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Commencement Address, Jindal School of Banking & Finance

Driving Shared Prosperity — A 21st Century Priority for U.S.-India Ties

Dr. Richard Verma – August 2, 2021

Dr. Richard Verma General Counsel & Global Head (Public Policy & Regulatory Affairs), Mastercard Inc.


  • Good afternoon everyone – thank you for having me here with you on this auspicious day as you launch your studies at one of India’s finest universities and schools of banking and finance. I want to especially thank the Vice Chancellor, Professor Kumar, and your very fine Dean, Professor Bharadwaj.  I’m also glad you all gave me the chance to be up very early at 6:45 am here in Washington DC!
  • I had the pleasure to speak at many universities across India during my tenure as Ambassador, including several graduation and commencement addresses. One that I recall quite clearly was the graduation address I delivered at DAV College in Jalandhar, Punjab – the same institution where my father graduated in 1953.  What an honour to go back and see the campus, go to the classrooms where he studied, and learn about his time there.  Such a special privilege.
  • I also recall on that day it was approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the assembly hall, and they asked me to wear a heavy, ceremonial graduation gown and hat. It was so hot – it was like running a marathon while giving a speech.  I didn’t think I would make it through without fainting.  But somehow, I did.  So, getting up at 6 am and sitting in my home office to be with all of you doesn’t seem so difficult!
  • But really, it is such an honour to be with you, and I do wish I could be there with you in person. I know it’s been a difficult time for many of you and your families, coping with yet another variant of this deadly pandemic.  I’m hopeful we are getting to the other side.  I saw an encouraging statistic recently that indicated some 4 billion people have already been vaccinated world-wide, and 400 million people vaccinated in India.
  • While we still have a way to go, that is a lot of progress in a short amount of time. I’m also encouraged by what the U.S. and India have pledged to do together with regard to vaccine development and deployment.  In March, President Biden, Prime Minister Modi along with the leaders of Australia and Japan, pledged to support India in the manufacture of up to 1 billion vaccines for your country, but also for the broader Indo-Pacific.  More of this cross-border cooperation among friends and partners will certainly be needed in the future, as new challenges arise.
  • The title of this talk is “Driving Shared Prosperity: A 21st Century Priority for US-India Ties.” I realise this is the commencement lecture for the school of banking and finance, not the school of international relations.  But I want to connect the dots for you between U.S.-India ties, our work together in the field of economics and trade, and your studies and future career path and the impact that you can have – which I believe will be quite significant.  We’ll do this relatively quickly – in the next 20 minutes – no one likes to be lectured at on Zoom for longer than that!  So, three topics, and let’s get at them straight away: (1) the importance of US/India relations; (2) what we have done and can do can together commercially; and (3) what you all can do personally, at an individual level.

US-India Ties

  • Some of you may not know this, but the modern U.S.-India relationship is actually quite young – just 20 years. We mark the start of this era with President Clinton’s visit to India in the year 2000.  It was a breakthrough visit, after decades of being somewhat distant, and even at times, estranged.
  • You might wonder what happened, why did it take more than 50 years for the U.S. and India to start to work together closely. Well, it was our alignments during the Cold War that kept us apart, along with other differences over China, Russia, Pakistan and so much more.  It reached rock bottom in 1971, when the US Navy’s seventh fleet was deployed to project power against India in the war that was taking place in then East Pakistan – today, Bangladesh.
  • I mention these points because the history matters. It’s why when Prime Minister Modi addressed a joint session of the US Congress a few years ago, he said that we had “finally overcome the hesitations of history in our relationship.”  I think that’s true.  But it took a long time, and to this day, the relationship remains fragile.  And there were costs.  For example, in 1985, U.S./India two-way trade, and U.S./China trade were about the same.  But today, U.S./China trade is 7 times that of India. We missed a huge economic opportunity for our collective populations.  We have to continue addressing that deficiency.
  • I should also note that 50 years ago in 1971, in this month itself, my father and mother settled in the U.S., in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. They knew no one, had virtually nothing other than what they carried with them, but like millions of immigrants before them – and after them – they had a dream for a better life for their children.
  • My mom and dad were teachers. My mother was a special needs teacher; my dad was a professor of English literature.  You can imagine what it was like growing up with two Indian teachers and where a receiving an A- in high school was treated with concern, not celebration!  I’m joking of course, kind of…
  • But both lived through difficult and tumultuous times as teenagers. My mother was a refugee in 1947, forced from her home during the partition, ending up in Jalandhar, but then trained as a social worker in Gandhi’s Sevagram ashram.
  • Their stories are ones of struggle and perseverance. My father was the eldest of 11 children and the only one in his family to ever attend college, let alone to go on and get a Ph.D.  My mother and grandmother were school teachers in a government girls school that still exists today.
  • When I was Ambassador, I went to that school and I met so many people in that very special neighbourhood. A number of older people came to greet me, they squeezed my cheeks, and said “but for your mother and grandmother, we would not be here today.  They kept us on the right track.”  That was an emotional moment for me.  And it helped connect the dots for me of this journey from Punjab to Pennsylvania, where they were tested yet again.
  • We had a wonderful upbringing, with my parents retaining the best of our Indian culture and traditions, while also embracing our new country. Little did they ever predict that their youngest boy would return to India one day as the American Ambassador.  That is the longest of long shots, but it is also a uniquely immigrant story.
  • I mention our own personal story because our story and so many like it is the glue that ultimately holds our two nations together. It is the story of education, business and family ties that connect countries together through up and down times.
  • But it is also not a coincidence that there are 4 million Indian Americans in the U.S., with one third of tech start-ups founded by people of Indian and South Asian origin. We are drawn together by shared values of free and open, market-based democratic systems.  The world’s oldest and largest democracies.  We value education, entrepreneurship, and our families – we are kindred spirits.
  • The US Secretary of State was in India last week and he mentioned that President Eisenhower, who was the first President to visit India in 1959, gave a set of remarks at the US Embassy in Delhi, where he asked the young children gathered there – what do you think the world will be like in 2019? He said, in a nutshell, that if that the U.S. and India were working closely together, then these young Indian and American children could look forward to a better world in 2019.  And then decades later, in 2005 then Senator Biden declared that if in the year 2020 the U.S. and India were the closest friends and partners, the world would be a safer and more prosperous place.
  • So, we had two predictions from two U.S. presidents about 2019 and 2020….and here we are in 2021. We can no longer look decades into the future.  The time to deliver results for our people is now – it’s today – that’s a big challenge, but it’s also exciting, for us here in America, and for all of you in India, especially as you start out on your studies and then careers.
  • The reason I care about this subject so much and want to talk to you about it today is that I do think this is the most consequential relationship of this century. We can do so much together.  Whether it’s battling a pandemic, countering terrorism and proliferation, or bringing to market all those new innovations and solutions that will make people’s lives easier, safer, greener, more prosperous, more inclusive and more secure.  We can do that – we are not there yet, but can we get there.  You bet..

