American Ambassador’s Indian innings on a sticky wicket

The final 54-42 senate vote to confirm Garcetti’s nomination came as some Republican senators broke ranks.

Eric Garcetti was sworn in as ambassador to India, He had his left hand on the Bible and the right raised. 

Eric Michael Garcetti was sworn in as the United States ambassador to the Republic of India on Friday, March 24, 2023. Vice President Kamala Devi Harris administered the oath of office.

As Ambassador Garcetti shook hands with VP and kissed his wife, a few other attendees clapped and cheered. 

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The Biden administration announced Garcetti’s nomination in July 2021, but his confirmation process took 20 months as he faced multiple roadblocks.

President Biden had to shelve Garcetti’s nomination last year as there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to confirm him. A 23-page report released by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that Eric Garcetti, as the mayor of L. A., would have been unaware of the charges of sexual assaults in his office.

Garcetti’s parents hire a lobbying firm

The allegations of sexual assault came via a whistleblower report. It claimed that L. A. Mayor Garcetti’s top aide, Rick Jacobs, had sexually assaulted women on mayor Garcetti’s staff. Garcetti’s former Communications Director, Naomi Seligman, also alleged that Jacobs grabbed and kissed her in front of other city staffers. The Grassley report concluded that “Garcetti likely knew, or should have known, that his former senior advisor was sexually harassing and making racist remarks toward multiple individuals.” 

A Los Angeles Times report from November 20, 2020, also showed Eric Garcetti’s advisor Rick Jacobs holding his hand in front of the crotch of an L. A. civic activist. The picture was taken at the 2017 U. S. Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach. In that picture, Garcetti is standing next to those two men, the L. A. Times reports, “smiling and giving a double thumbs-up gesture.”

A nomination on ice

As the Biden White House shelved the idea of Garcetti’s nomination, at least for a while, Garcetti’s parents Sukey and Gil Garcetti, hired a lobbying firm in May of 2022 to help their son’s ambassadorship gig. Many Washington, D.C., lobbying firms, according to the Los Angeles Times, “have a minimum monthly retainer of $10,000 or $15,000, but some firms charge $50,000 a month.”

The lobbying has paid off. The final 54-42 senate vote to confirm Garcetti’s nomination came as some Republican senators broke ranks. However, Garcetti failed to convince two senators of his party – Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona. While Sen. Brown said, “we can find somebody who will do the job better,” Garcetti’s former Communications Director called him “unfit” to become US ambassador to India.

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Why Garcetti?

As Garcetti scraped through his confirmation in the US Senate, the reaction among Indians and Indian Americans was harsh. “The entire Garcetti nomination,” a well-known commentator and the host of popular podcast Breaking Points, Saagar Enjeti, tweeted, “is further Biden admin insult to New Delhi. He is both a useless former Mayor and one who covered up sexual harassment. Worse, Biden refused to withdraw his nom[ination] and preferred nobody to him.”

Biden’s choice of Garcetti is indeed baffling. Both as an administrator and diplomat, Garcetti has nothing to show for it. As a two-term (2013-2022) mayor of Los Angeles, he presided over an epic decline and left the City of Angeles infested with high crime rates, homelessness, and mental health epidemic. The photos and videos of train looting and tent city in Los Angeles have gone viral in recent years. 

Garcetti and the pandemic

Garcetti has also been criticized for his heavy-handedness in dealing with the covid pandemic. He infamously closed the Venice Beach skate park by covering it with sand.

Despite the growing warming up of the relationship and increased trade and military engagements and partnerships, such as in the Indo-Pacific, the US and India remain divided in values and perception. American leadership still “does not count India as one of its closest friends and partners” (Overcoming the Hesitations of History: An Analysis of U.S.-India Ties, Richard Rahul Verma, Ph.D. dissertation, Georgetown University, 2020).  Verma writes, “Few would assert that we [U.S. and India] have become allies, natural or otherwise.” Verma is a former US Ambassador to India (2014-2017).

Handle with care

The division in values and perception has been fully displayed during the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict. “While Americans have been disturbed by India’s continued willingness to buy oil from Russia,” writes Walter Russell Mead (Handle India-US Relationship With Care), “Indians resent the West’s attempt to rally global support for what many here see as a largely Western problem in Ukraine.” Mead is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and an opinion columnist with the Wall Street Journal.

It is not just Ukraine. The U.S. and India haven’t often seen eye to eye on many issues, including human rights, religious liberty, etc. Earlier, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, had mentioned India as a country “where religious freedom and rights of minorities are under threat.” The Indian officials rejected Secretary Blinken’s charge as “ill-informed.” In turn, India raised “concern” over “racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes, and gun violence” in the US.

The Indo-Us Relationship

Garcetti’s appointment comes at a time when many Indians increasingly see the woke policies of the Biden administration on gender, equity, etc., with great disdain. Days before Garcetti’s confirmation, the US Embassy in India released a video of a controversial Indian Radio Jockey to celebrate Women’s History Month. Reactions to that video were swift and angry. Radharman Das, the Vice President of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), responded with “shock” and accused the Embassy of promoting Hinduphobia. Saagar Enjeti was much harsher in his denouncement. He tweeted: “This is the type of shit Biden admin is pushing in India. Big wonder why they are choosing non-alignment.”

Garcetti’s comments about engaging directly with civil societies have raised eyebrows among Indians. This comes at a time when Mike Benz, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Communication and Information Technology at the US State Department, revealed in an interview that elements in the US foreign policy establishment waged a campaign against the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, in the runup to India’s 2019 general elections. 

Indian spies; Indian visas

The recently released Twitter Files also revealed that a U.S. government-funded agency spied on U.S. citizens and then tried to get them suspended from Twitter for their alleged connections with the BJP and “Hindu nationalism.” 

As Ram Prasad, a Texas-based entrepreneur, and social media influencer, tweeted: “Garcetti pretty much came across as a regime change hack… He will either be ignored or humiliated by the Modi Govt.” 

Some in India believe that the delay in processing non-immigrant visas (800 business days at one time) for Indians is a “form of collective punishment imposed in retaliation” for India not following the American foreign policy objectives. How Indians see the Garcetti appointment will depend on his ability to restore confidence in the US-India partnership. In the meantime, he will have plenty on his plate in New Delhi, and his every move will be watched very closely by the Indians.

Contributing Author: Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. A JNU, New Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus, Avatans holds graduate degrees in Linguistics. Avatans is a recipient of the 2021 San Francisco Press Club’s Bay Area Journalism award.

This article was first published in India Currents. It has been republished here with the kind permission of the author and editor(s).

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