Activism Boosts India's Fortunes
Politically Vocal Immigrants Help Tilt Policy in Washington

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 1999; Page A01

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 conversation.

"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 Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) told a gathering of Indian Americans on July 20, after Pakistan had withdrawn its forces.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 masters 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 Americans.

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 policymakers.

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 spokesman.

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 Singh.

"We told him, 'India needs a fair hearing,' " said Chatterjee, who attended the meeting along with Srinivasa, the Bush campaign supporter.

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 bias."

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."