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How NRIs created a pro-deal tide

The US-India Political Action Committee decided to cut across political affiliations and mount a counter-campaign.

india Updated: Jun 28, 2006 12:03 IST

After President George W Bush signed the much-heralded nuclear agreement with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on March 2, the nuclear non-proliferation lobby in the United States acted swiftly to mount a campaign to kill the agreement.

Notable experts, mostly democrats but also some non-proliferation purists from the republican side, castigated the deal in leading US newspapers, panel discussions, and radio and TV shows across the country.

Since many of these had significant prior government experience, their arguments began to shift the US public discourse against the deal.

By end-March, groups such as the Arms Control Association and Federation of American Scientists, had joined this campaign.

To make matters worse, many leaders in the Congress with strong non-proliferation credentials were upset the administration had not consulted them during the negotiations with India on a deal that fundamentally altered decades of US non-proliferation laws and practice.

Several of them spoke sharply against the deal, and were instrumental in inviting experts to testify before the House and the Senate whose testimonies also counseled against the deal in its current form.

In early April, the US-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) organised a historic national conference call that brought all major Indian-American associations and individuals together.

They decided to cut across political affiliations and other divisions and mount a counter-campaign.

Several briefing papers were written and circulated so that senior leaders in the community, who enjoyed close relations with key lawmakers, could argue knowledgeably about why the deal safeguards non-proliferation while advancing US-India strategic partnership.

Within weeks, the tide began to shift.

These efforts ably complemented the efforts of key lobbying firms recruited by both the Indian government and the US administration.

A Coalition for Partnership of major firms was formed who, along with the US India Business Council, worked systematically to shift the balance in favor of the deal.

Selig Harrison submitted to the Congress a letter supporting the deal signed by 37 leading US experts, while panels featured US and Indian experts paired against the likes of David Albright and Henry Sokolski to rebut their arguments.

 Finally, Indian Americans worked behind the scenes to secure public support from the American Jewish Council and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. 

White House steps up the pressure Emboldened by this show of support, the White House organized panels in Washington and in key US cities where experts from the government and outside worked to shore up support in key states.

By mid-May, Nick Burns and Condoleezza Rice had testified before the Congress, and held a number of meetings with senior leaders to provide details of the agreement that they were negotiating. Bush joined in the effort by calling or meeting several key hold-outs.

Events unrelated to the deal, including those in Iraq, shored up Bush’s poll numbers, and the administration decided to join the EU-led talks on Iran.

The discussions between Shyam Saran and Nick Burns in London, and the productive follow-up on the “123 agreement” in Delhi, helped galvanized the administration into pushing for an early vote.

The vote in the “mark up” discussion in the House and Senate might pave the way for the agreement being put up for vote on the full floor of both chambers of Congress in late July.

While the final outcome and its timing is not assured, it must be said the rearguard campaign mounted by the Indian-American community, and its coordination with other groups, decisively shifted the momentum and expedited the vote in the US Congress.

(The author is at the Center for International Trade & Security, University of Georgia)