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Iran, FDI, nuclear deal: Are India-US ties in trouble?

Suhasini Haider: Hello and welcome to Worldview with me Suhasini Haider. Tonight we're asking that big question - Have India-US ties plateaued? And we have a very special guest in our studio - Nancy Powell, the Ambassador to India. She's no stranger to the region; in fact, she's served in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well. Thank you for coming on Worldview. This is your first interview since you landed in India and you certainly had to hit the floor running with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit here. So let me start with that by asking - Was her mission here essentially for India to disengage its ties with Iran?

Nancy Powell: No, she came for a variety of reasons. She wanted to have a chance to review the global issues with India but especially to prepare for the strategic dialogue and to make sure that all of us who are working on the issues that prepare for the strategic dialogue have the direction…

Suhasini Haider: Alright, but even so, as the strategic dialogue will take place in Washington, India faces some fairly severe financial sanctions beginning July, if it does not comply with the U.S.'s demand on cutting oil imports from Iran. The question, will India get that waver from those sanctions or does it face very serious financial sanctions?

Nancy Powell: As the secretary was quite explicit in saying that's a pre- mature question at this point. Obviously, the decisions will be made after reviewing all of the facts and figures and taking a look at what is happening.

Suhasini Haider: India has month on month cut its oil imports to 34%, a year on year assessment is about 40%. Many are asking the question, how much more will it take before the U.S is satisfied?

Nancy Powell: I don't want to refer to those statistics, there are others that are slightly lower than that but what the legislation calls for is a significant cut and we've seen other countries in Europe, Japan, that are making cuts that have been seen as significant.

Suhasini Haider: Would you say the US has succeeded in a sense in bullying India because we've seen diplomatic pressure, we've seen the cajoling as well, we've seen the alternate energy supplies being offered, but we've also seen this threat of sanctions.

Nancy Powell: Do not see this as bullying; I think over all the United States and India share a common objective that both of us see a weaponised nuclear state in Iran as being very destabilizing for the region, not in the national or international interest for either of us. We have taken different approaches; certainly we've cooperated very much in the IAEA and supported efforts which frankly didn't succeed in bringing a halt to the weapons program in Iran. This legislation appears to have as a result of other countries sharing the feeling that other measures had not worked and supporting and looking through their own national interests, as I would say India is doing, have sought to diversify, to seek other ways to meet their energy needs. We see Iran now coming to the negotiating table; we don't know exactly what's going to happen at the table. But I think India is making its own choices, it has a need to make sure that its sources of energy security are diverse and that the markets right now particularly with Iraq and Libya coming back on, that there are alternatives also in Latin America and Africa to Iranian oil.

Suhasini Haider: Let's turn to the other big issue that sort of shadowed Secretary of state Clinton's visit here and that was the question of Hafiz Saeed. How do you deal with the persistent Indian accusation, persistent Indian suspicion that the US really has not come clear on its opposition to groups that threaten India, the way it does with other groups that threaten the US?

Nancy Powell: I think the rewards for justice program answers that by indicating that we are very serious about seeking information that then can be provided to the Pakistani Courts that will lead to his arrest and imprisonment. Secretary Clinton was very, very specific in saying that we are working for these groups to seize their activities, to support the efforts of others in Pakistan and in India who are looking for ways to improve ties between the two countries.

Suhasini Haider: So you're saying that the Rewards for Justice program against Hafiz Saeed should really prove the US intent on the subject because some have asked over here that if that Reward for Justice needed to be given out, perhaps it should be given to someone in the US, after all it is David Coleman Headley who was convicted in the US and who spoke really about the fact that he had been sent to do a recce for the 26/11 attacks ordered by Hafiz Saeed, The question really, how much more does the US need in order to convince it of what India has long ago said?

Nancy Powell: I don't think we're attempting to convince the United States with the rewards for justice, we're looking for information that will work in a Pakistani court and will be both acceptable within its legal system and effective.

Suhasini Haider: Lets then turn to US-India ties and some have described 2011 as the year of the drift. Famous India-US analysts have said the strategic relationship between the two countries is effectively dead. You certainly have your work cut out for you. Do you think in a sense the US-India relationship, as it was portrayed 5-6 years ago, was oversold?

Nancy Powell: I think there were enormous expectations and as always you don't meet exactly 1000% to all of those expectations, but if I compare the relationship today and the things that are on my desk on any given morning with what I was dealing with when I was here in 1995 - there are more than 20 dialogues going on, most of them simultaneously. Certainly India's economic growth has provided enormous markets for American products, and yet there are some things that are still impediments to selling American goods. We're finding Indian business investing in America but worried about the whether the labour laws and the visa regime in the United States are created for a model that's in the 21st century. Those things are going to continue to be a matter of discussion, but we're discussing them, we've got a means to do that.

