LOS ANGELES, Calif. – As has been widely reported, President Joe Biden has nominated Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next ambassador to India. It has created ripples of excitement in the Indian American community, particularly in Southern California, with emails and WhatsApp messages doing the rounds, and with everyone wanting a contact number or email to reach out to him. For the large swathes of the community concentrated in counties around Los Angeles and for whom Garcetti has not been their mayor, he has remained a bit of a remote figure not finding it mandatory to attend India Independence Day fairs or, like the various congressional representatives, schmoozing or smoothening out visa processes for relatives.
Garcetti, though, has connections to India that go back years, as he himself, unprompted, is quick to point out. He told India-West at a Los Angeles Media Roundtable in June, even before the widely expected nomination was announced, that “…the Indian American community may not know this about me. I have a deep history with India…visiting there as a teenager. It is an amazing country, with culture and tradition that has influenced my life.”
The mayor, who attended Columbia University, studied Hindi and Urdu while in college. And, he ruminated, “I was actually going to leave and do my junior year abroad in Bodhgaya to do Buddhist studies but politics got in the way. I got elected to student council at Columbia College and I stayed to serve out that term. So, it’s funny how India and the service of my political terms intersect.”
The Democrat was elected mayor in 2013, becoming the city's first elected Jewish mayor, and its second Mexican American one. At 42, he was the youngest to hold that office in over 100 years. He won re-election easily in 2017, along with voter approval for extension of his term to 2022. This time, though, he will respond to the call of India instead of serving out his full term.
Garcetti also sees some fateful irony from those early years. “My freshman roommate in college, who was assigned to me randomly, his father became the U.S. ambassador to India, funnily enough!” He was referring to William Clarke, Jr., who served in India from 1989 to 1992. Garcetti remembers visiting Roosevelt House, the official residence of the envoy on the 28-acre plot of land in New Delhi, and touring the U.S. embassy there.
The nominee is bullish about India. “I think people don’t realize that 230 million Indians have moved from extreme poverty to the middle class in the last decade. Everybody knows the Chinese story… of the 20th century; clearly, India is the story of the 21st century,” he said. Pitch perfect words. For the Biden administration, ties with India and others in the region is important in its efforts to counter China; in India, too, the China-Pakistan nexus has South Block wary.
Another area of commonality for the governments of the U.S. and India is the prioritization of climate change issues. Garcetti leads the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which includes at least six Indian cities. He told India-West, “I have engaged very extensively with Indian leaders, chief ministers and urban leaders around climate change and as much as I can around Covid now.”
Asked by India-West, before the nomination was announced, on what he will take from Los Angeles to his new job, Garcetti countered with, “First of all I think it’s very important for me to think what I could bring from India to the United States if I were to serve in a position like that. To me, we share such common challenges, and such common opportunities, whether its culture from Hollywood to Bollywood, or the digital economy of which California and India are the two biggest leaders in the world, whether it’s the lessons we had from having gas masks at city hall to clean up our air and now Indian cities choked with some of the same pollution as they develop at a breakneck speed.”
But given the size of the California economy, it obviously pans both ways and Garcetti went on to say, “I would hope to bring the culture of Los Angeles to potential service abroad. I would hope to bring the economic ties of California and the digital economy. I would hope to bring agricultural connections as well, which I know are so deeply rooted in the Indian tradition. There have been all sorts of hiccups in the past between Indian and American interactions, but California produces 85% of the produce for America and I think there are great lessons there. I also think… it’s the last one I mention, but I think it is critically important to look at our opportunities in higher education, to have more students go back and forth between our two nations.”
He added: “You do not get to see your dad – Gil Garcetti, former Los Angeles County district attorney – be in public service and serve a city yourself for decades without your heart beating for it.” So, he continued, “LA is a great trade capital, it’s a great innovation capital, it’s a great culture capital, it’s a great sports capital, and I think there is a natural affinity for Indians and Indian Americans.”
Given the importance of the region, helming the nation’s second largest city, his political connections as a leading surrogate for Biden during the presidential campaign as well as in other roles, knowing fellow Californian and Vice President Kamala Harris, the conventional wisdom is that the nomination should be good for U.S.-India relations.
“I would be really honored should there be the opportunity to strengthen those ties, to bring a little bit of California to the amazing Republic of India,” said Garcetti.
Garcetti’s nomination awaits U.S. Senate confirmation.