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Wooing Washington

By: Lavina Melwani Email By: Lavina Melwani
October 2010
Wooing Washington

About a hundred years ago Indian immigrants in America faced hard times. The earliest Punjabi immigrants in California had to battle prejudice and many forms of discrimination. The Immigration Act of 1917, besides adding several restrictive conditions, outright barred immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands. The California Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented immigrants from owning land, making it challenging for the early Punjabi settlers who made a living as farmers.

In the book Making Ethnic Choices, author Karen Isaksen Leonard notes that in spite of all these hurdles, Indian immigrants already viewed themselves as future Americans and contributed funds for the U.S. effort in World War I. She writes, “Holtsville Punjabis subscribed liberally to the Liberty Bond Loans in 1918. An appreciative article in the Holtsville Tribune listed some 29 Punjabi men who contributed a total of $1500.”

From those early days, the miniscule Indian-American population has grown to a significant 2.3 million today. According to the Washington-based think tank Migration Policy Institute, Indians are the third-largest immigrant group after Mexicans and Filipinos, and may soon become number two.

A century of lobbying

It’s taken a century of lobbying—both organizational and personal—to arrive to the America of 2010 where Bobby Jindal is the governor of Louisiana, Nikki Haley is poised to become the next governor of South Carolina, and where scores of Indian Americans are serving in the Obama White House. Many more are standing for political offices.

It is an America where Diwali is recognized as an American festival and where the White House hosts Diwali and Baisakhi celebrations. And yes, it’s an America where it’s finally considered cool to be desi!

These changes are the result of the efforts of a fascinating array of people and organizations that have made it possible to make the Indian-American community a powerful factor, not unlike America’s Jewish Lobby.

For many of the earlier decades, Indian immigrants were absorbed in succeeding in a new country and putting down roots. Political activism was not on their radar. There were rare exceptions such as Dalip Singh Saund, who in 1955, was the first American of Asian origin to ever become a U.S. congressman.

“The immigrant generation spent a lot of their time and effort in building their families, getting settled in the new country—which is very understandable,” says Dr. Walter Andersen, Associate Director of South Asian Studies at John Hopkins University. “It is only when they got to a certain level of comfort that they were able to focus on getting involved in politics.”

A notable pioneer was Gopal Raju, who in 1970 founded India Abroad, which went on to become the leading Indian American newsweekly. Always looking to the future, Raju created the India American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA), which gave the second-generation a primer in American politics by placing over 200 interns on Capitol Hill.

Even as the Indian immigrants were wetting their feet in American politics, the government of Indian started hiring high profile legal firms as their lobbying agents. One of them was the firm of Barbour Griffith and Rogers, a lobbying heavyweight, which had the former Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill amongst its advisors.

In the three months leading up to the much touted Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement, New Delhi hired Patton Boggs, a leading lobbying firm which has former Ambassador to India Frank Wisner as an advisor. Anurag Varma, an attorney in the firm’s international practice, not only had the important role of representing India, but was also lead counsel to a coalition of Indian-American organizations and individuals working in support of the successful passage of the landmark agreement. Varma currently lobbies on behalf of several India-centric clients, including the pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy, the U.S.-India Business Council, and AAHOA, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

According to The Economic Times, after the successful passage of the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement, India has cut down its lobbying expenses in the United States: “This marks a sharp decline of over 97 per cent from USD 180,000—more than Rs. 82 lakh—of lobbying expenses incurred by the Indian government in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2010, according to the disclosure report filed by Republic of India's lobbyists with the U.S. administration.”

Narender Reddy of Atlanta, who is a stalwart fundraiser for the Republican Party, opines, “The government of India doesn’t realize the power of lobbying in this country and they spend a very insignificant amount for the purpose.” Reddy continues, “Compare that with the spending on successful lobbying by the governments of Israel and Pakistan. I don’t think the Indian government-appointed lobbyists in Washington, D.C.—with their small budgets—accomplish anything. They end up spending whatever small fee they get on hosting dinners for the visiting dignitaries from India, which serves no purpose.”

Are there many professional lobbyists working for Indian or Indian American interests? Varma contemplates on it, “Now that you ask me about it—I am realizing it’s a very small club.” He points out that lobbying is not a glamorous job—it requires self-organization, a thorough knowledge of your subject, and finding a way to get in the door. It all has to do with access, education and infrastructure. “Once you can do it, you understand the rhythm of Washington,” says Varma. “Although in some places in the world lobbying means something negative, in the U.S. it is a very effective way for the people to get their opinions to lawmakers.”

