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If They Can Do It...

The Indian lobby in Washington has come into its own by playing a major role in shoring up India-United States ties in the business and strategic spheres. The lobby's work has dovetailed with and emulated the pro-Israel lobbies' role in the US.


If They Can Do It...

Vijay Prashad

The Indian lobby in Washington has come into its own by playing a major role in shoring up India-United States ties in the business and strategic spheres. The lobby’s work has dovetailed with and emulated the pro-Israel lobbies’ role in the US.

Vijay Prashad ( teaches history at Trinity College, Connecticut, US.

Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009

opal Raju, who died last year at the age of 80, was impatient to put Indian Americans on the map. The founder of the community’s most popular newspaper (India Abroad), Raju wanted to provide a platform for Indian Americans to exercise power in Washington DC. I met him briefly in the early 1990s, right around the time he founded the I ndian American Center for Political Action (IACPA). The centre drew in young Indian Americans born to parents who came into the country after the revision of the immigration laws in 1965. In college many of them rediscovered their Indianness, not so much as the cultural quotient of their suburban youth, but now as a political identity produced by college multiculturalism. Raju recruited

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them as interns and sent them off to work for members of Congress, most of whom had till now little concern for India, let alone Indian America. Raju’s dream was elegant: American Jews make up only about 2% of

the US population, and yet they are able to influence US policy towards Israel; if only Indian Americans (whose demography resembles that of American Jews) could also have such an impact. For his expertise along these lines, Raju hired Ralph Nurnberger, lately of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). But Raju’s dream was simply pragmatic: he had no special fealty to Israel nor did he labour under the illusion of a special relationship between Hindus and Jews. “If they can do it”, he told me, “we can too”.

Scores of young Indian Americans flooded the antechambers of Congressional leaders, just as the Indian government decided it too needed to have a closer, even special, relationship with Washington. From the early 1990s, the Indian government decided to


abandon any pretence of non-alignment and to seek favour in Washington. The government gradually dismantled its protection of the Indian economy, leaned toward Tel Aviv for the first time, and backed away from too close an association with the Non-Aligned Movement. All this sent a signal to Washington that Delhi wanted its intimacy.

The Indian embassy welcomed the IACPA initiative, but it had its own coals in the fire. Till 1992, India’s government made it a point to send retired Foreign Service members (M C Chagla) or prominent people in need of a sinecure (Karan Singh) to be ambassadors to the United States. Those with eminence, such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and T N Kaul looked more favour ably to Moscow or to the capitals of Africa and Asia than to the White House. In 1992, the Indian government sent an energetic anti-communist and pro-Washington politician, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, to move an agenda. Ray went all out, making controversial public comments against members of Congress who had taken an adverse position on human rights violations in India, and publicly asking for the re-election of a senator favourable to India, Larry Pressler of South Dakota.

At a news conference, the minister of state for foreign affairs in the Indian government R L Bhatia said, “There is a strong anti-India lobby in the United States. We are spending large sums of money through Ambassador Ray to neutralise it.” Ray also recognised the importance of the Indian American community, which by the early 1990s had established itself in the world of technology and finance. Ray took his orders from the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, which asked the Indian diaspora to “help in projecting India in proper perspective”, to “neutralise the hostile propaganda abroad”. It was in this light that Ray urged Indians Americans to “get more involved in advancing not only their own interests but also that of the Motherland”. Gopal Raju heard that message loud and clear. His young troops were already in the field.

Nudged by the emergent Indian American community and by the new-found business opportunities in India, members of the US Congress hastily created an India Caucus in December 1992. Democratic Congressmen Stephen Solarz and Frank Pallone led the way, but the initial enthusiasm was limited (only eight joined up, one of them a Republican). Solarz from Staten Island, New York and Pallone from New Jersey’s 6th District, both had substantial Indian American constituents (Pallone’s district include Edison, the “capital” of Indian America). They were soon joined by Gary Ackerman (of New York’s 5th, which includes Queens) and Tom Lantos (of California’s 12th, which includes the northern parts of Silicon Valley), both of whose districts housed wealthy Indian Americans. Now 176 members of the US House (a full 40%) form the India Caucus (a Senate version was formed in 2004).

