As Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama prepare to meet this September for what may be the last time, it is important to reflect on the drivers of the relationship between the United States and India. While the attention is going towards recent defense deals, growing military collaboration and the ongoing implementation of the 2008 nuclear deal, there are several other important issues which should have been higher on the agenda.
The deep ties between the two nations are mostly the result of growing relationships between the citizens of the United States and India. And this portends well for the future. The closest, deepest relationships that the United States has are those where there is ongoing and substantive interaction by the people of those nations. Think Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel. The American people, and the Indian people, are well on their way to developing those deep ties – personal, cultural, professional, philanthropic and financial. And this should drive the agenda between the leaders more than bureaucratic minutiae.
I recently spoke with a friend at the US Census bureau who estimated that the Indian American population of the United States will probably pass 5 million by the end of 2013. And the success of our community has been well chronicled. But many immigrant groups have migrated to the United States and had success. What makes our success globally relevant is that it came at a time of great improvements in technology and transportation. It made it possible for 3 generations of Indian Americans to maintain personal and professional relationships with their native land. My father came from India, I have worked in India, and my sons Skype with their cousins in India. Mexican Americans and Jewish Americans, among others, are the beneficiaries of these trends as well, but their nations were already closely linked to the United States and the American experience. Geopolitically speaking, the diaspora’s relationship with India has been the game-changer. Americans who see Indian Americans as their friends, neighbors and colleagues now naturally want the Indian nation to be the geopolitical equivalent – an ally and economically-integrated partner. Likewise the Indian elite lost its indignation towards the United States as a colonial power as they watched their brothers and sisters succeed in the US, their children study and marry there, and their economy benefit from American investment.
The big investments by American companies in India is the other main driver of the growing relationship between the two nations. Ever since General Electric and other companies began putting their faith in India’s talented professionals, we have seen American companies invest in India to leverage local talents to solve global problems, and get a foot hold on the world’s second largest middle class. As of 2011, this has translated to $86 billion in trade between the US and India, including an investment of $11 billion by Indian companies in the United States. More importantly, it is estimated that nearly 1 million Indians now work directly for American companies in India.
So when the President and Prime Minister sit for tea, they could continue talking about the same government-centric things their staff tell them to talk about, or they could think about how to speed up the economic and political integration occurring between their citizens and companies. There is no shortage of issues they can take up on this front. Let’s start with some of the key areas currently on the table that could unlock billions of dollars of value for the United States and India. This week, India announced that foreign universities would be allowed to operate in India. To date, many of America’s leading universities have already launched programs in India and are looking to expand more formally. India wants to launch 1000 universities in the next decade. Why not have many of those be American?
Secondly, in the last year, American investors in India have become increasingly frustrated by the meager returns they are getting in India– largely because of the failure of the Indian government to implement critical structural reforms and improve infrastructure. The effect has been that billions of dollars leaving India for greener pastures, and billions more that will never even be considered for investment in India.
On the philanthropic side, Americans, including most Indian Americans, are keen to provide time, money and resources towards India’s development at a time when India has made it harder to send money to Indian NGO’s and remains suspicious of anyone wanting to go to India to work with the poor. It is estimated by Boston Collegeth at several trillion dollars will be transferred over the next decade by baby-boomers and others in the United States to their children and to philanthropic trusts. Are we doing all that we can to ensure that Indian NGO’s are prepared to benefit from this?
On the US side, immigration reform is of keen interest to the Indian business community as it is to the US technology community. Indian companies were the target of unfair treatment by the US Senate in the creation of the latest immigration bill. And families still have a hard time visiting the US for weddings and other personal occasions.
We are fortunate to be a part of the Indian diaspora at a time when the United States and India are coming together. We are to be congratulated for playing a critical role in making this happen. And we should continue to convince our friends and colleagues about the virtues of India, and the United States. But as I look at the proposed agenda for the meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh, it looks like we might need to spend some reminding them as well.