India-US Relations Beyond the Prism of National Capitals


The biggest testament to the cementing of this relationship was the signing of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, as well as closer defence cooperation for which there is an overall political consensus in both countries

India-US relations witnessed a significant change in the strategic as well as economic sphere over the past decade and a half. Both countries have sought to enhance their strategic and defence partnership that has been growing since 9/11. The biggest testament to the cementing of this relationship was the signing of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, as well as closer defence cooperation for which there is an overall political consensus in both countries. A change in government has given fillip to India-US strategic ties.

The bilateral trade between India and US crossed $100 bn in 2014. There are a number of factors that help foster a closer relationship between the two countries.

• An increasingly influential Indian diaspora in the US, which was clearly evident from the role played by Indian Lobbying Groups for pushing forward the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, as well as the role they played in making the visit of PM Modi to the US in September last year a success. The Indian diaspora has distinguished itself in a number of professions – academia, medicine, business and off late public life.

• Given the increasing strategic convergence between both countries, as well as the benefits of greater economic cooperation along with two common attributes of democracy and diversity, much more can be achieved in both economic sphere as well as people to people contact. 

The joint statement of President Obama and PM Modi, during the former’s India visit in January 2015, laid special emphasis on enhancing people to people ties as well as cooperation in the sphere of education. In this context, liberalisation of the visa regime by both sides was part of the statement.

Importance of Sub-National Interactions in the Bilateral Relationship

Both governments, members of the strategic community, scholars along with business groups such as chambers of commerce have begun to realise the importance of looking beyond dialogues that exist at the government level, and to look beyond ties between the national capitals -- New Delhi and Washington DC.  

One of the important enabling factors for the China-US relationship was the links established between US states and Chinese provinces, as well as sister city arrangements between both countries. These links were strengthened (they continue to) even though there are wide differences between both countries on economic and strategic issues. Today between US and China, there are sister relationships between 40 pairs of US states and Chinese provinces and nearly 200 pairs of Chinese and US cities. The first such agreement was signed between St. Louis and Jiangsu in 1979. Such exchanges apart from strengthening cultural, educational and business ties have also helped in enhancing people to people contact.

If one were to look at interactions between India and the US at the sub-national level, Indian states have been seeking to reach out to the US for over a decade, with the initial efforts being made by Chandrababu Naidu, currently Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh who sought to attract investment to Hyderabad, and was able to woo Bill Gates to set up India’s first Microsoft Research Lab in 1997. Naidu was able to hard sell the immense potential of Hyderabad, now the capital of Telangana, which emerged as an important IT Hub often referred to as ‘Cyberabad’. Apart from selling the Information Technology (IT) potential of his state, Naidu also made use of the large Telugu diaspora in the US to seek investment. Two US presidents, Bill Clinton and George W Bush included Hyderabad in their respective itineraries. Former US Secretary of state, Hillary Clinton also made it a point to visit two state capitals, Chennai (2011) and Kolkata (2012). In fact, during her 2012 visit, Hillary landed in Kolkata before New Delhi.

Other states that sought to reach out to the US are Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Organisations such as The Indo-US Chamber of Commerce are helping Indian states to reach out to prospective investors in the US. Yet, like the US and China, there is no structured dialogue at the sub-national level and there are 5 pairs of US states and Indian states that have sister state partnerships, while there are 20 pairs of cities having such arrangements.

With such a strong diaspora and links in other areas, it would be fair to say that it is important to grant a greater role to local ties between cities as well as states of both countries.

Modi’s Emphasis on Sub-national Ties

The current prime minister’s emphasis on sub-national linkages, closer economic ties and the use of soft power is likely to give a fillip to such interactions. He has used international forums to send a clear message that one of the key hallmarks of his engagement with other countries will be through state governments. As Chief Minister, Modi was active in reaching out to a number of countries both through his visits abroad, along with the Bi-Annual Vibrant Gujarat Summit.