The community is the unofficial lobby

Asked as to whether Indian Americans and their organizations serve as unofficial lobbyists for India, Varma says: “Absolutely. You see, at the end of the day the Indian-American community and how it is perceived in this country is tied to America’s relationship with India. And to the extent anything that is done to further America’s relationship with India, it helps Indian Americans.”

Andersen of John Hopkins, who recently retired as Chief of the State Department’s South Asia Division, and has served in India, observes: “All governments do lobbying on their behalf, but I have always felt that the most effective lobbying is done by the community.”

The community, according to Narender Reddy, first came together in a concerted way in the mid-90s—to counteract the sustained efforts of Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana) who was adamantly seeking to pass a resolution censuring India for its so-called “human right violations” in Kashmir and Punjab. “This made our community realize the need to have political power,” says Reddy. “Ultimately, due to our lobbying efforts, Burton’s push to censure India in the Congress failed time and again. Over a period, the congressman ceased taking a stand against India.”

Andersen, who was involved with other academics in passing for the civil nuclear agreement, believes this seminal event, more than any other, galvanized the community and laid the base for both formal and informal lobbying networks. In talking about the campaign leading to the nuclear deal, Andersen says, “The community obviously learnt how American politics operates; they knew how to use pressure to do so.” “Part of the pressure was threats to withdraw funding to congressmen who were opposed, and that’s the way Washington operates, and they did that in several cases.”

Anderson believes that by serving on local educational committees and grassroots organizations, Indians got a kind of internship in American politics. This went on for 10 to 15 years, and the results are now beginning to show in the numbers of Indian Americans in the Obama administration, and many more running for public offices.

Media and organizations: powerful tools of lobbying

With a broad, and often free, circulation, the Indian diaspora press, according to Andersen, happens to be the most widely circulated print media of any ethnic group in the country. Along with television and radio, the cumulative media in the Indian community, he feels, is one of the most important components facilitating grassroots lobbying by this group. Indian Americans have also used the Internet well, and are savvy on forums, blogs and on Twitter. The impact of these was seen in the case of Senator George Allen’s use of a racial slur on S.R. Siddarth, his opponent’s Indian volunteer. When the YouTube video showing Allen in the act went viral, the blogs too picked up on the story.

Sanjay Puri, Chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) has seen the changes in the community’s political engagement over the past decade. He notices an increased emphasis on advocacy measures. “People are getting much more sophisticated,” he says, recalling the early days when most of the campaign contributions were merely for the sake of photo ops. “There are just so many pictures you can put on the wall—it’s hard to get people excited about a photo anymore. It’s got to be tied to an issue—whether it’s the nuclear deal, whether it’s terrorism, whether it’s H1-B visas, whether it’s discrimination.”

USINPAC provides bipartisan support to candidates in favor of Indian American issues and the community. Active at the level of federal, state and local offices, it is currently supporting several Indian-American candidates, including Nikki Haley for governor of South Carolina, Ami Bera for Congress, and Manan Trivedi for the U.S. House of Representatives. Its activism is seen on several fronts such as protesting a racist ad by “Jobs for America,” a federal program and the fee hike for H1-B visas.

“In some ways the Indian community is like the Jewish because it cares about strong relationships. Relationships that are not just good for India but for the U.S. too,” says Puri. “We share values and concerns—India’s demographics make it a very relevant country globally and it presents a huge economic opportunity for America.”

As the community realizes the importance of fielding candidates of Indian origin, several new organizations have taken birth. The Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI), established in 2000, is a national organization seeking to facilitate the election of Indian-American Democrats at every level of local, state and federal government. The organization has a database of active progressive Indian Americans and in 2008 created the 2008 Almanac of Indian American Democrats, a guide to the leading Indian-American elected and appointed officials, candidates, campaign consultants, and policymakers. IALI also helps these candidates become financially viable by connecting them with potential donors.

On the other side of the aisle is The Indian American Conservative Council (IACC), headquartered in Washington, D.C. with a Board of Directors and 14 independent state affiliates, which promotes conservative values across the US. Haley, the likely next governor of South Carolina, is amongst IACC’s most high-profile alliances and beneficiaries.

