NDTV: It’s been an uneasy year for the relationship between India and the United States with some pointing out that the relationship appeared to have lost its momentum, even seeing serious friction at times. But now both countries are trying to put the past behind and working not just with the Strategic Dialogue towards the end of the month, but also that big meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Barack Obama.
The first high-level official contact between the Obama administration and the Modi government has taken place this morning in Delhi when the United States Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Prime Minister Modi. He is here with us on the program now. It’s a pleasure to be talking to you, and welcome to India, even though it’s a short visit.
Deputy Secretary Burns: It’s very nice to see you and I’m delighted to be back in India.
NDTV: How did that meeting go? I think a lot of people in India are wondering where this relationship is headed. It hasn’t seen a good year. Let’s not mince words. Let’s not pull our punches. How did your meeting with Prime Minister Modi go?
Deputy Secretary Burns: It was an excellent discussion and Prime Minister Modi is a very impressive man. He’s obviously won a very strong mandate from the people of India to reinvigorate India’s development, and its rise on the world stage. I’m absolutely convinced that that presents a very significant opportunity to reinvigorate the partnership between the United States and India, because I’m equally convinced that the United States can contribute in some very important ways to the success of India and of Prime Minister Modi.
I listened very carefully to the priorities that the Prime Minister laid out for India reflected in the budget, particularly in terms of economic growth; and in terms of cooperation on energy security, defense and security, and a range of other issues. There are some very practical ways in which we can work together and make a reality of the nice slogan which is Strategic Partnership.
Our challenge is really to give that tangible life and I’m convinced that in the run-up to the Prime Minister’s important visit to Washington at the end of September and beyond that, we can lay out a very practical road map to deepen our partnership and to show that a partnership between the United States and India can contribute in important ways to a safer and more prosperous world.
NDTV: We’ll get to the economic relationship in just a moment, but were you able to finalize the dates of this meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi? Do we know whether Mr. Modi will be addressing a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress?
Deputy Secretary Burns: The meeting between the President and the Prime Minister will be at the end of September, on the 30th of September at the White House. Certainly I think it would be a terrific opportunity for the Prime Minister to have a chance to address our Congress. That’s obviously something for the Congressional leadership to determine. I know Senator McCain was here recently and discussed --
NDTV: He suggested the same.
Deputy Secretary Burns: He’ll be a strong advocate in Washington. So we want to take maximum advantage of this visit as an opportunity for both of us to renew and reinvigorate our partnership.
NDTV: This is a relationship that, especially when it comes to Prime Minister Modi, has seen its degree of friction. To start with, there was what for shorthand we call the visa issue. Mr. Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat was not able to go to the United States. It was considered a near total boycott for almost a decade. It has been pointed out the little known law to stop him from coming was actually only ever used against one politician in the world and that was Narendra Modi.
Did this come up in your conversation at all this morning?
Deputy Secretary Burns: No. Our conversation this morning was very much about the future and about the promise and the opportunity in our relationship. And as I said before and as President Obama said in his telephone call to the Prime Minister just after his election, we recognize the very strong mandate that he has won and we have a deep interest and stake in his success and India’s success. So we’re looking forward at this point, and as I said, he’s a very impressive man and I very much enjoyed our conversation.
NDTV: Looking back, do you believe that the United States made a mistake? Was it a misjudgment, a decision you regret, to have not enabled -- I know the State Department position continued to be that he was free to apply for a visa, but once it was rejected he was probably not going to do that again. So looking back, do you feel the United States made a mistake? I know it was a previous regime, but it could be pointed out that the Obama Administration didn’t do very much to change it.
Deputy Secretary Burns: I’m a big believer in looking forward. I think there are huge opportunities before us. I think the Prime Minister very much shares that view and so what we want to try to do is take advantage of this moment of possibility.
NDTV: So you’re saying it belongs to the past, the visa issue?
Deputy Secretary Burns: I’m saying the record of the concerns that were expressed at the time is well known, but rather than dwell on that I think what’s significant now in the interest of both Americans and Indians, of our two governments, of our two societies, is to look ahead and I welcome the spirit that Prime Minister Modi brings to our relationship.
