Fulbright US-India Series: Nisha Biswal | President of the US-India Business Council

In this conversation we will be speaking with Nisha Biswal, the current president of the US-India Business Council and former Assistant Secretary at the US State Department. Ms. Biswal has extensive experience working in the South Asian region, and in this conversation, we hear from Ms. Biswal about how the US-India relationship has evolved over the past decade, what have been some of the main challenges for establishing a free trade agreement, and opportunities for deeper economic engagement between the two countries moving forward. Hope you enjoy!

Topics discussed in this episode:
  • How has the US-India relationship evolved over the past decade
  • To just get some context, what have been the major hurdles for why a free trade agreement has not been established up until now?
  • Key focus areas or industries for collaboration between these two countries?
  • As the chair of the US-India business council, and in Ms. Biswal’s engagement with industry players from the US. What are the key challenges they express in terms of being able to deepen their ties in India


00:06 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone, this is Karan Takhar, and welcome to the Energy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright Podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India's global leadership in renewable energy with a focus on solar, this Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons. This season we capture the views of high-level officials of government and will try and understand how India's continued progress in renewable energy development can strengthen its leadership position on the world stage and provide new revenue for global impact. In this episode, we'll be speaking with Nisha Biswal, the current president of the US India Business Council at the US Chamber of Commerce, and the former assistant secretary at the US State Department. Miss Biswal has extensive experience working in the South Asian region, and in this conversation, we explore these peaceful views on how the US-India relationship has evolved over the past ten years and opportunities for deeper economic collaboration moving forward. I hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation. Hi, Miss Biswal. Thank you sincerely for taking the time. I've been looking forward to speaking with you given your extensive experience working in the International affairs space, especially in the South Asian region could you talk about what sparked your interest in this area, to begin with?

02:05 Nisha Biswal
Sure. Well, Karan first of all, a pleasure to be with you today, and really wonderful to hear about all the great things that you're doing. For me, an interest in international relations was sparked actually very early on in my life. I knew that I wanted to have some kind of an international career and when I went to the University of Virginia, it was with that in mind. So while I didn't quite know what I want it to do, I did a lot of exploring, taking a lot of different classes and different disciplines and, you know, I think I probably graduated with enough credits to go into economics or Spanish or I think I looked at psychology and of course some international affairs. But Larry Sabato, a professor in government and international politics at the University of Virginia, was another mentor of mine, and so that, I think, also sparked that interest.

03:14 Karan Takhar
Very interesting. I wanted to ask, like if you reflect back on all of your incredible experiences up until now and could go back in time to maybe give one piece of advice, professional advice, or personal advice to yourself after having graduated UVA and kind of knowing. How things have turned out now, is there anything you would tell your younger self?

03:46 Nisha Biswal
I mean, I think things have kind of landed probably as well as or better than what I had even expected and anticipated. What I would tell my younger self, though, was probably go to class more often. Because there's there's a lot that you can pick up if you. If you actually get into the class early in the morning instead of sleeping in, but also you know that it was OK to not know where I wanted to go because I think as a, as someone coming right out of college that lack of clarity on where and how my career should run fold in the face of so many around me who knew exactly what they wanted to do. They were going into medicine, they were going into law, they were going into, you know, biomedical engineering. Very specific interests that so many of my friends graduating from college had and I was just exploring. I did not know. Well, what I wanted to do, but I wanted to experience all of the different options that were out there and I guess it made me nervous that I didn't know and what I would tell my younger self is it's OK to not know and what I tell so many young people who come to me for career advice is you know, you don't have to have it all figured out. I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. I still don't know what my five-year 10-year plan is, but what I do know is I let curiosity guide me and so where something sparks a real interest where I say wow, I really want to understand how that works. I let that guide me into what my next career step is, and I think it's OK to not know as long as you are willing to be curious and willing to take risks.

06:01 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for expanding on that and with regards to the US-India relationship from my conversations. As a Fulbright scholar, it seems that the relationship has come a long way. Hey, can you talk about how you feel the US-India relationship has evolved since your time as an assistant secretary with the state?

06:27 Nisha Biswal
Sure. You know, Karen, I've been working on US-India relations, frankly for most of my career in some way or the other. Most of the time it was on the periphery when I worked on Capitol Hill. When I worked at USAID when I worked in the office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, I was always India was always part of the issue sets that I oversaw or that I worked on. But it wasn't until I went into the Obama administration, first as the assistant administrator for USAID and then as the Assistant Secretary of State, that India became front and center. In terms of my focus and my areas of responsibility, what I would say is well. From India's birth and independence, the United States has always known that India was important to the United States, it was important to the world, and India's success was a priority for all but as for much of those early decades, the US and India were arranged we did not have alignment in our goals or priorities and in our approaches towards each other. The Cold War had a lot to do with that, India's own desire to be non-aligned and independent and free of any ties. Some were, I think you know. To some extent, part of that as well. But even during those days, our leaders knew that we were important to each other. the US India Business Council, in fact, was founded back in 1975. By at the behest of Henry Kissinger and the Indian External Affairs Minister of the time under Indira Gandhi and it was because both countries knew that we needed to find ways to grow that relationship and to create convergence. It's when I came into government during the Obama administration. First of all, a lot of work had been done by both Bill Clinton and by George Bush in trying to narrow the divide and to build more bridges. Obama came in with a real focus that for the global challenges that he wanted to tackle, that the path would lead through New Delhi, and so very early on, I think he made that a big focus, reaching out to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That was the first state dinner that President Obama hosted. One of his early major trips was to India. But it was a time when the Congress party, you know, the government that was in power was also very internally focused on coalition management and on reelection, and so there was perhaps not as much ambition. In the relationship, as perhaps could have been or would have been desired. I came in at the very tail end of the Manmohan Singh government as assistant secretary and you know when Prime Minister Modi was elected, it was with a commanding single-party mandate and I think that unleashed for the two governments and for the two leaders the opportunity to be more ambitious and have a bolder vision for what the two countries could do together, and I had the privilege of therefore managing the relationship at a time when the ambition was present in both governments, oftentimes it would be one or then the other and it happened that President Obama and Prime Minister Modi both understood. That each needed the other to achieve their own goals and priorities, and out of that, I think was born an era of opportunity and that's where we are today is we are continuing to build on that age of opportunity in US, India ties. It is now both broad and deep. It encompasses the strategic, the security, the economic, the people, the people, the academic, and scientific. Realms and it is increasingly future-facing, which is that how do the United States and India work together to bring about the future that each of us want for our own people and for the world, and that's how both countries are really defining. The way, the relationship, and the architecture of the relationship, that's being built not only bilaterally, but also regionally and globally.

