Last week the world watched as Indians turned out in historic numbers to vote for change. More than 537 million Indians cast their ballots in the recent elections– 66% of eligible voters. Conducting a free and fair election in the world’s largest democracy with such a diverse population is a historic accomplishment and one which should be celebrated.
The United States and India share a unique bilateral relationship. As the world’s oldest and largest democracies there are many areas in which our strategic interests combine, and when we find ways to cooperate and work together both of our countries benefit. The historic and sweeping election that will make Narendra Modi Prime Minister of India is a testament to a thriving democracy and a signal that the people of India are ready for economic growth and productivity.
The beginning of any new democratically elected administration provides reason for optimism and presents a window of time in which to usher in change to move a nation forward. In 1933, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the idea of an action plan for the first 100 days of his presidency. His actions during those days pushed 15 pieces of legislation through Congress and set the stage for America’s New Deal, leading to one of the fastest periods of GDP growth in history.
I believe we have an opportunity, in the early days of the new Indian administration, to refresh the U.S.-India relationship and work cooperatively to make progress that will benefit both of our countries. As a co-chair of the U.S. Senate India Caucus for several years, I have been working with U.S. and Indian government officials and business leaders to address important issues for both countries, including education, skills development, infrastructure, and energy.
However, over the last 18-24 months, the relationship lacked a catalyst. With this month’s historic Indian election, we can harness the enthusiasm of the Indian people to boost our partnership. We can use the first 100 days to move from dialogue to action and build a path forward for more ambitious cooperation.
There are many areas where a partnership between our countries would serve goals on both sides, and here are some initiatives that are ripe for action. This list is not all encompassing, and I hope that others will add their thoughts and ideas to the discussion:
Convene a meeting of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue (USISD) soon, and do it in Delhi:
- Typically held in June, the USISD would provide an early opportunity for the U.S Government to engage with the new Government in India. Since the new Indian government will just be getting started, holding the Dialogue in Delhi will be less disruptive to organizing meetings and will provide both sides the opportunity to meet and get to work early in the term on joint initiatives.
Hold bilateral talks on Afghanistan:
- The U.S. could benefit from fully involving the new Indian Government in a post-Afghanistan security conference. The security landscape in Afghanistan is of concern to both countries. For India, the concern is that a U.S. withdrawal could leave a challenging security situation nearby that could spill into India. The U.S. could seek India’s consultation on high-level strategies, and the governments could explore areas for collaboration.
Propose the establishment of a public-private working group on infrastructure investment:
- Infrastructure in India presents a real opportunity. In Gujarat, Modi made infrastructure improvements a priority, building thousands of kilometers of highways and attracting investment to build up the country’s largest modern port. For U.S. firms, a large part of the investment opportunities for the next five years are likely to be in infrastructure. Some American firms that have previously invested in India have experienced difficulties with payment certainty are shy to take the risks of being primary developers. A public-private group could be charged with finding a way to ensure payment security for American investment, pointing toward specific projects where American firms can/should bid, and focusing U.S. Government assistance to help identify American firms to play a role in this infrastructure build-out.
Announce a joint energy project:
- India’s power requirements outstrip available supply, and as the economy continues to grow, more power will be required. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi oversaw the creation of over 900 MW of solar power capacity in the state, which is more than a third of the total capacity in the entire country. In recent years, wind power has also been on the rise in Gujarat. U.S. companies have off-the-shelf technologies that can provide assistance in India and create private sector jobs in the U.S. We already have a 2010 U.S.-India agreement in place to collaborate on energy technology, which provides a framework to launch new projects, and given Mr. Modi’s previous success, this would appear to be a great opportunity to work together.
Re-launch the Defense Policy Group:
- This high-level dialogue has fallen dormant for two years. It previously provided a regularly scheduled series of meetings to advance defense initiatives that were in each country’s mutual interest and provided a platform to discuss more difficult issues. The U.S., for its part must appoint a senior-level Pentagon official to lead the U.S. side of the Joint Defense Trade and Technology initiative. Hopefully, the two sides can also work out the kinks in the defense offset regime, to allow U.S. firms to invest in Indian priorities beyond just indigenous Indian defense initiatives. Lifting the Foreign Direct Investment cap in defense would also allow U.S. companies to dramatically increase capital flows into the Indian defense sector.
Re-start negotiations to achieve a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT):
- India and the U.S. have meandered through several rounds of stop and start negotiations about how to proceed with BIT. Announcing that both sides will sit down and negotiate a framework would boost confidence that a BIT is possible. A BIT would provide important protections for investors, help unleash needed investment, and provide a level playing field for both countries.
By taking concrete steps within the first 100 days, we can infuse the U.S.-India relationship with confidence and trust that will serve as a foundation for continued cooperation between the governments of the U.S. and India. More importantly, it will create an environment for the people of both countries – who share the values of freedom, democracy and self-determination – to engage, innovate and take our respective countries to new heights.
Warner, a former telecommunications executive and Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is co-chair of the bipartisan U.S. Senate India Caucus. He can be contacted at www.warner.senate.gov.