is felt acutely.

For state Governors, state legislators, and local mayors and council members, what India and Indian-Americans offer is political appealing. And this help sets the political mood, which Presidents, Senators and Congressional representatives then have to factor in when they decide on their foreign policy positions. All politics is, after all, local and it is to voters in states that all leaders, irrespective of rank, have to finally return to renew their mandates.

A stark illustration of this connect, and its subsequent multiplier effect, was visible when HT travelled to North Carolina last week to track ambassador Sandhu’s engagements in the state and how Indian diplomacy operated in America, outside the power corridors of White House, State Department and Capitol Hill.

The southern state, a six-hour Amtrak ride from Washington DC, is not one that many would instinctively think of in the context of the India-US relationship. But it is home to three top universities: Duke, University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill, and NC State University. It is home to a research triangle park (RTP), which has 170 companies that employ 42,000 workers and collectively have an annual payroll of $2.91 billion. Among these are top tech, defence, life sciences, aviation majors. The state is home to Indian investors, from Bharat Forge to Infosys to HCL Technologies. It is home to over 100,000 Indian-Americans who study, work and are increasingly making their political presence felt. And it is here that India’s hopes of deepening the health, knowledge, economic, digital, political partnership with American states can be seen on the ground.

From India Inc to small businesses

When HCL Tech was first thinking of setting up its global delivery centre facility in the mid-2000s, North Carolina was one among many options. But the proximity to its clients in RTP, the availability of a skilled workforce, and the red carpet laid out by the then state governor who said that she would come along the company executives as they scouted locations tilted it for the company. They set up a facility in the town of Cary in the research triangle park. In the years since then, like any major investment, the HCL facility has become an important part of the state’s ecosystem, contributing to jobs, revenue, training and civic partnerships.

As Sandhu visited HCL, the company’s top executives told him that when they had first started the facility, it had 87% Indian employees on H1B visas and 13% local employees. Today, the ratio has reversed. “We have 87% local employees and 13% Indians here. We have created 2400 jobs in Cary alone. Overall, HCL in the US has 23,000 employees, 73% of whom are local,” said Jagadeshwar Gattu, president of the HCL digital foundation. At a time when the tech sector has seen tens of thousands of layoffs, HCL onboarded 4000 employees in the past year alone.

In a country when college education remains a luxury and student debt can be crippling, HCL has begun the practice of hiring students graduating from high schools. They go through a nine-month training programme and work with customers; HCL has tied up with universities such as Purdue and Southern Hemisphere where these students-cum-early professionals enroll — and the company takes care of their college fees. “It is a win-win. They get trained and educated. And we find talent early and lower attrition rates as they get comfortable with the company culture,” said Gattu.

Just like HCL, Bharat Forge has invested $127.3 million in an aluminum forging plant to manufacture automobile components in North Carolina, with the project expected to add close to $800 million to the state’s economy over 12 years. Infosys has a tech and innovation hub in the state creating 2000 jobs. North Carolina has even set up an investment office in Bengaluru — exploring leads, wooing investors, laying out the red carpet.

And these Indian companies are part of a wider pattern of Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) flows into America. Today, Indian FDI in the US amounts to $14.4 billion and Indian companies have created 72,000 direct jobs. Even as India seeks American investment, the relationship is becoming mutually beneficial and attractive to American states. Indian capital is suddenly hot commodity.

But it isn’t just the big companies. The Morrisville event, organised by the Indian embassy in collaboration with the office of international trade of Small Business Administration, was meant to explore collaboration in the domain of small businesses, the heart of both economies. North Carolina was an apt location. In 2020, it had 961,000 small businesses that employed over 1.7 million people and accounted for 86.9% of the state’s exports.

Suggesting that India and America weren’t two teams but one team, Sandhu spoke about the centrality of micro, small and medium sector enterprises in India — it contributes to one-third of the GDP, accounts for 45% exports, employs 110 million people. “5Cs are key to strengthening the small business connect between India and the US,” he said.

These included capital (can Indian businesses explore funding opportunities in the US?); commerce (can Indian small firms expand to American markets and vice versa?); capacity (can there be skilling initiatives for small businesses, including digital skilling?); cutting edge technology (can we tap into the substantial energy in the tech space and start-ups?); and connect (can there be easier travel and expeditious visa processing?).

Assistant secretary of commerce Arun Venkataraman, who had travelled down from Washington DC for the event, responded enthusiastically. Painting the big picture of the relationship, he said that India is already the US’s tenth largest trading partner and at $192 billion, there has been a three-time jump in trade in goods and services compared to 15 years ago. “The US has the largest start-up ecosystem in the world and India is the third largest ecosystem, crossing 100 unicorns in 2022…We are very optimistic about possibilities.”

Intensifying the knowledge partnership

The economic linkages are closely intertwined with what has already been a key element of the India-America partnership — the educational linkage.

