Since President Obama called Narendra Modi to congratulate him on his landslide election victory and invited the new Indian Prime Minister to come visit with him in the White House, Nisha Desai Biswal, the administration’s point person for South Asi,a has been working
on making that upcoming visit a success.
She has been virtually working and traveling 24/7
with the rest of the inter-agency team that’s been
assembled to make the summit between Obama and
Modi as seamless as possible, attending to the sheer
logistics, developing policy to be articulated, and
keeping her boss, Secretary of State John Kerry,
apprised of how the game plan is evolving.
In an exclusive interview with India Abroad in her
expansive sixth floor office at the State Department,
Biswal acknowledged that the administration was
pulling out all the stops for Prime Minister Modi.
Are you guys pulling out all the stops to welcome
Prime Minister Modi?
We are looking forward to a very good visit. This is a
visit that the President has been anticipating and I
New Delhi this summer was an early kind of attempt
to help start the relationship between Prime Minister
Modi and the new government on exactly the kind of
path of shared interests and shared goals. So, we are
very much looking forward to it and think it’s going to
be a very good visit.
The President is having him over for dinner
September 29 and then there’s the summit the next
morning and the formal luncheon hosted by Vice
President Joe Biden and Secretary Kerry. So the optics
are undeniably going to be great. But what are going to
be the substantive issues and concerns on the table?
I believe that one of the key things that the prime
minister has talked about is the priority he places on
India’s domestic transformation. And, certainly from the
perspective of the United States, what the President has
clearly indicated and what the secretary has talked about
is that we very much want to support that vision of development — Sab ka Sath, Sab ka Vikas — is something that
Secretary Kerry has said is the kind of vision that we can
all get behind and endorse and support.
So, we’ll be looking to see how we can partner and collaborate on India’s economic agenda, how we can partner
and collaborate in supporting the prime minister in some
of the challenges in India that he has said he wants to
tackle — whether it’s on issues like water and sanitation,
or energy, or economic opportunity or skills.
So, these are all areas that we want to advance and so
we’ll be looking to see how we can do that and what are
some of the specific ways we can do that.
We also have a vast area of cooperation on security
interests, whether it’s regional, whether it’s internal security issues, counterterrorism issues. So, we will be looking
to see how we can advance the work that we have been
doing and build upon it and take it to new heights.
Can you speak to some of the tangible deliverables that
could be expected? With apologies to all vegetarians, will
there be any ‘Here’s the beef’ moments?
Yes, everybody likes to focus upon that. But what I
would say is that of course, we will have things we will be
able to point to but what I tell people is that it’s really not
about how you can on October 1 — after it’s wheels up —
go through a check-list of deliverables.
It’s really about what the engagement and effort over
the next 12 months, the next 24 months is going to be
and how we try to bring it forward and bring it to
fruition and implementation these areas that we set forth
during this summit.
So, yes, we will have concrete things that we will be
looking at and talking about, but it’s also going to be
about this renewed and intensive engagement — this
shared work-plan as you might call it — in moving that
And, from everything I’ve heard about the prime minister, he is very focused on implementations, not just
announcements, and we welcome that. That will be a very
good focus for the relationship.
The Bilateral Investment Treaty has been on the table for
a while and then the crown jewels in recent years of the
relationship has been defense cooperation. Defense sales,
which was like zero 10 years ago, is over $10 billion now.
Will there be any tangible progress on these — perhaps a
signing of the BIT and movement on defense sales and
the Pentagon’s DTTI (Defense Trade and Technology
On the Bilateral Investment Treaty, this is something we think will be in the interests of both countries, but there is an awful lot of work that would
need to be done to move us toward that. And, we are
nowhere near a point where that is a proximate goal.
But it is a shared desire to focus on that.
But there is a lot we can do on the economic
engagement between our two countries and that we
In terms of the defense partnership, (Defense)
Secretary (Chuck) Hagel was there in early August
and had some very strong visits and good meetings
and came away very optimistic that we can intensify
the defense partnership.
So, I look forward to having some things that we
can talk about in terms of how specifically we will
look to intensify that partnership.
The most transformational manifestation of the
US-India strategic partnership in recent years was
the nuclear deal. But that has been in limbo for six
years now and India has made clear there will be no
compromising on the Nuclear Liability Bill passed
in the Parliament.
In your recent briefings at the New York Foreign
Press Center and Asia Society’s AsiaConnect series,
you spoke of this being a tough issue and predicted
that there is no low-hanging fruit to be plucked on
This is a huge disappointment because the US busi-
ness lobby, the US Congress, the Indian-American
community spent considerable time and treasure
going to bat for this deal.
So, how do you move the relationship forward in
terms of a strategic partnership when the most trans-
formational agreement in US-India ties is still out
I would answer your question in this way. One, while
there has not been an expedited and accelerated implementation of the civil nuclear deal because there are these
tricky, complicated, complex challenges which are deeply
technical, that’s not to say that we have given up on it on
either side. In fact, to the contrary, I believe, there is
renewed interest, renewed intensity, in trying to work
through these very complicated issues that continue to
constrain us — issues of liability, issues of how we work
through accountability of fissile material and all kinds of
things that the technical experts on both sides need to sit
down and work through all these things and there is a
desire to do that.
So, what you will see is a renewed focus on having that
level of engagement to find a way forward.
What I was seeking to say in saying that this was not
quick or easy or low-hanging fruit is that sometimes people are very focused on summit diplomacy — on saying
that when two leaders come together, let’s have a slew of
announcements and when they are not meeting, things
are not happening.
‘This is a visit that the President
has been anticipating’
In an exclusive conversation with Aziz Haniffa, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal says America wants to work with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to transform India
Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal