Sanjay Puri may live in Washington, but his heart beats for India. An IT entrepreneur, he is also founder and chairman of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), one of the key groups which lobbied tirelessly to make the India US civil nuclear cooperation deal a reality.
Q: There were already so many organisations of Indians in the United States – the India US Friendship Council, the India Caucus, the Friends of India and so forth. What prompted you to start one more?
A: Most of the others focus on cultural or social aspects of Indians living in the US, or they are professional bodies of Indian-Americans. Our focus is primarily political. We have full time staff, who understand the political system, and how to work it.
Being a minority community in a democracy, you must have some way to advocate and protect your rights. Four and a half years ago, when I began USINPAC, I looked across the United States and saw that a number of other minority communities – the Jewish community, the Spanish community, the African-American community – had strong grassroots’ advocacy organizations. Indians had nothing of the kind.
Q: How did the situation change to such an extent that some Americans now claim that the influence of the Indian lobby in the US is only second to that of the Israeli lobby?
A: It has been a happy combination of factors. There is the tremendous economic rise of the Indian Americans in the 21st century. Our numbers in the US too have risen, what with students, professionals, the H1B visa holders coming in droves – we are now 2.5 million strong. There has also been the rise of India as a nation. India now matters much more than before in the world.
Q: What makes the Israel lobby in the US so influential and effective?
A: They have been at it for 50 years, ever since the birth of Israel. Indians really began only 5-6 years back. Israel’s political situation is a great motivator for them, the notion that Israel is in danger, and political activism in the US is necessary for Israel’s survival.
As we know 40 per cent of the Democratic Party’s campaign contribution comes from the Israeli lobby. The Republicans don’t reveal how much the Jews put in their kitty, but it is bound to substantial too.
Q: Is it primarily a matter of money then that determines a lobby’s influence?
A: Money gets you access, no more. If you have contributed to a politician’s campaign, he will give you a hearing. Politicians have to raise money – a Congressional campaign costs $ 2-3 million (Rs 9–13.5 crore), a Senate campaign $ 6-7 million. But funding is not enough. After that you have to represent your case in such a way that the politician is convinced.
Q: What exactly do lobbies in the US do?
A: Advocacy is a large part of the job. You have to educate your representative about matters that mean much to your community, but about which he knows very little. More than the politician himself, you have to educate his staff, because it is upon his staff that the politician relies.
You have to show up at the right places, at hearings and meetings, you have to host events and invite the people you seek to influence. But above all you have to convince politicians that what you seek is good for their constituency and country as well.
Q: What are the main obstacles you have faced?
A: In the beginning it was a shocking lack of awareness. It may sound incredible, but I was genuinely mistaken sometimes for an advocate for native Americans, the American-Indians!
I even had a joke prepared for such occasions: I would say ‘We are not those Indians (sticks two fingers above his head to indicate feathers) but these Indians (jabs at his forehead to indicate a bindi)