The Commercial Relationship

  • So, let me now turn to our commercial relationship and the business opportunities that abound between our nations. Many people say that the U.S. and India are too differently situated to become fully aligned economically.
  • While we have shared colonial experiences, they came at very different times, and our paths to rapid industrialisation and modernisation and development occurred over different periods, and yours is very much ongoing today.
  • I look out at the year 2030, for example, and I see an India that may lead the world in almost every category: the most populous nation, the most college graduates, the largest middle class, the most cell phone and internet users, along with the third largest military and third largest economy, all coexisting in the world’s largest democracy, with 600 million people under the age of 25. You have the youngest workforce in Asia, and you’ll hold that advantage until 2050.  That’s pretty formidable.
  • That’s on top of the massive development that is taking place in India today right before our eyes. Some $2 trillion will be spent on infrastructure in just the next decade.  The bulk of the infrastructure needed for 2030 is yet to be built; that’s why some 100 new airports under planning or construction today alone.
  • This picture of India on the dramatic rise is what I witnessed first-hand, when I travelled to every India state. And it’s why I’m so excited for all of you.  You have the world at your fingertips.  Your country will have a leading seat in international institutions, your businesses will continue to power economic growth and innovations globally, and all of you can choose what role you want to play today and in the future.
  • And the fact that you chose to study in this institution, at this time, is another great sign that you are going to have a big impact.
  • So, back to US-India ties. With America boasting the world’s #1 economy and India on the dramatic rise, one would think we would have locked in a clear pathway ahead on the trade and economic front.  The reality, however, is quite different.
  • Yes, our people to people ties are strong, and yes, our two-way trade numbers are growing and now stand around $160 billion, but we have not come close to matching the expectations set for us. We have no trade agreements, no bilateral investment treaties, very few structures that govern trade and commercial undertakings.
  • Indian nationals find it difficult to obtain approval to travel to the U.S., few American students study in India, and many American businesses are confounded by the lack of regulatory certainty and predictability in India. And, on top of it all, many in our populations are becoming suspect of international trade, of immigrants, of global connectedness.
  • Why? Well, it’s a complex question, but this incredibly globalised economic system that has emerged over the past decade has created both winners and losers….and unfortunately, too many people have been left behind, unable to compete or thrive in an economic system that moves fast, but can also be rather unforgiving.
  • Right here in the United States, the wealth gap between the rich and poor more than doubled over the past 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center, with middle class incomes growing far slower than upper tier incomes over the past 50 years.
  • In India too, while there have been massive developmental gains, the divides between rich and poor are growing more pronounced by the day, with a recent Credit Suisse study finding that “the richest 10 percent of Indians owned 80.7 percent of the wealth.”
  • The current trends in both our countries are not sustainable. And they certainly have had their impact, driving more people to question whether this modern economy, with all of its successes, actually works for them.  It fuels a form of protectionism, nationalism, and populism.  This leads to greater fragmentation of the international economic and political system.
  • When we need even more cooperation and coordination on everything from digital trade to data management and privacy to, yes, pandemic response….the recent direction of travel has regrettably been to put up walls, and design country-by-country systems, instead of greater harmonisation.
  • As students of finance and banking, think to yourself whether this is the right path or whether there is a better way? One of the great things about your institution is that it offers interdisciplinary studies.  That means you will get to benefit from seeing finance and banking through the lens of other disciplines as well.  Please take that opportunity.  You can be a great technician at what you do, but you can have a greater, lasting impact if you understand these broader macro-economic, political, and historical trend lines.  Not to surrender to them, but to address them, and find the best solution for the people of India who, as I noted, want to be, and will be, leaders in the global economic system.  So, a lot of work to do.  But I know you can do it.

