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U.S. Ambassador To India Richard Verma Leaves A Lasting Legacy To Follow

| Feb. 03, 2017

Richard Verma’s two-year tenure as U.S. Ambassador to India concluded last month with the new incoming presidential administration. During his time in New Delhi, Verma established himself as one of the most consequential envoys to ever occupy the prestigious post once held by such foreign policy legends as John Kenneth Galbraith and Frank Wisner. The first Indian American to serve in the role, Verma leaves behind a far-reaching legacy. He raised the U.S-India strategic partnership to unparalleled heights in virtually every arena of bilateral cooperation while serving as a skilled and talented public diplomat.

President Obama nominated Verma to be his envoy to India in September 2014 at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-India relations. The two nations were still recovering from the fallout over the December 2013 arrest of an Indian consular official in New York that had resulted in the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries in nearly fifteen years. Narendra Modi’s landslide election as India’s prime minister earlier in the year presented the two countries with an opportunity to recalibrate ties and restore them to to their upward trajectory.

A public servant highly-regarded for his decades-long work shaping U.S. foreign policy at the highest levels in both the Executive Branch and on Capitol Hill, Verma’s nomination garnered near universal approbation from across the diplomatic, national security and business communities. In a testament to the widespread respect he commands across the political spectrum, the U.S. Senate quickly and unanimously confirmed Verma for his post in December 2014 in a rare display of bipartisanship.

Once in New Delhi, Verma presided over the two most transformational years in the U.S.-India strategic partnership to date. As ambassador, Verma worked tirelessly to draw the two countries closer together than they ever had been in their shared history. During this period, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi met on nine different occasions while over 40 government-to-government dialogues occurred between U.S. and Indian officials.

Ambassador Verma meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2017. (Courtesy U.S. Embassy New Delhi)

One of Verma’s primary goals was to further deepen bilateral engagement in every sphere of ongoing cooperation, including defense, trade and climate change. Toward this end, he and his public and private sector partners in both the U.S. and India achieved unprecedented results on behalf of both countries. Here are some highlights:

Defense and Security Ties

On the defense and security front, defense sales topped $15 billion for the first time. Both nations also intensified the complexity and frequency of military exercises conducted together. India continues to conduct more military exercises with the United States than with any other nation in the world.

Washington and New Delhi also created six new Defense Technology and Trade Working Groups and finally signed the highly-anticipated Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement to strengthen cooperation and coordination between the American and Indian militaries. Most notably, the U.S. designated India a “Major Defense Partner” which confers upon it an elevated status that treats India as a close ally for the purposes of technology transfer.

Finally, the two countries also resumed important recovery missions for the remains of missing American World War II serviceman who died in Northeast India. Several missions have taken place, remains have been recovered and more missions are scheduled to occur in the future.   
Commercial Gains

Significant commercial gains between the two countries were achieved during Verma’s time as envoy. Two-way trade surpassed a record $109 billion for the first time, a fivefold increase from just ten years ago. The U.S. and India held their first ever Strategic and Commercial Dialogue in 2015 to further promote bilateral economic ties while closing billions of dollars in long-pending commercial deals in rail, aerospace, defense, energy, and infrastructure.

Clean Energy and Climate Cooperation

Verma cites the far-reaching progress made in the clean energy and climate change arena as one of the most noteworthy legacies from his time as Chief of Mission in Delhi. The U.S. and India led the way in concluding the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, a breakthrough in both bilateral and multilateral relations.

Most significantly, however, the two countries achieved an ostensible breakthrough on the longstanding nuclear liability issue that has been vexing the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal since its passage in 2008. The historic accord is considered the cornerstone of the strategic partnership, but enactment of an onerous liability law by the Indian Parliament effectively rendered the agreement inoperable. Verma played a central role in shepherding the agreement through the Senate and securing Congressional approval of the deal when he served as National Security Advisory to then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

As one former U.S. envoy to India notes, Verma was one of the “key players” responsible for this slate of successes across many different arenas. “If there was one common factor to all that we achieved over the past two years in so many different arenas, it was Rich,” asserts Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA), Co-Chair of the House Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

A Skilled Public Diplomat

Verma also quickly established his himself as a gifted and skilled public diplomat. The son of Indian immigrants, Verma forged a unique connection with the people of his parents’ native homeland, serving as a bridge between both the U.S. and India. In May 2015, he returned to his father’s ancestral village in Punjab where hundreds turned out to welcome him in a joyful celebration that the press billed a homecoming.

Atul Keshap, U.S. Chief of Mission in Sri Lanka and & Maldives, and the sole remaining U.S. Ambassador of Indian origin explains, “‎It is a source of pride for Indian Americans that Rich Verma became the first American of Indian descent to serve as United States Ambassador to India. His posting highlighted how so many Indian Americans are ably and loyally serving the United States in expanding and strengthening bilateral relations between the world’s two greatest democracies. Rich, like all Indian Americans in the bureaucracy, in bipartisan politics and in business, shares our passionate commitment to seeing our 1.6 billion citizens forge an unbeatable partnership to advance the prosperity and security of both our countries and the entire world, create good jobs for our citizens and strengthen pluralistic democratic values and a transparent, rules-based order  across the Indo-Pacific region.”

Verma, a Johnstown, Pa. native, became the first American ambassador to visit all 29 of India’s territories and states, delivering dozens of speeches, holding hundreds of events, and meeting thousands of people. “He is someone who enjoyed meeting people, being with people and listening to people to really understand who they were and how he could help them” one observer noted. Verma could be commonly seen outside the Americans Embassy in Delhi, greeting Indians applying for U.S. visas and reassuring those were nervously awaiting their turned to be interviewed by American consular officers.

Courtesy U.S. Embassy New Delhi.

Courtesy U.S. Embassy New Delhi.

Verma also dramatically increased the U.S. Embassy’s public outreach on social media platforms, including Twitter where enjoyed more than 75,000 followers. He earned public affection from across India last year after he tweeted an apology to Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan following the megastar’s brief detention at a U.S. airport. “King Khan” as he is commonly known in India tweeted back his acceptance shortly thereafter. The two met earlier this year.

A key focus of Verma’s outreach efforts was young people. With more than 60% of India’s population under the age of 35, Verma sought to engage with the country’s children and young men and women. ”I have the best job in the world because I get to meet the future leaders of India every day,” he told students this past October.

Ambassador Verma takes a selfie with students at the Prayas Residential School in Rahipur, India. (Courtesy U.S. Embassy New Delhi).

In his last public speech as ambassador, Verma spoke about the shared journey the U.S. and India have embarked upon and spoke movingly about his own family’s sojourn to the United States more than fifty years ago. The farewell address constituted  a robust defense of the importance of inclusion, diversity, pluralism and tolerance — pillars that bind the two countries together and represent the founding principles of both the world’s oldest and largest democracies.

Verma will long be remembered as a stalwart champion of the U.S.-India strategic partnership. He leaves behind a legacy as U.S. ambassador to India that will far outlast his time serving in New Delhi.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Desai, Ronak. “U.S. Ambassador To India Richard Verma Leaves A Lasting Legacy To Follow.” Forbes, February 3, 2017.