Sandhu’s parents came to the Ohio State University in 1956 and finished their PhDs in record time in two years, to return home to Punjab. The ambassador himself went to St Stephens’ in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. With his own personal association with higher education, supplemented with a policy recognition that there exists immense potential for a knowledge partnership in the backdrop of India’s New Education Policy, Sandhu has spoken to leadership teams of 180 universities in the past two years virtually and in-person, selling the India story.

In North Carolina, he went to UNC-Chapel Hill, one of America’s oldest public universities that also has a Modern Indian Studies programme, and Duke, one of the country’s finest universities.

In interactions with university presidents and chancellors, and Indian students, Sandhu reminded them that there are over 200,000 Indian students in America, two-thirds of whom are in science, technology, engineering and math. They add value and competitiveness to the American economy and assume leadership positions. Given that many of these students have come through the Indian college system, where higher education is heavily subsidised, Sandhu said, with a smile, “I often tell my American friends that India has subsidised your development story too.”

India, he reminded them, is also a young country, even as European powers and even China are getting old. This young population, Sandhu said, quoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was not just a pool that can do good for India but serve as a force for global good.

Giving specific examples, he mentioned the recently unveiled initiative on critical and emerging technologies, where a higher education task-force had been set up to intensify academic collaboration in fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The Quad now offers 100 fellowships a year, 25 each from the four member countries in STEM disciplines. “When we met the Quad fellows from India this year, there was someone who had grown up in a slum,” said Sandhu, pointing out there existed talent, hunger, an ability to learn and flexibility of approach in India beyond the big cities and IITs as well that may be beneficial for American universities and companies.

All of this means, Sandhu said, that there is room to set up foreign campuses in India, engage in student exchanges, have joint research and degree programmes, collaborate on curriculum design, and engage with each other more, including through hybrid and digital teaching methods which have got a boost post the pandemic.

Students pointed to the need for the Indian education system to break down silos, to invest more in research, the time lag between the timing of advanced research breakthroughs in the US and their absorption in the Indian system. While the gaps reinforced the point that India will benefit with more internal reform and external collaboration, university leaders were clear that the value and talent they got from Indian students was irreplaceable and the potential for deeper engagement immense.

Sandhu also dropped into Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International, an institute at the intersection of academia and industry in the region. With a $1.2 billion annual revenue, RTI International is a well-resourced institute that has been at the forefront of innovation in a range of fields, from drugs for cancer treatment to carbon capture technologies. RTI also has a presence in India where it works in areas such as water and sanitation, health, energy and water resources aligning itself with priorities of the government of India.

After carefully listening to RTI’s areas of work, Sandhu pointed to mutually beneficial collaboration in specific fields such as health and energy.

“Affordable health care and affordable medicines are a key priority here, especially for vulnerable communities. And India is the world’s largest producer of generic drugs. When you go to CVS next and pick a paracetamol, check and see where it is made…Or take the case of Rotavirus, where, from $60 dollars, the price of the vaccine dropped to merely one dollar when it began to be produced in India,” Sandhu said. In energy, from having barely any trade just a few years ago, India was now importing natural gas worth $20 billion from the US, a fuel that serves as a transitional fuel towards India’s quest for clean energy.

Leveraging the diaspora connect

In a virtuous cycle, the influence of the Indian-American diaspora enables and then is further reinforced by economic, educational and health linkages. If doctors made the Indian-American community a part of the everyday life of local communities in the 1970s and 1980s, and Indians became synonymous with young techies from the 1990s, the community is now spread across all fields. And this was visible in North Carolina.

Gurmale S Grewal’s grandfather first came to the US over 100 years ago, making him a part of the early batch of Indian immigrants, many of them Sikhs, who first came to the West Coast as students, farmers, revolutionaries, workers and then spread out.

Grewal and his brothers came to the country later in 1961, but then got immersed in American life. They enlisted during the war in Vietnam and were posted in the US military in different geographies. They witnessed the race riots of the late 1960s in Detroit affect their family’s businesses. And they eventually set up Singh Development — the oldest Indian-owned real estate and construction company in America — in 1973. Singh Development specialises in senior living, multi-family and single family homes. While Michigan served as the company’s traditional base, in recent decades, it has expanded to North Carolina and Virginia.

During Sandhu’s visit, the Singhs held a celebration to mark a century of their family’s arrival to the States and 50 years of their company’s existence, an event that saw both political representatives from the region and the Indian diaspora in attendance. Sandhu, who has known the family for 25 years, said, “We can just imagine what struggles the family must have gone through in those early years…We take great pride in what the diaspora has achieved.”

Or take the diaspora’s engagement in politics.

Steve Rao, the longest serving elected Asian-American official in the state, is a local council member of Morrisville. Rao, who played a key role in organising the small business summit, noted, “I can start my day in Morrisville with an Idli Dosa breakfast and a South Indian filter coffee, watch cricket at Church Street Park and end my day with a Holi or Diwali festival at the Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary or Hindu Society of North Carolina.”

If Rao serves in a city council, Jay Chaudhary is the Democratic whip in the state Senate. Community leaders have also formed a North Carolina Indian-American Political Action Committee that funds candidates across the political divide. The idea is to enable the participation of the community in politics, drive home to the state’s leaders the importance of Indian-Americans, enhance the community’s access to the leadership and push for their interests. “Money talks in the American system. And we are being taken seriously now,” a member of the committee said.

Another star of the local diaspora is Swadesh Chatterjee, a Jadavpur University graduate who came to North Carolina in 1978 and made it his home. After rising through the corporate ladder, and organising first the Bengali and then the wider Indian-American diaspora, Chatterjee invested time in deepening the India-US partnership.

After the 1998 nuclear tests, Chatterjee used his influence with North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who served as the chair of the foreign relations committee, to calm tempers on the Hill. During the tense days leading up to the nuclear deal, Chatterjee led the lobbying efforts on behalf of the diaspora. And he has helped Indian government, over the years, in deepening political linkages with American leaders.

Awarded the Padma Bhushan for his contributions, Chatterjee recalled how India had evolved from being seen as a country that was in Soviet camp that had to be “managed” to an equal partner. “The rise of the Indian economy, America’s interest in containing China, and the role of the Indian-American community has changed the relationship, from its lowest depths in those dark days of the Cold War and the late 1980s to the heights today. And the relationship will only grow.”

Singh, Rao, Chaudhary and Chatterjee are just examples of a wide, heterogeneous community of students and doctors, engineers and tech professionals, scientists and politicians, business magnates and small entrepreneurs in North Carolina. Hindi and Telugu are among the ten most widely spoken languages in the state. There are, by some accounts, 55 Indian restaurants in just the RTP area alone.

In diaspora gatherings, Sandhu reminded the audiences of the dramatic changes underway in India and expressed pride in their achievements and their role as a living bridge. He told Indian-Americans to remain connected with their roots while contributing to American life — and not just for cultural and emotional reasons, but also for professional and commercial reasons. “As India rises, you are uniquely positioned to navigate both countries,” he told them.

Engaging with political leadership

All of this — the knowledge partnership, the economic linkages, the recognition of India’s importance as America’s partner in a changing world, the diaspora connect — is what ensures that when the Indian ambassador walks into a state, the political leadership takes it seriously.

Besides addressing the India-US business event, where state governor Cooper lauded India’s centrality in global economy and security, hailed his state’s diversity, cheered Indian investments in the region, and mentioned how he celebrated Diwali, he also had a one-on-one meeting with Sandhu.

If North Carolina’s Secretary of State and commerce secretary hosted Sandhu for lunch the same day, the state’s House Speaker Tim Moore not only discussed deepening India’s connect with the state, he introduced and recognised Sandhu in front of the House members on the floor, with legislators giving the ambassador a standing ovation. Chatterjee, who had accompanied the ambassador to the assembly, was spellbound. “I have come here with several Indian ambassadors, but never before has the Speaker and the assembly given this honour,” he said later.

But it wasn’t just the state executive and legislative branch. Local councils too stepped up. At an event, the mayors and council members of Cary and Morrsiville celebrated the relationship with India, with a Mumbai-born Morrisville Council member, Satish Garimella, handing over the keys of the town of the Sandhu. “I came to this country to study, worked as a senior executive in top companies, became a citizen and entered politics. For me to hand over the keys of my American town to my Indian ambassador is deeply symbolic,” he said.

And then, the next morning, four US Congressmen dropped in for breakfast to see Sandhu at his hotel. And they included not just two representatives to the House from North Carolina, but two other Congressmen from states as far apart as Pennsylvania and California who were in town, including the chair of the powerful House agriculture committee.

Put it together, and within 36 hours, India’s ambassador to the US had met a crucial swing state’s governor and top cabinet officials; got an honorable mention in front of the entire legislature; engaged with two prominent city councils; met four American federal lawmakers; visited two universities and a top think tank; addressed two diaspora gatherings; seen an Indian company at work that creates jobs for Americans; and held an event to encourage collaboration among small businesses. And this is what Sandhu does on a regular basis, having travelled to New Hampshire, Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, California, Washington state and Virginia in just the past six months.

Away from Delhi and DC, far from the public glare on high-level political visits and the big-ticket joint statements, smart Indian diplomacy is quietly leveraging India’s strengths to build and deepen a connect with American states. While the strategic convergence on China or divergences on democracy at the top capture the headlines, North Carolina offers a microcosm of the strong roots, and the breadth and depth, of the India-America partnership on the ground.

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