Suhasini Haider: You're saying India's economic reforms, the pace of it are a disappointment, also the nuclear business. In a sense do you feel disappointed that the US did the heavy lifting in terms of the nuclear deal, in terms of pulling India out of its nuclear isolation, yet the first nuclear power plant to be up and running is really a Russian one.

Nancy Powell: It also predates I think the US negotiations but clearly the United States saw as part of the civil nuclear deal that we would have commercial opportunities in India. Again there is a dialogue, it hasn't moved as fast as we would like, but the dialogue goes on. I think we're hoping that there will be some progress on the early steps that can be taken with at least one of our companies yet this year, and those…

Suhasini Haider: That's on the nuclear deal, there are arms deals that haven't gone through, there are contracts that the US has lost, there's as you pointed out the economic reforms. What would you say people in both countries should look forward to?

Nancy Powell: I think there's a couple things, number one, the Howitzers deal was announced on Friday. This was very good news for an American company that's been working very, very hard on that. I think you're beginning to see enormous opportunities for innovators.

Suhasini Haider: Even as we speak, there is a campaign ad that the Obama campaign has put up that effectively criticizes Mitt Romney for outsourcing jobs to India. That causes concern in India; the US in fact has cut L1 visas for IT professionals by about 28%. Should India be worried about losing more jobs?

Nancy Powell: I think as secretary Clinton was very specific in saying last week, the campaign is about everything and anything that is on people's minds. This clearly has been on people's minds - American jobs and where they're going. The Obama Administration has taken the position that we need to train our Americans to do certain things and to make sure that as they lose manufacturing jobs and others that they can enter into these new fields. And I think that was the jist of the ad. President Obama is on record as saying that it is a defining relationship-partnership of the 21st century. I think any administration coming in whether it is a second Obama administration or a Romney administration will look at India and the role it now plays on the global stage.

Suhasini Haider: Ambassador Powell, as you landed in India, there was that sensitive moment as Shah Rukh Khan landed in the US and faced questioning from the Homeland security officials. There's a lot of anger in India over that. The embassy apologised immediately. The question really, is the apology a lip-service because we've seen, it's a list of who's who, there are diplomats, there are cabinet ministers, there are former Presidents. So many in India are asking, is that going to change, is that policy going to change?

Nancy Powell: We're working very, very hard to make sure that it changes and each time we have learnt something new we've been implying that the number of incidents have gone down. We are certainly working very, very hard to make sure that any Indian who comes with legitimate purposes to the United States is welcomed with open arms and we are intensely sorry about this, it was not a glib apology, it was a sincere one. I think Mr. Khan was treated very kindly but we admit he did not go through as quickly and we want to make sure that that does not happen again.

Suhasini Haider: Ambassador Powell, even before you had come to India, you had introduced yourself in a sense through a Youtube video. You said that you wanted to look forward, you no longer wanted to dwell just on the past of the relationship, but you said you're looking forward. So, I will end this interview by asking you - you're looking forward to what?

Nancy Powell: I think there are a number of things that I have tried to emphasize. One of them clearly is our enormous commercial relationship, whether it's the civil nuclear peace, the defence relationship, our regular bilateral trade, working at the possibilities of additional companies in multi-brand retail coming in. We want to see how we can work with India on the global stage, recognising India's growing power within the region as an economic and a political power within the global arena, and also seeking to expand our mutual interest in countering the terrorists that threaten both of us, and those are the big areas.

Suhasini Haider: Well as you do that Ambassador Powell, we hope to have you back on the show, thanks so much for joining us on Worldview.

Suhasini Haider: And here's my take:

The transformation in India-US ties in the past decade has been breathtaking and perhaps too much so and despite all that is in common between the two democracies that share trade of more than a $100 billion now, both Washington and New Delhi have clearly disappointed each other. It's possibly time to reassess - for India to understand that the US deserves more credit certainly for pulling India out of its nuclear isolation and for the US to see India not as an ally but as a partner with an independent mind. Iran is now a test case for both.

Coming up on Worldview - the band Junoon is called South Asia's U2 for the causes it takes up. Singer Salman Ahmad will be in our studio to talk about how India-Pakistan ties are looking.

Segment 2:

Suhasini Haider: Welcome back. An entire generation of South Asians have grown up singing the lyrics of one Pakistani band. Salman Ahmad is now UN Goodwill Ambassador. He's an unofficial ambassador for India-Pakistan ties long before that was even fashionable. Salman thanks so much for coming on the show. You of course performed in India at some of the lowest points in ties between India and Pakistan; in fact you faced a government inquiry back home for performing here. From that perspective, how do India-Pakistan talks look today?

Salman Ahmad: Well they say you know that artists are always ahead of their time, and when we first came to India it was 1998, I spoke about Pakistan and India having cultural fusion not nuclear fusion. People misunderstood that and both states tested nuclear weapons, and we were banned, accused of being traitors by Nawaz Sharif. But now thankfully, both the states are coming around to what the people's true sentiments are.