To stiffen their spine, and give them their talking points, the Indian government has, over the past decade, hired a number of lobby shops – the Berman Group, the Washington Group, American Continental. None of this was serious till 1998, when the government finally grasped the nettle and hired its old friend Stephen Solarz and his APCO firm (to hedge its bets, the government also hired the more Republican oriented Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand). Since last year, the Indian government has been represented by K-Street’s finest – Barbour, Griffith and Rogers as well as Patton, Boggs.

Corporations and Indo-US Ties

US-based corporations saw an immediate asset in closer ties between the United States and India. The US-India Business Council (USIBC) had been set up by the Indian and US governments (with private partners) in 1975, but it remained supine till the early 1990s, when the new opportunities made it sit up and act. Under Karen Swaner, Michael Clark and then Ron Somers (from 2004), the USIBC galvanised the corporate sector to take an interest in developments within India. Somers came to USIBC from the energy industry, one of the main arenas of interest for US firms as India’s inexhaustible energy needs would be unfurled by the new growthoriented economy. This is principally the reason why the USIBC carried the torch for the US-India nuclear deal (passed in 2008). Somers colourfully said of this deal, “The bounty is enormous”. The conservative estimates suggest that the US nuclear industry could benefit from as much as $60 billion in contracts.

december 19, 2009

Guns did not stand too far away from Butter: in September 1994, India’s army chief, general B C Joshi visited the top US army brass, and met defence secretary William Perry. Ententes signed, the two armed forces began to train together to s ecure what in military theory is known as “interoper ability”. The Indian and US navy held several exercises, whose natural outgrowth has been the joint patrols in the w aters around India, from Singapore to S omalia. Arms shipments went to India, and Indian officers flew to the US for training. The US military was keen on having a contingent of Indian troops in Iraq, but the communists and wizened nationalists in the Congress Party blocked the request in 2003.

This is the “official” India lobby: its muscle came out early this year when it squelched any attempt to include India and Kashmir in special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s brief. When the Obama team broached the subject of Bill Clinton as an India envoy, the lobby went apoplectic: it neither wanted Kashmir to become an international issue (India sees it as a bilateral matter between it and Pakistan), nor did it want to be associated with other “problem areas”, such as Israel-Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan. The lobby had its way.

The Israeli Connection

If you go in search of the headquarters of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), you will find it behind a small teashop. If you cannot find the teashop as you wind your way around Lodhi Road, ask anyone. They will tell you that the teashop is right in front of the RAW headquarters.

In the mid-1990s, an old friend worked at RAW. I asked him about the new language of security that seemed to overshadow the older language of development and poverty alleviation, of socialism and nonalignment. “Look at Israel”, he said. “They have the answers for us. Why should we tolerate what the Pakistanis dole out? We need to hit them hard. That’s the Israel road.” But, what about the level of insecurity within Israel, I asked him; it seemed to me that the Israeli road had failed to provide security to its own people. What was there to emulate? But my friend had absorbed the grammar of hot pursuit, targeted assassination and walls.

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Economic & Political Weekly


In 1992, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu bragged that Israel had “developed expertise in dealing with terrorism at the field level and also internationally, at the political and legal level, and would be happy to share it with India”. The context of political disagreements within Kashmir or along the India-Pakistan border faded from sight, as the problem became framed around ideas of “terrorism” and “security”. The logic of force overwhelmed the arguments for more discourse. It was claustrophobic.

The boss of the Indian right, L K Advani had extended a hand to his doppelgänger, Netanyahu. In 2000, when Advani was the home minister, he travelled to Israel and told a gathering at the Indian embassy,

In recent years we have been facing a growing internal security problem. We are concerned with cross-border terrorism launched by proxies of Pakistan. We share with Israel a common perception of terrorism as a menace, even more so when coupled with religious fundamentalism. Our mutual determination to combat terrorism is the basis for discussions with Israel, whose reputation in dealing with such problems is quite successful.

Israeli counter-terrorism teams came to India alongside Israeli arms merchants (I ndia is now the largest single importer of Israeli weaponry; on 20 April the Indian Space Research Organisation launched an Israeli spy satellite, RISAT-2, this after the January launch of TECSAR, another such satellite). The technocrats of terrorism set aside all consideration of the local political dimensions of the conflicts, and the considerable commonalities between India and Pakistan that could be the foundation for a durable peace. Instead, the conflict is seen as permanent, and the issue at hand is how to strengthen the technologies of power in India in order to contain Pakistan’s hand as well as the many tentacles of the terror outfits.

