“I was fascinated, just hooked at a very young age,” Rao said in her silken voice, sitting in the opulent Indian ambassador’s residence overlooking Rock Creek Park. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I was very clear and stood my ground. I just really wanted to be in the foreign service.”
It was an uncommon goal for a young woman of her generation. But Rao was inspired by Indira Gandhi, who began serving as prime minister in 1966, an era during which Rao was shaping her own goals.
That fortitude may explain why Rao — who is 60 and spent two years as India’s foreign secretary — is now embarking on yet another high-profile mission. (And that’s despite the fact that she technically retired from the foreign service in July.)
She assumes the role at a time when India is increasing its presence both in Washington and on the world stage. President Obama called the India-U.S. relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” during his visit to India last November.
Rao may be the perfect woman at the perfect time, experts on U.S.-India relations say. As foreign secretary, she made extensive contacts within the Obama administration. She also has the ability to go straight to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with whom she has an extraordinary rapport, bypassing India’s often Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
Known for her elegance and ease in social settings and with the media, Rao has served as ambassador to two of India’s key neighbors: civil war-rattled Sri Lanka from 2004 to 2006 and Asia’s other rising giant, China, from 2006 to 2009. And she is already an experienced hand in India-U.S. relations: She did two stints in American academia, one as a fellow at Harvard University in 1992 and another in 1999 as a distinguished international executive in residence at the University of Maryland.
Rao’s ambassadorial agenda includes working with Washington to bring stability to Afghanistan as it prepares for the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops in 2014. “We want an Afghanistan where Afghan people can live in peace and be able to trade without hindrance,” she said. “We want Afghanistan to be a normal place.”
Just last month, India pledged to help stabilize Afghanistan as the country battles extremist violence. Such initiatives, along with a new security and trade pact between the two countries — with India training some Afghan police — have the potential to antagonize India’s archrival Pakistan, which has long seen Afghanistan as its turf. The countries are vying for influence in whatever kind of Afghanistan emerges from the U.S.-led war.
“This is going to be a big part of what Rao is expected to work out in the U.S.,” said Walter Andersen, director of South Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “The Pakistanis went apocalyptic over that pact.”
Rao chooses her words carefully when speaking about Pakistan and Afghanistan, but she doesn’t shy away from talking about how important it is for India to have stability in the region — especially inside Pakistan.
“The world has increasingly come to understand the authenticity of India’s voice on those issues,” she said, referring to rooting out terrorist groups that are operating from Pakistan and launching attacks such as the 2008 siege of Mumbai.
Rao’s candor is just one of the traits that mark her as part of a generation of Indian civil servants who have bucked the stereotype of the aloof foreign-service wallah. She has a master’s degree in English literature from Marathwada University, in Aurangabad, India. In 2004, she published “Rain Rising,” a book of poetry about her heritage and travels, which was well-received in India. (She has literary accolades in common with Vikas Swarup, a longtime Indian diplomat, whose book “Q&A” inspired the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”)
In a poem called “St. Petersburg,” she writes:
The light here is special.Drenched by blood and frost
So much has happened here. Bronze horseman, burning homes
Nine hundred days written into symphonies of emptied tear ducts . . .
I think of how it must have been
To beg for black bread on the banks of the slow, straining river.
As a poet, she appreciates the power of compressed language. The Indian media praised her for using her Twitter account — @ForeignSecNRao — to regularly update citizens during the evacuation of Indians who were working in Libya during the recent crisis.
“Rao’s a godsend for India-U.S. relations,” said Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, a Washington-based advocacy organization. She understands how the countries can help each other’s economies, Somers said. “You name it, India is buying it from the U.S. The bottom line is India is a huge market and Rao has the understanding to act as a bridge with American companies.”
Another of Rao’s priorities is helping to dispel what she calls inaccurate ideas about Indians taking IT jobs away from Americans. The practice of outsourcing is a sore point in an otherwise flourishing relationship between India and the United States, which see each other as essential partners in areas such as counterterrorism and nuclear energy.
“Jobs are, of course, what’s on everyone’s mind here. And it’s equally important for us in India also,” Rao said.
“Youngistan,” as India is known among marketing gurus, has a population clamoring for jobs and education, but a system that is massively strained. The United States is pushing India to allow American universities to set up in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, potentially bringing in millions of dollars in tuition fees from India’s hulking student population.
“We have to look to the future and provide them with opportunities to enter university,” said Rao, who recently attended a summit in Washington on the issue.
Rao hopes to open a large cultural center in Washington so that Americans can learn more about both ancient and modern Indian traditions. “There’s a real hunger for cultural exchange, and the countries are very excited to know each other,” she said, sipping tea beneath a temple painting and chatting about her plans to travel around the United States, including small-town America, visiting Indian companies doing business here.
She also hopes to catch some folk music concerts and sample some of the food that has appeared on the fast-food landscape since her last U.S. posting.
“Tell me,” she says, “is Chipotle like an Indian kathi roll? I suspect I may like it!”