12:14 Karan Takhar
Very interesting, and with regards to economic collaboration, I read that just a few weeks ago the India-U.S trade Policy Forum met for the first time in a few years, which is where a potential framework for trade discussions will be set to just get some context. What have been the major hurdles for why a free trade agreement has not been established up until now and what do you believe will be the key focus areas for collaboration between these two countries moving forward?

12:57 Nisha Biswal
So, you know, trade is always one of the most contentious areas in any relationship, and we have, even with our most, our closest allies, the trade conversations tend to be the most tense. So it's no different between the United States and India where it has been a very a divergent approach. the US has been much more of a trading, a trade-based economy. So much of our economic growth and so many of our jobs are related to our ability to export around the world. India has had a more insular approach. Part of the way that the Indian economy was built up was to limit. The investment and the trade with the rest of the world to give Indian industry an opportunity and a chance to build up. But India has been liberalizing and opening up and in fact Manmohan Singh when he was finance minister. I was part of the kind of architect of opening up India and liberalizing its economy, and India has been on the path to do that Prime Minister Modi kind of campaigned on a reform agenda when he came into government In 2014 and In fact, you've seen US-India trade grow quite robustly over these past couple of decades where we're now at about 150 billion in two-way trade and investment, and you know continuing to grow. That said, the US and India do not have any real trade agreements amongst us. We don't have a bilateral investment treaty we don't have an agreement on services or certainly not a comprehensive trade agreement and India is not part of very many bilateral or regional agreements at all, because it is really in recent years that India started seeing that It was not sufficient to just grow an economy that could be self-contained you know it's starting to see the opportunity emerge you know beyond protecting your own market to how do you position yourself for the global market and so we see an opportunity to really work towards greater convergence and alignment between the United States and India. The US and India are both up you know some of both two of the largest economies in the world and we bookend the Indo-Pacific, and yet we are outside of the major trade agreements of the Indo Pacific And that, I think, creates both a challenge and a potential opportunity for the two countries to work together to look at bilateral trade, as well as to look at how the US and India can engage with and be a part of regional trade. So I am bullish that the trade conversation is going to become a greater focus and a bigger priority for both countries.

16:52 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for expanding on that and as the Chair of the US India Business Council and in your engagement with industry players from the US. Are there any common challenges that US businesses often express in terms of being able to deep in their business ties in India.

17:19 Nisha Biswal
Well, certainly, you know, India is a complex ecosystem in which to operate, and navigating that complexity is makes it a little bit more challenging for businesses to invest in and to thrive now. India has done a lot to streamline regulations, to create more incentives, and to improve the ease of doing business nonetheless. What companies come to us with regularly or one is there a transparent policymaking rulemaking apparatus that they can you know is there transparency and predictability in the policy ecosystem? Is there stability in the policy ecosystem for companies to invest 10s hundreds of 1,000,000 billions of dollars into a country they need to know that their investment is going to be met with a stable environment in which to thrive and which in which to grow their business, their operation, and so when policies change, when policies are incoherent or inconsistent in that the government says, you know, we're going to do XY and Z on tax policy, but then the tax authority has different you know, ways of interpreting that or in different states it's being interpreted differently all of that adds to the complexity and it also increases the cost of doing business and the time of, you know, involved in doing business and so those are, you know, three issues that are raised. Transparency Stability and consistency or coherence. The other is market access. Companies that are investing billions of dollars into India in making in India want to know that. They can access the Indian market and sell to India, and so these are the issues that we helped to navigate now. Trade agreements, investment treaties, are. Those are ways to create some greater ease in the trade relationship lubricants in the trade relationship. But there is also one on one, you know, case-by-case work that we do with the government to try to ease some of these concerns because India wants to grow investment and FDI into India, India wants to become an exporting nation and they want to grow jobs and all of those for things that American companies can be a part of, and that is what USIBC is doing on a day by day basis is helping to grow that economic partnership.

20:43 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for your time, Miss Biswal, and for all these great insights. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

20:50 Nisha Biswal
Thank you, Karan, and good luck with the podcast and with everything. You've got going on.

20:55 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much. I hope you enjoyed that episode, and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.

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