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), headed by Deepa Iyer, is another innovative organization in Washington, D.C. Recognizing the common needs of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, this second-generation advocacy group tackles analysis and advocacy around issues of hate crimes, social justice, and immigration. SAALT members have testified before the House of Representatives Immigration Subcommittee about immigration reform, and the UN Special Rapporteur on civil and immigration rights.

The newest kid on the block, and perhaps one of the most effective, is HAF—the Hindu American Foundation. Built by all second-generation Indian Americans, HAF is savvy about reaching the power elite of Washington, D.C. in order to change the way Hinduism is viewed in America. It has set up an office in Washington, D.C. with a full-time staff and has built up sweat-equity by really working on meeting and discussing policy with congressional staffers.

One of the first efforts of HAF led to the acknowledgement of Diwali by Congress. “Since our inception, we made recognizing Diwali one of our main goals, and in 2007, this became a reality when both the House and the Senate passed Resolutions recognizing the ‘religious and historical significance of the festival of Diwali.’” says Ishani Chowdhury, Director of HAF. “It is an iconic first step in having younger generations feel a sense of pride about their faith and holiday, which is just too often ignored by the media. For older generations it is a reminder that their efforts in instilling their faith have not gone in vain.”

HAF, under its president Dr. Mihir Meghani, gradually took on issues of hate speech, discrimination and defamation, in the process interacting with leaders in public policy, academia and media about Hinduism and global issues concerning Hindus. According to Suhag Shukla, legal counsel for HAF, its greatest achievement is getting a progressive Hindu American voice articulated and heard. She points out that HAF has successfully presented an authentic Hindu American perspective before the U.S. Supreme Court, several state Supreme Courts, as well as before many lower federal and state courts.

Dealing with Congress and other branches of government is a time-consuming process and one of the realities of grassroots lobbying. “It takes hours to prepare for and arrange meetings with the appropriate staff members, who will likely grant no more than 15 minutes of their time, of which you have five minutes to present your case,” says Ishani Chowdhury. “Then there are hours of follow-up. Before a congressman signs off on anything, it has to be approved by layers of his people—legislative assistant, press aide, legislative director, chief of staff, and if there is disagreement, the response may be less than favorable.”

Non-political but highly influential organizations such as the American Association of Physicians from India (AAPI) and AAHOA (Asian American Hotel owners Association) are also noteworthy players towards the lobbying efforts benefitting Indians, even if in specific sectors.

Incidentally, the powerful AAPI not only looks after their own interests and those of international medical graduates, but increasingly has a say in the healthcare debate in America. Ajeet R. Singhvi, MD, the president of AAPI, attests to the ever-increasing visibility of Indian-American physicians. In the future, he says, one out of every four or five physicians will be of Indian origin. Under his watch, AAPI has established a legislative office and member-supported Political Action Committee (PAC) in Washington, D.C., chaired by Dr. Krishan Aggarwal. “It is my earnest hope that our increased political activism will result in at least 10 members of Indian origin in the U.S. Congress within the decade,” says Singhvi Dino Teppara, a prominent political activist and Chairman of IACC, also serves as AAPI’s Director of Legislative Affairs. He notes AAPI has been active in legislation in increasing medical residency slots to mitigate the projected shortage of 150,000 doctors in the next 15 years. Thanks to AAPI’s efforts for a renewal of the Conrad 30/J-1-Visa Waiver Program for International Medical Graduates, the waiver has been renewed through 2012.

The AAHOA too has valued lobbying and is an important player impacting the issues affecting hoteliers in the country. Anurag Varma represents the interests of the organization whose membership owns and operates 40 percent of all hotel properties in the United States. Through a Lobby Day, AAHOA hoteliers spend a day in Washington, visiting over 150 different congressional offices to talk about the issues. “AAHOA has the resources to get everyone organized, to be prepared,” says Varma. “That is the infrastructure that you need to be able to get the voices of the individual Indian Americans to Capitol Hill.”

The power of one: notable individuals

Narender Reddy believes that more than organizational lobbying, it is the efforts of individuals across the country and their personal relationships with and financial support of elected representatives that have a greater impact in lobbying and obtaining their support for causes important to India and the Indian-American community. “Due to my personal friendship with Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, and Congressmen John Linder, Tom Price and Lynn Westmoreland, I was able to get their total support for India-interest legislations over the years, especially the U.S.-India nuclear deal,” says Reddy. He notes that for the first time all the three congressmen from the Georgia delegation co-sponsored the bill in the House, a rare occurrence.   

