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Business groups hope new envoy will reset US-India ties

Business groups want the next U.S. ambassador to India to take the lead in repairing the economic relationship between the two nations, fractured in recent years by a slew of trade disputes. 

The groups praised President Obama's nomination of Richard Rahul Verma, saying it sent a strong signal that the White House is committed to jump-starting an intensive U.S.-India dialogue amid concerns about the challenging business climate. 

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Verma, who would be the first Indian-American to hold the post, has strong ties to the president and senior Obama administration officials and was a former foreign policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Having a person in this position who is capable of establishing a strong relationship with our Indian counterparts and strong political ties with leaders in Congress and the administration is very important,” one industry official told The Hill. 

“It’s clear we have a lot of work to do to.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Verma would be in a pivotal position to put the relationship on a solid footing after years of growing tensions that have ruffled U.S. businesses and hampered investment in India, a source said. 

“He will be a critical figure in ensuring the communication lines are open,” a source said. 

The 45-year-old Verma was tapped for the job 11 days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first trip to Washington, sending another clear message to India that the United States places a high value on the relationship.

“It’s pretty clear at this point that the U.S.-India relationship is really ready for a reboot,” one industry official said. “This is an opportunity to draw the line on the past and establish a trade and investment relationship that takes both economies forward.”

Since his election in May, Modi has provided glimmers of hope for business groups, saying he will push for an Indian economy that is open to the world. 

Modi has been in office for about 100 days and one source said his visit will be key for the future of the relationship. 

The long-standing alliance hit a rough patch in recent years over complaints by U.S. businesses that India’s government has implemented unfair trade practices aimed at helping their own companies. 

“The international business community, especially innovative industries, has faced a difficult climate in India,” said Mark Elliot, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center.

“Inadequate IP protections have undermined the legal certainly that is necessary for investment in research and development intensive innovations,” he said. 

“India’s market is both large and influential and it is critically important that the U.S. have the strongest possible representation in New Delhi.”  

During his trip to Washington, Modi is expected to meet with the U.S. business leaders. 

India disappointed American business groups recently with its decision to block a World Trade Organization (WTO) pact that would streamline customs rules and help move goods more efficiently across borders.

In March, the relationship took another blow when Nancy Powell retired from her post as U.S. ambassador to India after the fallout from the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. 

But business groups are focused on reinvigorating the relationship. 

The U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) said Verma could further deepen economic ties between the U.S. and India.

“Verma’s distinguished record in business, international trade, and public service makes him uniquely well qualified to represent American interests at this pivotal time for U.S.-India relations and we believe this selection lays the footing for a historic visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said USIBC Chairman Ajay Banga.

Banga said that Verma’s experience from Capitol Hill to the State Department “will aid in our efforts to increase the bilateral investment potential of these two great countries.”

Verma’s nomination comes as the administration pushes to make progress on trade issues. Wendy Cutler, a deputy U.S. trade representative, was in India recently for more meetings on trade, intellectual property rights and services and investment. 

If confirmed, Verma will face big expectations.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a statement that Verma “has been instrumental in shaping American foreign policy during the course of his career” and would strengthen what Obama has called “the defining partnership of the 21st century.”

“His appointment comes at a crucial time in our bilateral relations with India, and I believe Rich will act as a superb bridge between our two nations,” she said.