Indian-origin Rahul Verma takes charge as new US envoy to India

Tuesday 20th January 2015 10:55 EST

Richard Rahul Verma, the first American of Indian origin, took charge as the new US envoy to India. He has impressive credentials and come with considerable diplomatic and administrative experience. He presented his credentials at a ceremony held in Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 17.

On his arrival in India, Verma, whose parents migrated from India in the 1960s, said he was looking forward to work with India on the shared goals of security, development and prosperity as he described the times as "exciting" for the ties.

At his confirmation hearing in Washington, Verma told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that US President Barack Obama's "historic visit to India in January" will build on " Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's highly successful visit to the United States this past September."

"There is no question that this is a defining and exciting time in the US-India relationship," he said. Verma also acknowledged the contribution of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and vowed to "strive to live up to the high standards they have set." They "took a chance like my parents, who worked hard, who continue to pursue their dreams, and along the way have helped ensure India and the United States become the closest of friends and partners," he told the panel.

His appointment came just days ahead of Obama's arrival in India to attend the Republic Day parade as chief guest and also hold a bilateral strategic dialogue with Modi. He served as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs at the State Department in the Obama Administration from 2009 to 2011.

Verma remembers the time, when he was a little kid, seeing his mom in her sari waiting for a bus to go to work in sub-zero centigrade temperatures in blowing and drifting snow. His father had emigrated from Punjab, arriving in New York City in 1963 with $ 24 in his pocket, and his mother and siblings had followed a few years later. ''The times were hard. We had no money. The kids could be mean in school to this new immigrant family. But they persevered,'' he recalls of his growing up years in Pennsylvania where the family finally settled. ''They showed us what it meant to be strong, what it means to stay together, and confront challenges as a family, and they taught us to be proud of our roots.''

Born in Edmonton, Canada when his father was earning a PhD, the Indian-American of Punjabi stock is himself no slouch when it comes to academic and professional accomplishment. His formidable resume (including an ongoing Phd program at Georgetown University) and the Washington roadmap he has traversed for two decades make him a shoo-in for the New Delhi job.

Verma is a consummate Washington insider who has worked in both the legislature and the executive; in fact, his last post bridged the two - he was the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs during Hillary Clinton's stewardship of Foggy Bottom - and that job came to him by virtue of his years as a chief foreign policy aide to Senate leader Harry Reid. Before that, between clerkships and stints at law firms, he worked with the legendary Pennsylvania lawmaker Jack Murtha, learning the ropes on the Hill. There was no greater Verma supporter in town than the former secretary of state, although Verma first signed up for the Obama camp when he prepped the President for the presidential debates in 2008.

In fact, in a farewell to Verma when he left the state department job in 2011, Clinton recalled in a very personal way how much Verma guarded her back and how much he meant to her. “My mother lives with us in our house in Washington, and I was saying goodbye to her and she said, 'What's wrong, you don't look very good.' And I said, 'Well, I know, I am not just in a very good mood today.' And she says, 'Well, you know, there's so much going on in the world, all over the country, and the economy.' But I said, 'No, it's not it; it's Rich Verma (leaving).”

President Obama himself sent his National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to the farewell with a personal letter that paid glowing tributes to his contribution to the administration. It read: ''Dear Rich, I extend to you my sincere thanks for your valuable service to my administration. Over the past two years, our country has faced a host of challenging foreign policy and national security issues. At each turn, your skilled judgment and leadership has helped shape effective Congressional engagement. You played a key role in our efforts to ratify the New START treaty, to manage the response to the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake and to negotiate a powerful Iran sanctions bill. You worked in a demanding environment and always responded with able advice and good humour. I appreciate your dedication and professionalism.''

Obama know Verma personally. Verma assisted Obama in debate prep during his 2008 Presidential campaign, and like the President and his wife, Verma and his Armenian-American wife Melineh (Pinky) are also legal eagles, a power couple with law degrees from American University and UPenn respectively. Verma has brought with him not just diplomatic and legal savvy, having worked on a ton of legislation and international treaties, but also a smattering of Hindi, which he is said to have kept up with.

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