Indeed, there have been several names in the political success story of Indians, both in the Republican and Democratic parties. The roll-call includes names like Gopal Khanna, Akhil and Piyush Agrawal, Danny Gaekwad , Harry Walia, Dr. Raghavendra Vijaynagar, Dr. Raj Vatikutti, Bharat Bhargava and Rana Suresh on the Republican side. Notable Democrats include Ramesh Kapur, Rajen Anand, Dr. Mahendra Tak, Vinod Khosla, Sunil Puri, Shekar Narasimhan and Subodh Chandra.

These community leaders have also interacted with senators and congressmen to create the India Caucus. It is the largest country caucus in the US Congress and was founded in 1993 by Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Bill McCollum (R-FL). Ten years later the Senate got its own bipartisan India Caucus which was co-chaired by Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Cornyn.

Varma also gives credit to the many first-generation Indian Americans who did something new and radical—become politically active and adapt to the American way. People like Mike Patel, Narender Reddy, Swapan Chatterjee, Sant Singh Chatwal and Dr. Bhupi Patel have spent many years in nurturing relationships with the Washington power players, not only through financial donations but also by building trust. “And the fact that these individuals used their relationship to the betterment of larger community causes and U.S.-India causes is actually a tribute to them,” says Varma.

Many successful Indian-American physicians and entrepreneurs have used their own time and money to forge friendly personal relations with congressmen and senators. Over the years, Chatwal, for example, has had a close relationship with the Clintons and other power players, and these have all helped when it came to gaining acceptance for the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

Indeed, Chatwal, who is the Chair of Indian-Americans for Democrats, used his connections to throw a big event in Washington in May 2006 to promote the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and over a dozen senators and 48 congressmen showed up. Recently he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor—and the recommendation reportedly came from the highest office in the land—that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Talking about the use of their own time and money for political lobbying by these successful individuals, Andersen comments, “They do it on a volunteer basis but they’ve become quite sophisticated at that. That makes them a bit different from the Jewish community where they have a somewhat formalized lobbying effort. One of the complaints I’ve heard—and to which there is some truth—is that [Indian Americans] are not as unified so there’s less of a collective effort. But where they make up for it is in their own individual contributions.”

Grassroots advocacy

Working on the nuts and bolts of forging relationships is always hard, but slowly the Indian-American community is getting the hang of it. At the same time, away from the Beltway, there are political activists who actually motivate the community and get them to use their political clout with their elected congressmen. Indeed, if you are Indian and have access to e-mail, you are likely to have heard from Ram Narayanan, a dedicated grassroots advocate who keeps a vigilant eye on Indo-U.S. relations and gets people involved in the political process.

Narayanan heads U.S.-India Friendship (http://www.usindiafriendship.net/ ) and he and his wife ensure writing to senators and congressmen is simplified by providing tips and form letters to over 15,000 subscribers. “Every representative in Congress must be made aware that funding support as well as support at the voting booths is at least partly contingent on the voting records of congressmen and women in matters relating to U.S.-India relations,” says Narayanan.

The nuclear deal has indeed been one of the shining moments of Indo-U.S. relations, and no matter which community leader or organization you talk to, almost every one of them wants to take credit for making it a reality. “Every success has a thousand mothers,” says Varma cryptically. Yet as he points out, you cannot give credit to any one person or any small group for being the driving force.

Room for improvement

Despite these institutional and individual efforts, there are those like Dino Teppara, Chairman of IACC, who feel there is room for improvement. He believes that in spite of the community’s wealth and connections, there are no serious discussions about policy, no history of philanthropy, and the involved organizations have negligible budgets for lobbying.

“There’s no full-time lobbying—we’re not at the stage to do that on the Hill,” says Teppara. “The American-Jewish community raised 125 million dollars last year—there is not a single Indian group which raises even one million dollars. We have a lot of potential to do lobbying; we have a lot of potential to be powerful. The reality is that when there’s no money you can’t do anything.”