And... Religion

The telephone calls had a sinister edge. Threats to body combined with unkind things about my family. Reference was made to my being a fraudulent Hindu, perhaps even a secret Muslim. What guided these intrepid callers was a web site with a “hit-list”, run by a rather mysterious man who lived in the greater New York area (it is at The page had my phone number and my home a ddress. I called the local police; they

Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009

pleaded helplessness. Telephone calls to the internet provider led to the site’s dismissal. And then something interesting happened. This web site was run by the overseas wing of the most virulent strand of political Hinduism, the Bajrang Dal. Not long after its internet exile, it was welcomed back through the good fortune of the network established by the followers of the Rabbi Meir David Kahane.

Rohit Vyasmaan, who is often called the leader of Hindu Unity, consented to an interview with the New York Times in 2002, telling the reporter, “We are fighting the same war. Whether you call them Palestinians, Afghans or Pakistanis, the root of the problem for Hindus and Jews is Islam.”

Not far from these extreme forces, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, other Jewish American and Indian American groups began to meet formally in the months after 9/11. Shaken by 9/11, and drawing analogies between that attack and events as far removed as the Indian Partition and the current imbroglio in Kashmir, well-connected Indian Americans reached out to their friends in the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC. Most of the activists were in their mid-30s, many of them had come to the US for college or else as very young children, and the bulk of them were given over to the Republican Party: Jesal Amin, Sue Ghosh Stricklett, and Sanjay Puri all fit this basic profile. They founded what would become the USINPAC (the US India Political Action Committee), a group that owed its legs to the Israel lobby. (Ann Schaffer of the American Jewish Committee said of this connection, “We shared with them the Jewish approach to political activism. We want to give them the tools to further their political agenda”.) It turns out that “their political agenda” is not so different from that of the Israel lobby: as Ghosh Stricklett, USINPAC’s defence and strategic a ffairs point person put it in 2004, “Our No 1 legislative priority is terrorism: the terrorism directed against India is the same as that directed against the United States and Israel”. That terrorism, Congressman Tom Lantos (now deceased) told an Indian American gathering, is “mindless, vicious, fanatic, Islamic terrorism”. The only answer to this “mindless” terrorism is to fumigate it.

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USINPAC and the Mumbai Attacks

The cost of the USINPAC-AIPAC approach to instability in places like south Asia is plain to see. After the Mumbai attacks of last year, US-INPAC held a “Washington Chalo” lobbying event. They wanted to pressure the US Congress to send a strong message to Islamabad, demanding that the Pakistani government turn over those whom India claimed were the masterminds of the attack to the Indian government. If this, and other demands, were not met, then the US should reconsider its funding to Pakistan, and India would have all “options open”, including military strikes. India and Pakistan have no extradition treaty. Making a demand that cannot be met is tantamount to a casus belli. The Washington Chalo event on 27 January 2009 was a damp squib. The “official” Indian lobby privately scoffed at its amateurish display. The US Congress was unimpressed. On 2 April the Congress took up the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement (PEACE) Act of 2009, which promised Pakistan’s government $3 billion for its military and $7.5 billion for humanitarian assistance, all over five years. The only condition related to I ndia is impotent (Pakistan is asked “not to support any person or group that conducts violence, sabotage or other activities meant to instil fear or terror in India”).

The “official” and “unofficial” Indian lobby share more than officialdom would care to publically recognise. Both are committed to the adoption of a Likud point of view regarding conflict, where the political issues at stake are displaced in the service of security. Both share a remarkable complacency towards the context of violence, preferring the gated community model of foreign affairs. When Benedict Anderson wrote “Longdistance Nationalism” (1994), he assumed that one of the crucial features of the extremism of the long- distance nationalists is that they did not have to live next to their enemies, and so could take intractable positions against them. But this is no longer the case, as the dominant class in India begins to share some features of an extremism that cares little for the long-term consequences of its actions. Both the Indian elite and the Indians abroad are long-distant nationalists, with neither of them willing to lobby for the Indian farmers who commit suicide because of high input prices and low commodity prices. These small farmers have no lobby.

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