Washington may be wracked by internecine political battles, but when it comes to India, love is in the air. A record number of 27 US lawmakers will visit India this month in two separate delegations, it was announced at a Congressional reception on Tuesday, reflecting one of the rare bipartisan mandates in a fractious town – support for stronger ties with New Delhi.
One delegation of 19 lawmakers will visit New Delhi and Hyderabad from February 20 to 25 to discuss US-India strategic ties under the aegis of Aspen Institute. Another CoDel (Congressional Delegation) of eight members will visit New Delhi and Bangalore from February 20 to 23. Together they will constitution the arguably the largest group of US lawmakers to visit any country at one time.
There have been previous such large visits to India, most notably in 2013 when 21 lawmakers visited for an Aspen Congressional program to examine policy challenges for US in South Asia. But the fact that this is happening at time Washington is riven with rancorous partisanship in the early weeks of the Trump administration is not lost on anyone, least of all the lawmakers themselves.
At a Capitol Hill reception “to celebrate India’s engagement with the 115th US Congress,” Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic Whip, spoke of the bipartisan support for the India relationship and emphasized cooperation on security issues between the two countries, while Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher zoned in on the importance of addressing the threat arising from extremist radical terrorism.
Others, such as Texas’s Pete Olsen had business opportunities (particularly energy exports from his home turf of Houston) on the mind. But the overwhelming sentiment was one of goodwill towards a fellow democracy with a large market.
The Congressional sorties are also seen as an important building block leading up to a visit to US later this year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead of rushing to Washington DC as leaders of many US allies and friends have done (leaders of Britain, Japan, Israel among them), New Delhi clearly prefers a slower, more deliberative process involving a wider canvas, backed by grassroots and legislative support.
“The visit would let these lawmakers first hand see for themselves the political vibrancy of India, the economic reforms that are happening, and also for them to identify potential areas of engagement,” Navtej Sarna, India’s new ambassador to the US who came to Washington just days before the November 8 election, told the gathering.
Sarna has had a brief meeting with President Trump at a reception for foreign ambassadors, even as Indian officials have quietly begun connecting with their US counterparts as the new administration begins filling in posts vacated by previous Obama appointees. The Trump administration has appointed Brig. Robin Fontes, till recently the Defence Attache at the US embassy in New Delhi (and the first female attache at that) as the new new Senior Director for the South Asia region at the National Security Council.
Importantly, the CoDel visit also comes at a time the Hill has a record five lawmakers of Indian-origin, a fact that Congressman Ami Bera, Democratic Chair of the House India Caucus said is a testimony to the remarkable strides that the Indian-American community has made and the growing closeness between the two countries that is based on shared values.