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A brief biography
As in 2021
In January 2021, the Joseph Biden-Kamala Harris transition team announced its first Indian American appointment. That was Sumona Guha as special assistant to the president and senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council, the US president’s key forum on foreign policy and security issues. Guha was the first of dozens of Americans of Indian origin appointed to key positions in Biden’s team, and the US President even joked that they were “taking over the country”.
Things haven’t changed since then. Last week, when Biden met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House, he spoke of the community of four million Indian Americans who are “making America stronger every day”.
Surprisingly, for an administration that has more than 50 Indian Americans in leadership positions, Guha was the only representative of the community at Biden’s bilateral meeting with Modi. She was also part of US Vice President Kamala Harris’ high-profile entourage during the Modi-Harris meeting.
So, who is Sumona Guha and what makes her such an important player in US-India relations? She’s a former diplomat and was co-chair of the South Asia foreign policy working group on the Biden-Harris campaign. Guha served as deputy director for Afghanistan affairs in the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as special advisor for national security affairs to Biden’s office during his tenure as vice-president.
Guha has worked on policy planning at the US state department, as well as the department’s south and central Asian affairs bureau. She’s not familiar with only the state department, White House, and Capitol Hill. She has also worked as senior vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), whose chair is former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, before she joined Biden’s presidential campaign. Earlier, she did a stint at the influential US-India Business Council (USIBC), as senior director in 2017-18.
“She has deep and broad experience in the international affairs arena and has served previously in influential roles – both in the US and abroad – in the White House, state department, business associations and consulting firms. Her expertise spans geopolitics and global economic and commercial matters, which makes her an important advisor for the president and vice president to rely on,” says Sanjeev Joshipura, Washington DC-based executive director of Indiaspora, a network of eminent Indian diaspora leaders. He was not surprised to see Guha hand-picked for a key role in the White House.
Another person not surprised at Guha’s rise is Nisha Biswal, who had served as assistant secretary of state for south and central Asian affairs in the US department of state under President Barack Obama and is now president of USIBC. “She is well-rounded in US and South Asia policy. Her in-depth regional knowledge clubbed with hands-on experience in strategy and advocacy, courtesy her successful stints at ASG and USIBC, give her insights into the opportunity and challenges in the bilateral trade relationship. She is well positioned to advance US-India partnership to new heights,” Biswal told TOI.
In view of the current situation in Afghanistan, which is of concern to both India and the US, Guha’s in-depth experience and knowledge about the geo-politics of the region, made her an important member of the presidential team during bilateral discussions with the Indian team.
“She is unfazed by pressure and is steeped in the complex history of the larger region, which allows her to guide the administration’s approach with confidence and awareness of broader foreign policy issues,” Biswal said about her former colleague.
Guha herself has a MA degree in public policy from Georgetown University in Washington DC, known for studies in foreign affairs and public policy, and a BA degree in economics and psychology from The Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, nearby. “She brings to the table diverse talent and experience on South Asia across sectors – government, policy, academia and business. Having her on both the meetings of the president and vice-president will help in continuity in future discussions between the two countries,” says Robinder Sachdev, president of the Delhi- based think tank Imagindia Institute and one of the founders of the US India Political Action Committee, a bipartisan, non-profit organisation in the US.
There’s also Guha’s non-Capitol Hill experience. At ASG, she covered market entry strategy and expansion, including political and regulatory strategies, for companies. Pramath Sinha, senior advisor to ASG, who was her colleague, feels that Guha is well positioned to deal with complexity and leverage her vast networks. “She brings many years of experience working on issues facing both governments, their relationship, and all key stakeholders in both nations. It was great to see her at the meetings and I know she is deeply committed to improving the bilateral commercial relationship between India and the US,” Sinha said.
Guha’s multi-faceted experience across domains makes her an asset for the US government, feel foreign policy experts. “Her clout in the White House dictated her presence in the two defining sessions of Prime Minister Modi with Vice-President Harris and President Biden. Even though it makes the Indian community proud, it had little to do with her ethnic background,” explains R Dayakar, a retired Indian diplomat who headed the foreign ministry’s NRI/PIO division. He adds that Guha should be recognised for her professional talent and her presence at the meetings was not a diplomatic or political statement by the US government.
Dayakar says that Indian Americans, such as Guha, who started her career as a political officer at the US embassy in Moscow in 1999, are known to punch above their weight in the US body politic and are perceived as diplomatic assets. Indian Americans have played key roles in the Obama and Trump governments as well. Clearly, Indian Americans are moving beyond the stereotype of being successful in IT, Banking or hospitality, and are coming of age in US politics too.