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“The absence of a US Ambassador to India for more than two years now is an embarrassment” — This statement by a top Democratic Senator summed up one of the rare hiccups in India-US ties.
However, it seems the country’s wait for an envoy is finally over as the foreign relations committee of the US Senate on Thursday voted in favour of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti becoming the ambassador of India. Garcetti, who is Joe Biden’s choice for the role, will now face a vote on the floor of the US Senate.
Giving their nod to Garcetti, the committee said having a full-time ambassador to India was a matter of national security.
Unlike in most countries, ambassadors in the United States require consent by the Senate, often leading to lengthy delays although Garcetti’s nomination has been stalled for unusually long.
“Simply put, the United States needs a confirmed ambassador in India,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters after the committee vote.
“There is no other country around the world that would put itself in a position to have a vacancy open in a strategically important and valuable place like India for two-plus years,” Price said.
Who is Eric Garcetti?
Former Los Angeles mayor Garcetti has spoken of a lifelong interest in India which blossomed after a visit as a university student that prompted him to study Hindi and Urdu.
Garcetti, who was barred from seeking a third term as mayor, had once been seen as a rising star in Democratic Party politics and flirted with a presidential run, reported news agency AFP. However, his legacy was marred by allegations that he knew and did not act after his former chief of staff made unwanted sexual advances on a number of people around him.
Why the delay?
Garcetti was nominated by President Joe Biden in 2021, while he was still leading the second-largest US city.
However, his nomination was not brought to the Senate for a vote as the ruling Democrats did not have enough support to get him through. The nomination was also stalled over criticism of the mayor’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against his aide.
A report released by Senator Chuck Grassley in May concluded that Garcetti, in all probability, was aware that his former chief of staff, Rick Jacobs, sexually harassed a Los Angeles police officer. However, Garcetti defended his stand, saying he “strongly” disagreed with the findings of the report and was hopeful of being confirmed by the entire Senate.
Recently, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez scheduled a vote on his nomination on February 28. However, Republican Senator Marco Rubio placed a hold on his nomination. The vote by the committee has now been postponed till March 8.
“One of these nominees has ignored credible sexual assault accusations in his prior office. I will not turn a blind eye to these absurd nominations, which will hasten America’s decline,” said Rubio, who is the vice chair of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Why does a full-time envoy even matter?
History stands testament to the fact that American ambassadors have always helped further ties between the two countries.
According to the New York Times, when India was invaded by China in 1962, then US ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith — known to be close to PM Jawaharlal Nehru — facilitated supply of arms to India. This changed India’s perception towards America and helped bring Nehru closer to John F Kennedy, cementing ties between the two countries.
The absence of a full-time ambassador ever since the Biden administration took charge seems to have had an impact on the ties between the two countries, especially as the world navigates the realities of a new order with the Russia-Ukraine war.
To put it simply, a full-time envoy helps navigate the bumps in bilateral relationships. Of late, there have been irritants between India and US on issues such as comments by the State Department’s envoy on international religious freedom on human rights issues, the role of NGOs and civil society activists in India, and New Delhi’s unease with Washington’s stand on defence supplies to bête noire Pakistan.
To make matters worse, India and US are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine war. While US has been trying to nudge India to call out Russia, it has stopped short of calling out the country and has paid heed to Delhi’s defence as well as energy concerns.
Despite the minor inconveniences, India and US stand united against a belligerent China and Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism.
Apart from the diplomatic concerns, the absence of a full-time ambassador is also bad optics — for both countries. The need of the hour, thus, is to strengthen communication at the highest level for the remainder of Biden’s term.
America has always referred to India as a “strategic” partner and the changing geo-politics of the region — along with India’s growing economic prowess — mean US must keep India close. Not just the economics and defence aspects but India also enjoys a say in international issues related to health, climate change and technology — areas where America would not mind some support.
The latest development of India assuming the G20 chair also means US must mend ties as the former rises in stature in world politics and grabs eyeballs — a coveted crown that so far was reserved for the US.
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