Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
archive: Activism Boosts India's Fortunes

Activism Boosts India's Fortunes

John Lancaster
Washington Post
October 9, 1999

    Title: Activism Boosts India's Fortunes
    Author: John Lancaster
    Publication: Washington Post 
    Date: October 9, 1999 
    Politically Vocal Immigrants Help Tilt Policy in  Washington
    It's a long way from Kashmir to the booming high-tech corridors of
    Northern Virginia and Silicon Valley. But you wouldn't know it from
    the deluge of e-mails that flooded congressional offices in June.
    As Indian troops fought to repel a Pakistani incursion in the disputed
    Himalayan province, key staff members were bombarded with demands from
    Indian immigrants -- many in the computer and software industries --
    for a resolution condemning Pakistan's "aggression." Lawmakers
    complied, and a few days later -- in a White House meeting on July 4 -
    President Clinton cited congressional pressure in urging Pakistani
    Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces, according to two
    senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the
    "It was gratifying for many of us to see a clear pro- India tilt sweep
    this city," Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) told a gathering of Indian
    Americans on July 20, after Pakistan had withdrawn its forces. "And
    this unique phenomenon was made possible in no small measure because
    of the political activism of the Indian American community."
    The rise of Indian Americans as a powerful and effective domestic
    lobby -- one that aspires to the level of influence that American Jews
    have exerted on behalf of Israel -- coincides with the emergence in
    India of a stable and increasingly self-confident government.
    According to election results made public this week, the ruling
    Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has won
    a solid majority in India's parliament, at least in part because of
    India's perceived triumph over Pakistan in the latest Kashmir crisis. 
    The victory by the strongly nationalist BJP has strengthened the hand
    of Vajpayee at a time of high tension with Pakistan and continued
    diplomatic fallout in Washington over last year's Indian and Pakistani
    nuclear tests.
    Since the tests, which triggered U.S. economic sanctions against India
    and Pakistan, Vajpayee's government has held a high-level dialogue
    with Washington aimed at repairing relations. Indian Americans have
    figured prominently in that effort, giving generously to political
    campaigns and meeting with lawmakers and administration officials to
    explain the security rationale behind the Indian tests.
    During the final decade of the Cold War, Pakistan enjoyed cozy
    relations with Washington by virtue of its central role in the
    CIA-backed war to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the charm
    of its Harvard-educated Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. Indians
    seethed that Pakistan's influence was far out of proportion to its
    size and significance. Now, the tables have turned -- and the nation's
    1.4 million Indian Americans have found their political voice.
    The lobbying effort reflects a widespread belief in the Indian
    American community that India has not been taken seriously in
    Washington. It rankles many Indian Americans, for example, that India
    is not among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council
    and that no American president has visited the country since Jimmy
    Carter did so in 1978 (although Clinton has announced that he will
    visit the region next year).
    "Fairness means don't ignore 1 billion people," said Swadesh
    Chatterjee, 53, president of the Indian American Forum for Political
    Education, a nationwide group that aims to boost political
    participation by members of the community.
    Chatterjee, like many Indian Americans, sees no conflict between his
    efforts on behalf of India and his patriotism as an American. "We are
    very fortunate -- we have two mothers," he said.
    His own life is a case in point. In 1979, he arrived in New York with
    an engineering degree and $35 in his pocket. Now, he runs a North
    Carolina industrial instrumentation firm with 40 employees. His
    daughter, a graduate of prestigious Phillips Andover Academy in
    Massachusetts, is pursuing a master's degree in international
    relations at Johns Hopkins University. Yet Chatterjee has not
    forgotten his roots: He returns often to Calcutta, his hometown, and
    is troubled by what he regards as Washington's  dismissive attitude
    toward India.
    But serving two mothers can be tricky. In 1996, an Indian American
    lawyer, Lalit Gadhia, was sentenced to three months in jail after he
    admitted funneling money from an Indian diplomat into U.S. political
    campaigns. Allegations that China also tried to influence the 1996
    presidential election, coupled with the investigation of a Chinese
    American scientist suspected of passing nuclear secrets to Beijing,
    have fueled fears among some Indian Americans that political activism
    will brand them as foreign agents, said Debasish Mishra, the director
    of the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness here.
    "The biggest issue for our community is the perception that we don't
    fully belong, that somehow we're not fully American," said Mishra, 26,
    a University of Michigan graduate whose organization deliberately
    eschews involvement in foreign policy issues.
    Even without the efforts of Indian Americans, some improvement in
    relations between India and the United States was inevitable after the
    Soviet collapse. Despite close ties between the U.S. and Pakistani
    armed forces, Pakistan increasingly is regarded in Washington as a
    locus of Islamic extremism and instability. India, meanwhile, has
    benefited from its courtship of Western investment while playing 
    successfully on its image as the world's largest democracy.
    Although they did not begin arriving in this country in large numbers
    until the late 1960s, after a change in U.S. immigration law, Indian
    immigrants have emerged as one of the nation's most dynamic ethnic
    communities. According to 1990 census data, Indian Americans have the
    highest average household income - - $60,903 -- of any Asian-Pacific
    ethnic group, a category that includes Chinese Americans and Japanese
    Indian entrepreneurial skills have had a spectacular impact in the
    Internet and software industries, where Indian Americans have begun to
    organize into groups such as the Indus Entrepreneurs and the Indian
    CEO High Tech Council. The latter boasts a Washington area membership
