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India Under Prime Minister Modi: A Conversation with Ambassador Kathleen Stephens

February 25, 2015

KathyStephensIn Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with Asia Foundation trustee Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, who visited Asia Foundation headquarters in San Francisco having just concluded a 7-month post as chargé d’affaires at the U.S Embassy in New Delhi. Ambassador Stephens served for 35 years as a career diplomat, including as U.S. Ambassador to Korea. She discussed President Obama’s recent visit to Delhi, Prime Minister Modi’s leadership priorities, women’s security, and regional opportunities.

You arrived in India moments after a lively election that brought in new leadership under Prime Minister Modi. What are your thoughts on the election, and what opportunities and challenges does new leadership bring?

In April of last year, after I thought I had finished my diplomatic career, I was certainly surprised when I received a phone call from Washington asking me if I would be willing to go to India to lead our diplomatic mission there until we could get a new ambassador named. Modi was sworn in at the end of May and I got there the first week of June. The election demonstrated that the Indian electorate was ready for a change, and while a Modi-BJP victory was expected, what was unexpected by all sides was that he would win an outright majority. Indian pundits and political thinkers had assumed that India would go forward with a period of weak coalition governments, but in fact Modi won a majority, and he won on a platform of hope and change, appealing to younger Indians’ desires for greater opportunity and renewal of economic growth.

When I arrived, India-U.S. relations had been going through a period of some strain. Over the last seven months, the Modi administration and the U.S. government have stepped up in building their relationship. The U.S. is finding ways that we can support Modi’s stated goal of reinvigorating the economy and India playing a larger role in the region. President Obama said several years ago when he visited India the first time that the U.S.-India relationship is one of the defining relationships of the 21st century. But for India to reach its potential and to play the role as the world’s largest democracy it needs to have the kind of sustainable development and economic growth that is going to create a million jobs a month – which is what they need to sustain a very young population coming onto the job market, and to address some of its massive developmental challenges – from climate change and sustainable water and power, to infrastructure and education. Across the board we feel like the U.S. can play some role in that, and clearly so do Prime Minister Modi and the Indian people.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Obama’s visit was momentous in that he not only went on an invitation from the Indian government, but that he went to their signature event for the first time, Republic Day. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

You played a major role in orchestrating both Modi’s visit to the U.S. and Obama’s visit to Delhi. What are some of the key takeaways from those visits?

We’ve really only just started on what we can do together, and Modi’s visit to D.C. in September and Obama’s visit to Delhi in January – the first U.S. president ever to visit twice during his presidency, demonstrates that we’re in a period of renewed commitment to work together.

It was particularly striking in the current tense environment in Washington for me to see the real attention and importance that people from across the political spectrum attached to this effort to respond to Modi’s initiatives with initiatives of our own.

Obama’s visit was momentous in that he not only went on an invitation from the Indian government, but that he went to their signature event for the first time, Republic Day. That is one of these very special events that you only invite your special friends to, so the Indians viewed it as a demonstration of the importance of this relationship.

In this context, what steps need to be taken for India to address some of its biggest challenges?

Going forward, first and foremost, it’s the economy. Prime Minister Modi’s and the people who elected him understand that very much. In his first seven months, I think Modi has done a superb job managing his foreign relations, not only with the United States, but also with Japan, Australia, and India’s neighbors. Now he’s turning his attention to a very difficult and ambitious program of reforming the Indian economy and of building infrastructure – roads, energy, housing, water, hygiene, education. Across the board India’s challenges are immense – I can’t find a word large enough. For all of the areas of progress over the last several decades – it has a huge middle class and huge world-class companies – the country also has hundreds of millions of people without access to reliable power and huge problems of over-regulation. Modi is encouraging investment through his “Make in India” campaign, but creating the conditions for that investment is challenging. They’ve taken some steps: allowing for more foreign investment, and making it clear that they welcome foreign companies coming in to be partners in defense and manufacturing. But they still have to show some success. Once you have success it will build on itself, but the next year or so will be very important.

How things go in India is going to have a huge impact on not only the almost 1.3 billion people in India, but on the whole world. The human capital in India is tremendous – to the extent that we’re going to find solutions to these issues that transcend borders – climate change, gender violence, inequality – we have to bring our best approaches to bear. The most creative solutions are not going to come from the two governments working together in the first instance. We must find partners where we can work together and come up with approaches that can be scaled up in India and the region. For example, India could be where we see the possibility of large-scale solar come to be – but it’s not something India can do on its own. It will take that a combination of business, environmental groups, energy experts, and government policy and regulation to make that as scalable and as it needs to be to address the needs.

Women’s security is a major concern across India, and was a top issue during Delhi legislative elections this month particularly on the heels of a number of high-profile cases. What are your thoughts on this?

Even within India, I think people recognize that Delhi was a place that was considered particularly problematic when it came to violence against women, not just because of these high-profile cases, but also because of a general sense of lack of security. In part because of these high profile cases, the issue of violence has gotten people out talking about it more openly. I went to see Modi give his first large policy address on August 15 on Independence Day at the iconic Red Fort. He is known to be a master orator, and he spoke without notes for over an hour in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. What was striking to me was that he devoted so much of that speech to talking in very plain, and apparently unscripted language, about issues like rape, selective abortion of female fetuses, violence in general against women, and discrimination. He also talked about the fact that parents need to think about what their sons were doing, and not just their daughters. It was extraordinary – I’d be surprised to hear any politician in any country talk in such direct terms about these issues. More importantly, when I went home I turned on the TV and the place was abuzz. Now how do you take that forward? The police have announced some positive steps and the government has made some commitments to changing mindsets and provided more security. But this is a very entrenched and difficult issue. This is an area where non-governmental players in India – and there are many – can play a big role.

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