by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 24th Oct 2006
While the Blue Billion sit glued to Champions Trophy cricket, their sixteen lakh American cousins would do well to keep their eye on the ball too. Indian immigrants in the US have already put much of their considerable money and voting power behind making the US-India nuclear deal a reality. Now, with the legislative home stretch of the deal likely to depend on a lame duck session of the US Congress after mid-term elections in November, they will have to keep reminding US senators and representatives that their interests lie in turning the draft into law.
The Indian immigrant community has some sense of its influence on US policy, but has not yet come close to tapping its full power. The US-India Business Council (USIBC) represents 180 companies doing business in both countries, but its primary focus remains commercial. The professional lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Roger (BGR), headed by former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, pushes the India cause with well-timed op-ed articles in the mainstream press and through lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but its orientation is primarily republican. There remains in the Indian conscience, and certainly in the Brahminical worldview of South Block, a distaste for anything as crass as lobbying. The Indian ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t need any door-opening; he can just pick up the phone and call any US lawmaker he wants to.
This reticence contrasts sharply with the unabashed clout of the America Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a 5.5 million strong group of Jewish Americans variously called the Jewish lobby, Zionist agents, or the most successful lobby group on the planet. The Indian community, which has thus far only aspired to AIPAC’s lobbying power, has now contacted the group for some advice on how to multiply its own clout.
The first secret of AIPAC’s success is its simplicity of purpose, namely, to promote the interests of Israel in the US. In this endeavour AIPAC is bipartisan, both internally and in its outreach, wooing Democrats and Republicans with equal fervour. The American Jewish community is no less divided than the Indian American community in many ways, but when it comes to Israel, AIPAC sets aside local differences to work for the benefit of Tel Aviv. In contrast, various sections of the Indian American community tend to work with various likeminded political parties in India towards various goals, which exacerbates rather than overcomes differences.
Secondly, AIPAC always frames its global aim in local terms that strike a chord within a constituency. As a prominent AIPAC lobbyist puts it: “The average American legislator does not wake up thinking about Israel, or, for that matter, about India. The first thing he thinks is, what do my voters want?” And since voters want different things in different places, AIPAC functions through a country-wide network of local offices that are in touch with voter concerns in every electoral constituency. To voters concerned about homeland security, Israel is the frontline in the war on terror. To heavily immigrant communities (and America is predominantly immigrant) Israel is the ultimate immigrant homeland. To defence manufacturing constituencies, Israel is the biggest buyer. So well-informed is AIPAC’s network that the Government of Israel has consulted them on likely US reactions before passing important legislation in Tel Aviv.
Thirdly, AIPAC’s brilliant organisation makes up for small numbers and demonstrates that while being visible is vitally important, functioning effectively is much more so. The group monitors all legislation, pending or in process, and evaluates where its support is needed. Its workers cover every meeting on Capitol Hill that deliberates on matters relating to Israel, and hold some 2000 meetings with US congressmen each year. Through email, snail mail, flyers, community hall meetings and ballroom galas, it passes on to voters and congressmen the facts that support Israel, particularly each congressman’s voting record on Israel. AIPAC thus helps to pass about one hundred pieces of pro-Israel legislation annually, and ensures the smooth passage of $2.4 billion in security-related aid to Israel. Indian communities, by similar record keeping, could make their local congressmen realise that a vote against India will not be forgotten.
AIPAC’s advice to Indian groups is to leverage the commonalities between India and the US: democracy, the rule of law, multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. Americans tend to value these linkages highly while New Delhi consistently underestimates them. According to an AIPAC official, “A visit to Israel touches the soul of an American congressman the way a trip to Europe or Japan can never do. India touches American souls even more directly.” New Delhi, AIPAC believes, must invest far more in bringing US legislators to India.
The US-India nuclear deal enjoys bipartisan support and may well go through without lobbying. But the nuclear deal is just one component of a growing bilateral relationship that will span not just security, but commerce, culture and even ideology. The power structure of the American state, divided equally between the White House and Capitol Hill, demands from India a close and ongoing engagement with the US legislature. As the Indian American community tries to build an effective interest group model, New Delhi should gratefully cultivate its partnership in gathering American support from the grassroots.