What Can You Do?

  • First, focus on the economic inclusion challenge and bringing more people along in the modern economy and the innovations taking place around us each day. I know this has been a focus for Jindal from its founding.  It does no good to have such incredible technological and economic advances if too much of the country cannot take part or experience the gains.  I was really enthused to see the progress during my tenure here as Ambassador and in my current role at Mastercard.
    • I was so proud to see young Americans and young Indian entrepreneurs working side by side with farmers, with handicrafts people in helping to bring their goods to market, to connect them with broader marketplaces beyond their local villages.
  • The older conventional wisdom was that if we just retrained the farmers and handicraft workers to work in call centres and as data input operators that’s how we would keep up with the modern technological advances. Some of that evolution may take place and reskilling can be important, but doesn’t the more immediate and impactful solution involve helping those same farmers and handicraft workers discover new markets, compete hand-in-hand with the large players, and in fact become key suppliers to both large and small players alike?  Why should they have to give up their livelihoods, when, with some ingenuity, technology and finance, we can make their same livelihoods better.
  • You can be a big part of that story, not just through the marketplace, but in banking as well. There are still too many unbanked and underbanked in India and the United States, where access to credit and electronic payments is harder to reach.  That is changing fast, but those gains do not have to be limited to people who live in urban centres.  Our collective challenge is to reach rural populations who may live miles from a traditional bank, but who likely do have access to a cell phone.  All of us can help bridge that gap with some creative uses of modern technology – its taking place today, but probably not fast enough.
  • Second, don’t lose sight of the important work you can do to help micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). This is where the bulk of economic activity will take place.  This is where, as experts in your field, you can have a big impact.
  • MSMEs have been a key growth driver for the Indian economy, employing 110 million people or over 40% of India’s non-farm workforce. Businesses in this sector have also been a critical enabler of distribution and supply chain for larger companies, contributing nearly 25% towards India’s services’ GDP and 33% towards manufacturing output.
  • Enabling policies, regulations, systems and practices that encourage and support development of MSMEs is key to achieving the promise of shared prosperity and inclusive growth.
  • But MSMEs have three major challenges: getting paid, getting capital and going digital.
  • Your charge, along with governments, financial services and technology companies, is to help MSMEs overcome these challenges by working together to:
  • Improve the ability to receive and make payments more quickly and easily through access to proper business credit and debit products and tools;
  • Provide equitable access to funding that can support longer-term growth; and
  • Enable MSMEs to join the broader ecosystem of digital businesses.
  • Addressing these challenges will enable MSMEs opportunities such as access to global markets for goods and services, increased share of online retail, and acceleration of their digital transformation. I know this will be an important focus in your studies, and your faculty have thought long and hard about how best to support MSMEs.  We are grateful for their work and the work that you all will do in the years ahead.
  • Finally, please don’t forget about the need to continue to have a social impact in the areas that you are passionate about. We used to treat business and social responsibility and human development as separate endeavors, taking place along separate tracks.  That’s no longer the case, and again, I can speak from personal experience.
  • Boards of directors, shareholders, and perhaps most importantly, customers want to know: what kind of company are you? Do you have a value set?  Do you live by those values?  Do you have a social impact where and when you can?
  • This doesn’t mean businesses become social services organisations, but it does mean that businesses and industry can and do have a huge impact on our everyday life….and at a time when governments seem gridlocked, even more of an impact.
  • Take the issue of combatting climate change. The public wants to know whether companies have a net zero carbon commitment, they want to know what the company’s carbon footprint is, what their capital risk from climate change might be, and whether the company’s products and suppliers are compliant with good environmental practice.  Is that a social commitment or a business commitment?  In my mind, they are now one in the same.
  • You all can do much more. Depending on where your careers take you, you can have a big impact on the quality of people’s lives – their health, their safety, their economic standing.
  • By attending this prestigious institution, you have been bestowed a huge opportunity and honour; you’ve gotten here through your own hard work and the support and sacrifice of family, teachers, coaches, and mentors.
  • Now, for all of you to decide, is how to do you want to return that investment that has been made and will be made by Jindal University in all of you.
  • I would humbly suggest you consider giving back to your family, to your friends, your neighbours, to the voiceless who may need the additional help or to those who feel isolated or marginalised. You will have the tools.  Channel them, deploy them, don’t sit on the sidelines.
  • Your country is waiting for you. And we in the United States are waiting for you.  Our future together is not pre-ordained.  We all have to work at it.  Yes, we have big challenges ahead, but I know that working together we can achieve a lot of big things that will make a lasting difference for millions of people.
  • Thank you again for inviting me here today.