Teppara points out that there’s also a generational divide, sometimes caused by jealousy or controversy between first and second generation folks. Yet there’s hope in all the young Indian Americans who are now working in Washington, learning the ropes of networking, advocacy and lobbying. They even have a Desi Power Hour—a quarterly gathering where young Indian Americans who are in politics socialize and network. “Hill Staffers, political consultants, young professionals, and members of the administration of both parties come [to the Desi Power Hour]. It’s a great event with a turnout of 50-75,” says Harin Contractor, Cofounder and Vice Chair of the Washington Leadership Program (WLP).

Wooing Washington: A winning outlook

As the second generation heads into policy and politics, the effect of desi lobbying efforts is bound to increase. Even as the second generation creates their own organizations, it is interesting to see that age-old ethnic associations and even religious institutions are also becoming tangentially involved in the lobbying process. Various regional organizations ranging from the Tamil sangams to the Gujarati associations often invite local and national political leaders as guests and keynote speakers to their national conventions. The gurudwaras and temples too become venues for linkages, providing a space for social and political interaction. “These are the binding factors you need to have any collective action,” says Andersen.

In fact, the new builds upon the old. Gopal Raju’s IPCA, which placed young Indian-Americans in the political field, may no longer be around, but the ones who benefited from it have now started The Washington Leadership Program (WLP), which seeks to continue his legacy by introducing college students into the offices of Congressmen and Senators. Former Congressional leader Richard Gephardt has called the WLP “one of the best programs of its kind on the Hill.” Over 170 young people have benefited from this, getting their first taste of political advocacy.

Using a mosaic of old and new networks, ancient and modern tactics, as well as their Indian roots and American experiences, Indian Americans are finally headed on the Yellow Brick Road to the power citadels of Washington.

[Lavina Melwani writes for publications internationally and blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com]


The Power of Indian Networks

Dr. Thomas Abraham takes you through the years of political action?

Since students were the first Indians to come to America, the first predominant Indians groups were the university-based student associations. With the change in immigration laws in 1965, the doors opened to Indian engineers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. The first major community-based group was initiated by new immigrants in New York with the formation of the Association of Indians in America (AIA). In the meanwhile, Chandra Jha of Chicago revived the old India League of America in Chicago. AIA also was able to get Asian Indians listed as a minority under the Asian and Pacific Islander category.

By the early 1970s, there were about 15 organizations in New York alone. In a unifying effort to bring all these groups together, the Indian Consulate in New York took the initiative to form a Joint Committee of Indian Organizations with the help of the most active Indian group at that time, the Indian Club of Columbia University. Four students from Columbia University, Thomas Abraham, Himanshu Jain, Ajai Goyal and Vidur Seth, loaned $100 each to put up the initial fund for the Joint Committee activities, with an account operated separately under India Club of Columbia University.

With the success of the Joint Committee in reaching out to the various community groups, there was a move toward starting the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York. The FIA New York was officially launched in 1978, and by the 1980s, it had over 200 member-associations as its members, including AAPI and AAHOA.

The Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) founded by Dr. Joy Cherian in Washington, D.C., became a catalyst for political action. President Reagan appointed Dr. Cherian as Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1987, the first major sub-cabinet level appointment on a federal level. Dr. Cherian served under three presidents, Reagan, Bush (the first), and Clinton.

Two other appointments under the Bush administration were those of Bharat Bhargava as Assistant Director of Minority Business Development Authority (MBDA), and Dr. Sambu Banik as Executive Director for the Presidential Commission on Mental Retardation. The Clinton administration appointed Dr. Arati Prabhakar as the Director of National Institute of Standards and Technology, Neil Dhillon as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation, and Dr. Rajen Anand as Executive Director of Center for Nutrition Policy under USDA.

President George W. Bush’s administration appointed Bobby Jindal as the Assistant Secretary of Health, Gopal Khanna as the Chief Technology Officer of Peace Corps, and Karan Bhatia, as Deputy Under-Secretary, Department of Commerce. Jindal went on to become the Governor of Louisiana.

In the 1990s, several new national organizations emerged. The young Indian-American professionals formed the Network of Indian Professional (NetIP) in the mid 1990s. Around the same time, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) was formed in the Silicon Valley. Another group initiated by Dr. Krishna Reddy of Los Angeles, the Indo-American Friendship Council, has been actively campaigning with congressmen and senators for better India-U.S. relations.

The Obama Administration has appointed many more Indian Americans in high positions and the future looks promising.

[Source: Dr. Thomas Abraham of GOPIO (Global Organization of People of Indian Origin]

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