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U.S.-India Relations: Beyond the Prism of National Capitals

Interaction between cities is essential to enhance the relationship between both the countries.

August 8, 2015

Interaction between cities is essential to enhance the relationship between both the countries.

One of the important enabling factors for the China-U.S. relationship to prosper was the links established between U.S. states and Chinese Provinces, as well as sister city arrangements between both countries. These links continue to strengthen, even though there are wide differences between both countries on economic and strategic issues.

Today, there are sister relationships between 40 pairs of U.S. states and Chinese provinces and nearly 200 pairs of Chinese and U.S. cities. Such exchanges, apart from strengthening cultural, educational and business ties, have also helped in enhancing people to people contact between both countries.

If one were to look at interactions between India and the United States at the sub-national level, Indian states have been seeking to reach out to the United States for over a decade now. The initial efforts were made by Chandrababu Naidu – currently Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh – who sought to attract investment to Hyderabad, and was able to woo Bill Gates to set up India’s first Microsoft Research Lab in 1997.

Existing sub-national ties

Naidu was able to effectively present the immense potential of Hyderabad, which emerged as an important IT hub often referred to as “Cyberabad.” Apart from selling the Information Technology potential of his state, Naidu also reached out to the large Telugu diaspora in the United States to seek investment.

Bill Clinton and George W Bush have both – in the past – included Hyderabad in their respective iternaries. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, too, made it a point to visit the two state capitals, Chennai in 2011 and Kolkata in 2012.

Other states that have sought to reach out to the United States are Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, to name a few. Organizations like the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been helping Indian states to reach out to prospective investors in the United States.

Yet, unlike the United States and China, there is no structured dialogue at the sub-national level between the United States and India. There are five pairs of states between Indian and the United States that have sister state partnerships and 20 pairs of cities that have such arrangements.

With such a strong diaspora in the United States, it is important to grant a greater role to local ties between cities as well as states of both countries.

The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s emphasis on sub-national linkages, closer economic ties and the use of soft power is likely to give a stimulus to such interactions. He has time and again used international forums to convey that one of the key hallmarks of his engagement with other countries would be through state governments.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat prior to becoming prime minister, Modi was actively reaching out to a number of countries both through his visits abroad as well as his bi-annual Vibrant Gujarat Summit.

Modi’s international engagement

The two instances when Modi prioritized such interactions after taking over as Prime Minister were with China and Japan. He put immense importance on the role of cities as well as links between provinces and states.

While in Japan, an agreement was signed between Varanasi – the PM’s parliamentary constituency – and Kyoto. Modi emphasized that his focus on states was not just because of their constitutional and legal responsibilities but also because of a basic management principle.

According to Modi, the chances of success are higher when a nation is able to create a sense of participation for everyone. Which is why he said, at the inaugural India-China state-provincial leaders forum, that he believes the foundation of India’s development will not be the single pillar of the Central Government, but 30 pillars comprising the Central Government and all the states.

The United States is likely to help India with three smart cities – Vaishakhapatnam, Ajmer and Allahabad. Currently, U.S. presence, in terms of foreign investment, is largely concentrated in India’s Southern and western parts, and the NCR Region.

In this context, there is a need to give a stronger thrust to building ties between states of both countries, along with more sister-city collaborations. Along with the political leadership, the business community and civil society, too, have a critical role to play in such a change.

Steps to strengthen sub-national linkages

The first step which needs to be taken to strengthen sub-national initiatives is institutionalizing a dialogue between the chief ministers of Indian states and governors of U.S. states.

Such a dialogue already exists between China and the United States and will ensure that interactions are not restricted to only to a few states, as is the case currently. It will give the opportunity to states that are not economic front-runners to reach out to U.S. states and potentially benefit from such linkages.

Second, There is a need to strive for more exchanges between the two countries. In January 2015, the Chairman, Bill Boerum, and the president and CEO of Sister Cities International, Mary D. Kane visited India, and discussed possible partnerships between Jaipur (Rajasthan, India) and cities in the United States, apart from a trilateral partnership with Agra (UP,India) -Tempe (US) and Cusco (Peru).

They also visited the All India Institute of Local Self Government (Nagpur) to discuss expansion of sub-national ties between both countries.

Sister city and province exchanges have helped not just to boost educational and cultural ties between China and the United States, but also to develop close economic ties during the recession of 2008. A number of IT and real estate companies invested in San Francisco during recession.

Third, states should seek to build relationships based on areas of interest. For instance, in the area of information technology, southern states in India and California have found synergies.

Similarly in agriculture, agrarian states should focus on tie-ups. While there already exist such links between California and Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat by virtue of the large Indian diaspora, they have to be further extended to reach out to states like Iowa and Indiana.

Fourth, there are a number of leaders of Indian origin who are playing an active role in public life in the United States and are keen to rekindle ties with the land of their origin. One such person is Nikki Haley Randhawa, Governor of South Carolina, whose parents originally hail from Punjab.

During a visit to Punjab last year, she met with leaders of the state and sought to promote closer ties between the two states. Some of the areas explored were education, skills training and potential investments by South Carolina in Punjab. Such leaders should help in fostering ties between their respective states in the United States and their land of origin.

For mutual benefit

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that such interactions are important for more than one reason. First, they help in enhancing the constituency for a better relationship between both countries.

Second, with increasing links, the benefits of better relations with the United States will accrue to a larger number of Indian states, and not just to those that have already benefitted.

Third, Indian states are beginning to play an important role both politically and economically and in this context, sub-national linkages make sense.


Sister city relationships between states can help foster cultural, educational and business ties.

There is no structured dialogue at the sub-national level between the US and India.

Modi has conveyed that his engagement with other countries would be through state governments.

Institutionalizing a dialogue between head of Indian states and US states is essential.

Indian states that are not economic front-runners, too, should be able to reach out to US states.