NDTV: Let’s talk about then a problem in the present. India has summoned a diplomat of the United States to express very grave concerns about the revelations first out of the Washington Post that the BJP as a political party was snooped upon by the NSA surveillance program. You are aware of his concerns. You’ve been quizzed about them before. But we haven’t seen much elucidation from the United States on this.
There are people asking why would the U.S. want to spy on the BJP along with the PPP in Pakistan, along with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Surely this must have cast somewhat of a shadow on the relationship today.
Deputy Secretary Burns: I understand the seriousness of the concerns that have been raised. I’m simply not in a position to comment publicly on those specific allegations.
What I can say is that we’ll continue to deal with those concerns professionally and in diplomatic channels.
NDTV: And you don’t think this is something that could actually impact the relationship? There has been a formal response from the Indian government. This isn’t only a journalist question. So it clearly sits there on the table between the two of you as an area of friction.
Deputy Secretary Burns: No, and I don’t mean for a moment to minimize or dismiss the concerns that have been raised. We take seriously the concerns that a partner raises with us. President Obama has been very clear, including in a speech he gave some months ago, about our determination to try to strengthen trust especially between partners on issues like this and look for ways in which we can actually strengthen intelligence cooperation against shared threats. So I can’t comment beyond that on the specific issues.
NDTV: But you are fighting fires globally. Germany, for example, has asked the CIA station chief to leave because of the snooping row. So is there at least a sense, I understand that you’re constrained in how much you can say on this, but is there at least a sense of highest levels of the administration that something went wrong here and it needs to be reviewed?
Deputy Secretary Burns: Well, there’s certainly a sense of the concern that’s been raised by a number of important allies and partners. We take it seriously, as I said, and we’ll continue to pursue this professionally.
NDTV: Let’s talk about another very important area. It almost came to define the U.S.-India equation for a few years under the Manmohan Singh government and that was a big nuclear deal.
Now it’s ironic that we had a previous Prime Minister who almost lost his government because of this deal, but actually this deal after all these years, after all that noise, is still waiting to be operationalized. Where does it stand today for Washington?
Deputy Secretary Burns: I’m very familiar with this, having played a part in 2008 when we completed the Civil Nuclear Agreement and the negotiations. So I’m intimately familiar with the efforts that both sides made to accomplish that, and that moment of possibility that existed then.
It’s been frustrating I think for both of us that we haven’t been able to build on it as quickly and effectively as we would have liked. I think we’ve seen some steps in the right direction in both of our interests last year when Westinghouse entered into an initial agreement --
NDTV: But that’s just a statement of intent in some ways.
Deputy Secretary Burns: But it’s a step in the right direction. And I think more recently we’ve seen an announcement from the government about the intent to ratify the Additional Protocol which is --
NDTV: For the nuclear watch dog, yes.
Deputy Secretary Burns: -- an important element of what the IAEA, the nuclear watch dog, does.
So we need to keep working at this together. The prospect, whether it’s Westinghouse or GE or any other American company being involved in the actual construction of a civil nuclear facility, is something that benefits both of us. It brings to bear state of the art technology, it helps Indians address what is a huge and increasing demand for energy and electricity, and so we’re confident that we’re going to be able to move ahead in the future. We just need to continue to work hard at this.
NDTV: When you say it’s been frustrating for both countries, where do you think the problem is? Where do you think the holdup is?
Deputy Secretary Burns: Obviously we’ve expressed our concerns about the liability legislation that was passed. Obviously there were concerns on the Indian side which helped motivate that legislation. This is just something we’re going to have to sort through as partners and continue to work at because I’m convinced that there remains considerable promise attached to that civil nuclear agreement for India as well as for the United States.
NDTV: The reason I ask is because when the liability legislation was actually being debated in the Indian Parliament, the BJP was then in the opposition. It’s now in government. But the BJP felt very strongly that the suppliers should not be exempted from liability, which of course is the area of concern with the United States and many of your big companies there.
So are you apprehensive that the BJP having had this position on record will take a much more aggressive approach on the liability issue?
Deputy Secretary Burns: No. I think, first, the concern that’s been expressed by the United States is not unique to Americans. A number of other potential nuclear suppliers have expressed that concern --
Deputy Secretary Burns: -- simply because there’s an international practice here on liability that we think ought to be applied.