With both Japan and China, Modi has given immense importance to the role of cities as well as links between provinces and states. While in Japan, an agreement was signed between Varanasi, the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency and Kyoto, in China, Modi along with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, inaugurated first regional leaders dialogue and was also accompanied by two chief ministers (Maharashtra and Gujarat) during his visit. During his address at the forum, Modi listed some of the reasons why state participation in foreign policy is important. “For business investors, too, whether they are Indian or foreign, their journey may begin in Delhi, but their success ultimately depends on state capitals. Many of the critical requirements for success - infrastructure, land, utilities, skilled human resources and many approvals - ultimately depend on the state governments. But, for me, the involvement of states in our national effort is not just because of their constitutional and legal responsibilities. It also stems from a basic management principle. The chances of success are higher when we create a sense of participation for everyone; when we give everyone a stake in success. That is why I speak of Team India. That is why I believe that the foundation for India’s development will not be the single pillar of the Central Government, but 30 pillars comprising the Central Government and all our States,” PM Modi said.

US is likely to help India with three smart cities - Vishakhapatnam, Ajmer and Allahabad. This will help in building closer linkages with these states. Currently, US presence, in terms of foreign investment, is largely concentrated in India’s southern and western part, and the National Capital Region (NCR). Links between civil societies, academics are restricted. In this context, there is a need to give a thrust to stronger ties between states of both countries, along with more sister-city collaborations. Along with the political leadership, business community and civil society have a critical role to play in such a change.

Steps for Strengthening Sub-National Linkages

The first step that needs to be taken for strengthening such sub-national initiatives is institutionalising a dialogue between chief ministers of Indian states with governors of US states. Such a dialogue already exists between China and US, and will ensure that interactions are not restricted only to a few states as is the case currently. This will give the opportunity to states that are not economic frontrunners to reach out to US states and potentially benefit from such linkages.

Second, like China and the US, India and the US should strive to have more exchange between US and Indian states as well as sister city partnerships. In January 2015, the Chairman, Bill Boerum and President and CEO of Sister Cities International, Mary D Kane visited India, and discussed possible partnerships between Jaipur (Rajasthan, India) and cities in the US, apart from a trilateral partnership with Agra (UP, India) - Tempe (US) and Cusco (Peru). They also visited the All India Institute of Local Self Government (Nagpur) for discussing expansion of sub-national ties between both countries.

Sister city and province exchanges have helped not just in boosting educational and cultural ties between China and US, but during the recession of 2008, they also helped in developing close economic ties between both countries; a clear instance being San Francisco and Shanghai, and Beijing and the DC area in the US. A number of IT and real estate companies invested in San Francisco during the recession, while DC too is seeking to cash in on the sister city partnership for seeking greater investment.

Third, states should build relationships based on areas of interest. For instance, in the area of information technology, southern states and California have found synergies. Similarly in agriculture, agrarian states should focus on tie-ups. The state of California has close links with Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat by virtue of the large Indian diaspora. These partnerships can be expanded; Punjab for instance can reach out to states in the mid-west like Iowa and Indiana.

Fourth, there are a number of leaders of Indian origin who are playing an active role in public life, and are keen to rekindle ties with the land of their origin. Nikkey Haley Randhawa, Governor of South Carolina whose family migrated from India, hails from Punjab and during a visit to Punjab last year, she met with leaders of the state and sought to promote closer ties between the state of South Carolina and Punjab. Some of the areas explored were education, skill training and potential investments by South Carolina in Punjab. Such leaders should help in fostering ties between their respective states in the US and their land of origin.

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that such interactions are important for more than one reason. They help in enhancing the constituency for a better relationship between both countries. With increasing links, the benefits of better relations with the US will accrue to a larger number of Indian states, and not just to those which have already benefited.

Indian states are beginning to play an important role both politically and economically and in this context, sub-national linkages make sense.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.