    of 165 Indian American chief executives whose companies employ nearly
    20,000 people.
    These software engineers and start-up specialists have not been shy
    about translating their economic success into political clout. "In
    politics, the power comes from money and business," said Reggie
    Aggarwal, a 30-year-old lawyer and president of a Fairfax high- tech
    firm who helped found the council. "A group like ours can meet with
    all kinds of senators and congressmen. We're not just going to get you
    active people, we're going to get you power players. Every event we've
    had is a grand slam."
    That is no idle boast. In September 1996, Indian American executives
    and professionals held a fund- raiser for Clinton at the Mayflower
    Hotel that raised a reported $400,000.
    Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has already benefited
    from the largess of Indian Americans such as Krishna Srinivasa, 54,
    who immigrated in 1969 and now runs a computer consulting business in
    Atlanta. "We want better Indo-U.S. relations," said Srinivasa, who so
    far has raised $150,000 for Bush at two campaign events and recently
    met with the candidate at his Austin office. "There is no reason the
    world's largest democracy cannot have a working relationship with the
    world's greatest democracy."
    Indian Americans' generosity to political campaigns has been
    accompanied by growing support for India on Capitol Hill. The
    Congressional India Caucus, founded in 1993, now has 115 members.
    Ackerman, the group's chairman, has traveled to India six times and
    employs an Indian American on his staff.
    "They have helped a great many members of Congress to understand the
    issues, and to focus a little more attention on an area of the world
    that deserves more attention," said Ackerman, who receives
    contributions from Indian Americans nationwide.
    While groups such as the High Tech Council are focused primarily on
    promoting business ties between the United States and South Asia, many
    Indian Americans feel passionately about foreign policy matters such
    as the Kashmir conflict.
    Rajesh Kadian, for example, is a Great Falls gastroenterologist with
    two daughters at the University of Virginia and a teenage son who is a
    wide receiver on the Langley High School football team. But he is also
    the author of several books on Indian military strategy and a firm
    believer in the need to explain the Indian point of view to American
    To that end, he organized a 1995 fund-raiser that netted $15,500 for
    Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). He meets occasionally with State
    Department officials and, in one instance, helped arrange a meeting
    between the Indian ambassador and a key lawmaker -- whom he prefers
    not to name - so they could discuss the nuclear test issue.
    "India has never gotten the respect of the United States," Kadian
    complains. "But this is a responsible, important country, and it has a
    role to play in the world."
    India's standing in Washington suffered a serious setback when it set
    off an underground nuclear device in May 1998, prompting Pakistan to
    respond in kind several weeks later. The blasts triggered economic
    sanctions against both countries, though Clinton subsequently waived
    some provisions for one year.
    While Indian Americans were divided over the wisdom of the tests, many
    nonetheless felt it was their duty to defend their native land against
    accusations that its government had acted irresponsibly. The American
    Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, for  example, set aside
    its customary emphasis on health care issues and circulated a letter
    explaining the "context" of India's decision, according to a
    India also got help from Chatterjee, the head of the Indian American
    Forum, who parlayed his fund-raising activities on behalf of Sen.
    Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
    Committee, into a meeting between Helms and Foreign Minister Jaswant
    "We told him, 'India needs a fair hearing,' " said Chatterjee, who
    attended the meeting along with Srinivasa, the Bush campaign
    Such efforts have started to pay off. At least twice this year,
    India's supporters in Congress blocked legislation that would have cut
    off its foreign aid. Similarly, when the House International Relations
    Committee passed a resolution blaming Pakistan for last spring's
    flare-up in Kashmir, the White House welcomed the move as "a useful
    way of reminding the [Pakistani] Prime Minister and others that
    Congress could use its influence in ways that were not in Pakistan's
    interest," a senior official said.
    But Indian Americans do not necessarily march in lockstep with the
    Indian government. Congress, for example, is considering legislation
    that would clear the way for a resumption of military sales to both
    India and Pakistan. While the embassy opposes the move on grounds that
    it would mostly benefit Pakistan, which needs spare parts for its
    U.S.-made hardware, some Indian Americans favor lifting the ban to
    help promote business and strategic ties with India.
    "We have to look at what is good for the United States," said a
    prominent Indian American businessman who spoke on condition of
    anonymity. "We are not agents of the Indian government."
    In the same vein, some Indian Americans are irked by what they
    consider excessive efforts by the Indian Embassy to manipulate the
    immigrant community. "In certain cases, I can tell you, we told them
    they should back off, they should not get involved in this," the
    businessman said.
    It is sometimes difficult to discern the line between the embassy's
    lobbying efforts and those of Indian Americans. Kapil Sharma, for
    example, is a paid lobbyist for India at the law firm of Verner 
    Liipfert. He also serves as the unpaid political chairman of the
    Network of South Asian Professionals (NETSAP), a nonprofit group that
    regularly holds meetings on issues such as Kashmir.
    "At any event that we do in NETSAP, there is no tilt toward any
    particular agenda," Sharma said. "It's not like this is a forum for
    the government of India. What I do professionally is what I do
    professionally. . . . Our record [at NETSAP] clearly shows there is no
    After the Lalit Gadhia campaign scandal, however, Indian officials
    have grown more careful when it comes to involvement in American
    politics. "We don't want Indian Americans to be perceived as Indian
    agents," said Ambassador Naresh Chandra. "It's a delicate line."

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements