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27 Feb 2017

Governors hear India out in US - High turnout at ambassador's house as American states express solidarity after shooting

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval with ambassador Navtej Sarna at the Indian embassy in Washington on Saturday. (PTI picture)
K.P. Nayar, TT, Feb. 26: A majority of America's governors who directly deal with violence of the kind that killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla have thrown in their lot with India even though the White House continues to insist that "any correlation" between the fatal shooting in Kansas and President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric is "absurd".
Twenty-five governors and special envoys of four others went to Indian ambassador Navtej Sarna's residence in Washington during the weekend in what is clearly an assertion that across the board, America's relations with India, vastly expanded in the last two decades, will not be undercut by the Trump administration's policies.
The governors are in Washington for their four-day 2017 winter meeting which concludes on Monday afternoon. Forty-six out of America's 50 governors are attending the winter conclave.
With 25 of them, along with special envoys of four more governors, attending Sarna's reception on their opening night, two nights after the Kansas shooting, a majority of states have chosen to express solidarity with India in what is generally seen in New Delhi as a period of uncertainty in Indo-US relations.
The last time American governors attending their winter conclave in the national capital were hosted by any Indian agency was 16 years ago. Then, only 18 governors had attended a similar reception by ambassador Naresh Chandra although all 50 governors plus chief executives of territories like American Samoa and Guam were present in Washington.
The low attendance on February 24, 2001, was a surprise because the proposal for a reception by Chandra had come from the then Maryland governor, Parris Glendening, who was chairman of the National Governor's Association at that time.
The contrasting high attendance this weekend at Sarna's residence is accounted for by a need felt in gubernatorial mansions across America to assure the increasingly visible but nervous Indian immigrant community in the US that they should not feel threatened by stray incidents of hate crimes of the kind that killed Kuchibhotla and injured another Indian, Alok Madasani, on Wednesday night.
"I am sure all right-thinking people in America will work together and ensure that this tragic incident is behind us," Sarna said in remarks welcoming the governors to his residence.
By stating that India was confident that American administrators would take necessary measures to ensure that such incidents were not repeated, Sarna diplomatically underlined his grave concern at the violent assault on two Indians.
Routinely, law and order is a state subject in the US. Governors, mayors and local sheriffs, mostly elected, are the ones to be courted for the protection, in this instance, of Indians and other immigrant communities.
In hate crimes, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Department of Justice (DoJ) enter the picture if the federal government classifies an incident as a hate crime. This repeatedly happened during the civil rights movement in the 1960s to end racial segregation of American black people.
In the Kansas shooting, the Trump administration is reluctant to make such a classification because of fears that the incident would be linked in public perception to the President's anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Asked specifically about DoJ involvement, White House spokesman Sean Spricer said: "I don't have anything for you on this."
State administrations, starting from governors downward, can also invoke help from the FBI and the DoJ to deal with what they conclude is a hate crime. Hence the importance of Sarna's outreach to governors.
Sarna was a member of Chandra's team as a minister at the embassy in Washington when the former ambassador invited governors to a similar reception at his residence. It is obvious that his experience from that time persuaded Sarna to reach out to governors to strengthen Indo-US relations in its current challenging phase.
The underlying theme of Sarna's welcome address to the governors was about how India was helping to create jobs in the US, making sure the chief executives took back to their states his message that India's economic success creates strong demand for American goods, helping to generate employment and prosperity.
Although the event was planned before the Kansas shooting, it turned into an opportunity to discuss the fear of hate crimes individually with the governors. Indian American community leaders and Indian corporate honchos who attended the reception also conveyed their fears to the governors and other elected leaders who were present.
The ambassador quoted facts and figures for four years from 2011 to 2015 to make the point that Americans were employed in more than four lakh jobs "directly and indirectly" only because of Indian technology companies which had grown by 10 per cent annually in the US during this period.
Indian technology firms, he said, had paid over $20 billion as taxes to federal and state governments in the US in the last five years. Additionally, they had paid as much as $7 billion towards social security contributions during this period. Through Corporate Social Responsibility contributions, they had left a lasting impact on at least 120,000 American lives.
Although the ambassador did not explicitly tell them so, the unfailing impression that the governors will carry back to their states on Monday night is that undoing the H-1B visa scheme and scaring away Indian guest workers from the US will be killing the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs for Americans.

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