“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.”