Several members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee brought up the thorny issues of bonded labor and human trafficking Sept. 28 during confirmation hearings for Kenneth Juster, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the next ambassador to India.
If confirmed, Juster would replace Indian American Richard Verma, who stepped down Jan. 21 when Trump took office. Juster was introduced to the committee by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who co-chairs the Senate India Caucus. Warner said that he and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, “strongly support” the appointment of Juster, and noted that the nominee has worked on U.S.-India relations for more than 16 years.
Richard Rossow, senior adviser and Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted Juster would be confirmed. “No one had any specific criticisms about Ken himself,” Rossow told India-West. “It looks pretty good,” he said, noting Juster’s background at the State and Commerce Department, and his moves in the private sector to enhance the India-U.S. trade relationship. Juster founded the U.S.-India High Technology Cooperation Group in 2004, and was an architect of the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement.
Sanjay Puri, founder of USINPAC, also predicted that Juster would easily sail to confirmation. “This is going to be more of a transactional relationship. Trump is saying ‘Buy American, Hire Americans,’ while Prime Minister Modi is pushing ‘Make in India.’ Ken is going to have to thread the needle that sews together both countries’ nationalistic agendas.”
During the Oct. 3 hearing, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that 18 million people in India are being held in bonded labor – essentially slavery – and also noted India’s poor record in combatting human trafficking.
Juster emphasized that both issues would be a high priority for him, if he is confirmed, and said that he would attempt to work with state and local governments to combat both issues. “We will try to figure out the best interlocutors on the ground,” he said.
Juster also emphasized that both countries could continue to work together to combat climate change, despite Trump’s pull-out of the Paris Agreement this summer. He noted that India has expressed great interest in clean technology and energy from renewable sources. Cardin noted that both countries had shared expertise and technology in this sector.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, brought up the issue of child abductions. Currently, there are more than 80 Indian American children being held hostage in India by a family member, he noted. Several senators brought up the issue of foreign non-governmental organizations being barred from India.
Rossow told India-West it was not surprising that the hearing focused in large part on humanitarian issues. He noted that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chairman of the foreign relations committee, has been using his position to advance a civil rights agenda globally.
In response to Portman’s concerns, Rossow noted that child abduction was a bilateral issue which both countries could focus on. Human trafficking could be mitigated at a state level, he suggested, with each state implementing stricter safeguards on its borders to mitigate the impact of trafficking.
Large industrialists could interfere with local governments attempting to control bonded labor, suggested Rossow.
Puri noted to India-West that Juster would be implementing the president’s agenda. “Trump has made it very clear that he’s not going to get involved in the domestic issues of other countries,” he said, adding: “India doesn’t look kindly on the U.S. questioning its humanitarian issues.”
Cardin noted during the hearing that U.S.-India military cooperation is currently the strongest it has ever been. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said that India has bought $15 billion in military equipment from the U.S., and has another $30 billion in the hopper, which could be used to purchase additional U.S. military hardware.
During Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to India last month, India declared it would not put its troops on the ground in Afghanistan, despite the U.S. asking for increased presence in the war-ravaged country.
Rossow predicted that India’s refusal to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan would not hamper the U.S.-India relationship. “Increased Indian presence in Afghanistan would definitely excite the U.S., but there’s another camp that believes it would be the most dangerous situation for Indian soldiers to be involved in,” he said, noting that Indian troops would certainly become the target of Pakistani insurgents.
Rossow said both countries are trying to avoid big trade deals. “Right now, on the economic front, this is not the time for big dreams,” he told India-West, adding that the Trump administration is questioning every trade agreement currently in place.
Puri, however, said “the time is right to get some wins on both sides.” He noted that Modi was under pressure to shore up the flailing economy post demonetization and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, which have made investors wary.
Trump is a deal-maker, said Puri, noting that the president was also under pressure to boost his international trade muscles. He stated that American companies might fare better by bypassing the central government’s vast bureaucracy and focusing on state governments with progressive mindsets.