Suhasini Haider: We've had that tragedy in Siachen where Pakistani soldiers died in an avalanche. Many are calling it an unnecessary battle field. Is that a cause you want to take up in Pakistan? There's a huge debate about whether Siachen should in fact be de-millitarised.

Salman Ahmad: I'll tell you a story about Siachen. Junoon performed there, probably the highest altitude of any rock band to go to. The Pakistani soldiers, who live in igloos, basically see nothing for 6 or 7 months. They said that somehow or the other we need to break the ice. And I feel that we're in a stage right now that soldiers on both sides can be put to much greater use than being 28,000 feet high up there.

Suhasini Haider: I have to ask you Salman, you're in fact talking about how the countries are coming closer. The counter narrative is in fact that they're going further apart, that Pakistan is seeing a rise of extremism like never before.

Salman Ahmad: If you want to understand Pakistani society, it has a very conservative view point. Women and men, young and old are very strong conservatives, but they're not extremists. Pakistani society is a mosaic of the left, the centre and the right. I think the world is looking at Pakistan through a key hole. Really this narrow perspective and all they see is the extremists.

Suhasini Haider: Many would say it's no longer even about Islam versus the West, it's become Pakistan versus the World in a sense; the world talking about terror groups that are based in Pakistan. What do you think Pakistan needs to do about that image?

Salman Ahmad: The War on Terror had nothing to do with Pakistan. Those people who flew those planes into the building, none of them came from Pakistan. And this war in Afghanistan is almost like Goundhogs day. When I was 17 years old, the Soviet Union was there. Now America's has been there for over 11 years spending trillions everyday. All of the fallout of that War on Terror has come into Pakistan. Pakistan is part of the world, its part of the solution to security in the region.

Suhasini Haider: You've always been political from the start. Some would say, even provocative when you wrote that book and called it 'Rock and Roll Jihaad'. What really drives you to be so political?

Salman Ahmad: By fear the extremists are hijacking language. When I was growing up in Pakistan, Jihad was a word to do good - overcome your ego, struggle… financially…do well in life. But because of 9/11, 'Jihad' has now become a word for planes flying into buildings. So I wanted to tell a story about a Pakistani post 9/11, an artist, what he has to deal with in the world. I feel that if we're not provocative, if artists are not provocative, then who's going to push the envelope.

Suhasini Haider: Alright, and you've become also truly political, in the sense that we see you now at Imran Khan's jalsas. You're certainly backing him, but do you think someone like Imran Khan, who essentially doesn't come from a party organisation, has a chance in Pakistan?

Salman Ahmad: Pakistanis, all across the spectrum are looking for somebody who's not from the political culture of Pakistan, where its business as usual. He represents that.

Suhasini Haider: Even so, he's seen by many as someone who has also made compromises for his popularity - reaching out to the religious right; coming on stage with Difa-e-Pakistan. In India, there are worries because he had representatives on stage with Jamat-ud-Dawa as well, which is so clearly anti-India. That doesn't worry you?

Salman Ahmad: He is a strong believer in a strong South Asia, free from control of Western powers. He's an independent thinker, he's nobody's robot. He is a Centrist leader which is bringing together the right, the centre, and the left.

Suhasini Haider: Alright, so you clearly believe that. Salman, Junoon was the first band to play in the United Nations General Assembly. But really, what seemed more impossible was when you were able to perform in Srinagar in 2008, and I'm going to quote from your book 'Rock and Roll Jihad', where you talked about how the United Jihad Council had put out an order against you, there were security guards everywhere, and you end your book by saying, "that night guitars won over the guns". Tell me a bit about that, tell me about what you think is the solution for Kashmir you think is going to come?

Salman Ahmad: Once I announced that Junoon was going to perform there; all hell broke loose - death threats, which has been a part of my career. But when we went there Suhasini, it was the most incredible moment of peace. Edge of the Dal lake, we're playing 'Khudi ko kar buland', 'Sayoni', 'Allah Hu', and the entire audience was singing along with us. And for that moment, I realised that this is a glimpse of what Kashmir can be. India and Pakistan have to understand that young people want a change.

Suhasini Haider: And as someone who's been an icon for long enough, you know change when you see it. Salman Ahmad thanks so much for joining us. That's all we have time for but we're going to leave you with Salman Ahmad at his best on the guitar. You have a song for India and Pakistan, you said.

Salman Ahmad: Always a pleasure to speak with you Suhasini, and because we're talking about change, Alama Iqbal said, 'Zamaane ke andaaz badle gaye', naya rag hai, saas badle gaye, hirat ko ghulami se azaad kar, jawaano ko piro ka ustad kar. (The ways of the world have changed, the tune is new, the instruments have changed, free the mind from mental slavery, make the young teachers of the old.)

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