But having said that, I am confident that we can work with this government to make progress on this issue which I think is an important component of helping India to meet increasing energy demand in the future, which obviously the Prime Minister has laid out as an important priority for his government.
So whether it’s in terms of nuclear energy or in wider terms of clean and renewable energy, in terms of the potential for increased American exports of liquefied natural gas to help meet Indian needs, I think energy is an area where we can do a lot together in the coming years.
NDTV: Let me ask you candidly if the legislation remains where it does and the liability concerns do not change and India continues to insist that the suppliers are also liable, do you believe that the nuclear deal could ever take off in real terms?
Deputy Secretary Burns: I think there are certainly possibilities of making further progress. I think the liability issue remains a concern and I’m hopeful that we’ll find ways to address it together.
NDTV: Did the Prime Minister indicate anything on this issue in his meeting with you?
Deputy Secretary Burns: We didn’t talk in detail about the issue, although we had a very good conversation about energy as an area for cooperation between us. And certainly the Prime Minister is very well aware of this issue since Gujarat is an intended site for the Westinghouse project in particular.
Deputy Secretary Burns: So I believe with a practical focus that the two of us can work together to try to create the climate in which we can move ahead on that issue.
NDTV: The economic relationship is one big piece of this puzzle that is being put back together as it were, the Indo-U.S. equation. There was a sense that the world was a bit dismayed at the investor climate, for example, in India. That there was a kind of economic paralysis. That was even a domestic critique.
Do you have reason to be more hopeful since the new government has taken charge? You heard the budget. You mentioned the budget. Did it offer you anything that made you believe that it is a favorable signal for foreign investors?
Deputy Secretary Burns: Certainly the broad message that the Prime Minister has sent and that’s reflected in the budget is that India wants to demonstrate that it’s open for business, to improve, for example, on the World Bank ranking that places India relatively low in terms of ease of doing business. The Prime Minister seems quite determined -- both publicly and in our conversation today -- to change that image in very practical ways.
In terms of the budget and its specifics, raising the caps on foreign direct investment in defense and insurance and e-commerce suggests movement in that direction, and there are plenty of American companies who are well positioned to try to take advantage of those openings. So I think there’s a real opportunity here to help India accelerate its economic growth in a way that also helps the American economy and creates jobs and --
NDTV: So you’re happy with the signals so far?
Deputy Secretary Burns: So far I think it’s a step in the right direction, and obviously the Prime Minister has made clear he wants to continue to build on that.
NDTV: Before I ask you a little bit about the neighborhood this meeting, the summit meeting between President Obama and the Prime Minister, what will be on the agenda?
Deputy Secretary Burns: First we want to take that term, Strategic Partnership, to which both the President and Prime Minister are quite committed, and turn it into a tangible reality. So that it’s not just about events or lists of meetings, but practical achievements.
In the economic area, there are huge opportunities as India addresses its infrastructure development needs. There are things the United States can do, things the American government can do to encourage companies and facilitate investment.
Energy, as I said, is another example of that that’s directly connected to the prospects for revived economic growth or accelerated growth.
Then I think you look at the underpinnings of development, whether it’s in education and skills development, an important priority for the Prime Minister which we discussed today. Things the United States can do to contribute to that. Health, food security, water security, the whole range of infrastructure issues connected with India’s cities. The United States can share the benefit of our experience and our technology and innovation in ways that I think can be very helpful.
I think the challenge now for our two leaderships and for all of us who share a deep interest in our partnership, is to make a tangible reality of that strategic partnership, and I’m convinced that their meeting at the end of September offers a real opportunity to renew the momentum in our partnership.
NDTV: Let’s just look a little bit at the neighborhood. It’s often said that this is now a de-hyphenated relationship when it comes to India and Pakistan, yet it also has to be admitted that terror groups that continue to operate in Pakistan remain not just a concern for India but the United States as well.
You were in Pakistan. Your statement, I read that statement, spoke about closing down safe havens that offer terrorists sanctuaries.
A few days ago the United States confirmed what was suspected in India that the Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the attack on our consulate in Herat. Why has the United States not been able to create effective pressure on Pakistan to crack down on somebody like Hafiz Saeed who is able to roam around in Pakistan with absolute impunity?
Deputy Secretary Burns: It’s been a genuine frustration for us. We continue to be quite candid in expressing our concerns to the Pakistani leadership, including when I was there a couple of months ago.
The terrible terrorist attack that took place in Mumbai cost six American lives as well, so we have a deep interest in ensuring the people responsible for that are brought to justice, and to doing everything we can to ensure that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba don’t threaten not just Indians, as significant as that threat is, but also Americans and people anywhere else in the world.
NDTV: So why haven’t you been able to do more? You have so much clout with Pakistan. You have so much power or influence over them. Why haven’t you been able to --
Deputy Secretary Burns: We often get more credit than we deserve for clout sometimes. But we will continue to push these issues very seriously and very hard.
NDTV: Does it concern you that Hafiz Saeed is out there free? He is the patron saint, as it were, of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Deputy Secretary Burns: It certainly concerns us for all the reasons that you described. That’s why this remains a high priority in our relationship with Pakistan. We will continue to work at this.
NDTV: You say it’s a matter of concern that Hafiz Saeed is out there. What do you believe is stopping Pakistan from acting against groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba? There has been a suggestion that one of the reasons that groups like the Lashkar continue to survive is because there are elements in Pakistan’s security establishment, whether in the ISI or whether in the military, that use these terror groups as what they believe to be strategic assts.
Deputy Secretary Burns: I honestly don’t want to speculate about the reasons for the lack of movement on some of those issues. All I can say is that the United States continues to make this a high priority and will continue to push it because it matters. And it matters not only to the United States or to India or to any of Pakistan’s neighbors, it matters to Pakistan itself. Groups like Lashkar represent a threat to Pakistan’s own future and its stability and its potential prosperity. So we’ll continue to hammer away at those issues.
NDTV: Many high-ranking American officials have over the years made the point, especially after the bin Laden raid as it were, that there are other high profile terrorists who could be hiding in Pakistan. Mullah Omar has been named. Zawahiri has been named. Does the United States consider it within its domain to act against these groups of terrorists just as you did with Osama bin Laden?
Deputy Secretary Burns: Obviously on those issues I’m not --
NDTV: You’re not going to tell me if you’re going to raid them again, I know, but --
Deputy Secretary Burns: I’m not going to speculate publicly, but all I would say is, as President Obama has made very clear, we take those kinds of threats, international terrorist threats, extremely seriously.
NDTV: Let me ask you in the end a global question. That question is, we know that you are in nuclear talks with Iran. We know that there is this complete chaos unfolding in Iraq. Do you believe the Iraq moment presents itself with a rare opportunity alongside these talks that you’re holding with Iran to actually reforge the relationship between Iran and the United States?
Deputy Secretary Burns: I think the nuclear negotiations are on their own track at this point. And again, they’re not just between the United States and Iran, it’s really the international community embodied in the P5+1 and Iran. Those talks are complicated and difficult, which shouldn’t surprise anybody. I’ve found the Iranian negotiators over the course of the last year to be quite professional and quite tough, which is no surprise. The gaps that remain between the P5+1 and Iran at this point are quite significant. We need to continue to work at it and we’re determined to do that.
NDTV: Would you say the talks are progressing?
Deputy Secretary Burns: I would say that there is a lot of ground that has to be covered if we’re going to get to a comprehensive agreement. I think the United States and India share a common concern about Iran not developing a nuclear weapon given our common concern about stability in the Middle East, a part of the world that as you were suggesting before has more than its share of instability right now.
Deputy Secretary Burns: So we’ll stay in very close touch with our partners in India on this issue just as we do on Iraq. We have tried to share all the information that we have with regard to the Indian citizens who were abducted. It’s a blessing that the Indian nurses were able to depart.
NDTV: Were you helping the Indians in any way in that evacuation?
Deputy Secretary Burns: We’ll do everything we can to provide information and work quietly and professionally with our Indian partners on these issues because my point is simply that we share concern about instability in that country which has a real danger, as it does in Syria, of not only spilling over into the neighborhood, but of allowing a platform to be established in those countries by Sunni extremists that can then be used to export extremism and violence to other parts of the world. That’s something, again, that the United States and India through our partnership need to try to address.
NDTV: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. It’s a pleasure talking to you.
Deputy Secretary Burns: It’s nice to see you.
NDTV: Thank you.