On 16 March, 2006, US Representatives Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos, and Senator Richard Lugar, introduced bills that would allow India to access US civilian nuclear technology in the two houses of the US Congress.
A fortnight earlier in New Delhi, President George W Bush had said he would get Congress to pass these nuclear bills. But Capitol Hill was cool to the idea. Hyde was openly skeptical. Time magazine wrote, "The deal may not be dead on arrival, but it has certainly landed with a thud."
Prominent Indian-Americans had already warned New Delhi during Bush’s visit that it needed to make its lobbying more broad-based. One of them was Swadesh Chatterjee, who had been in the US political fund-raising business for over a decade. "I told officials the focus had to be on 15 to 20 key players in the US political system, the type who don’t go around getting photographed." Also, the effort had to be free of the taint of US party politics.
These key players were Indian-Americans who had built up personal networks with the US politicians in their neighbourhood. Diplomatic sources estimate “no more than 20 to 30” people were to eventually form the backbone of what became the largest and most successful political mobilization of the Indian-American community.
One example was businessman Ashok Mago, chairman of the USINDIA Political Forum. “Delhi to Dallas. I made the move in 1974,” he says. Mago is a familiar face in Texan business and political circles. Though he began sounding out Texan politicians even in late 2005, Mago says "there wasn’t much to do until the actual bills were tabled".
Hyde and Lugar tabled their bills in May, but it became clear more co-sponsors were needed. In a matter of weeks, Mago persuaded 16 Texan senators and representatives from both parties to sign up. At one point, he says, 60 per cent of legislators backing the House of Representatives bill came from his state. Strictly of the view that all politics is local, Mago says, "Some Indian-Americans have this approach of tryig to cover the entire country. We can't do that. Success comes by taking care of your own backyard."
Indian embassy officials were amazed when Mago used his cellphone to arrange back-to-back interviews with nine Congressman over a two-and-a-half hour period. In the end, 30 Texan congressmen were to vote in favour of the nuclear bills. It was a pattern replicated all across the US.
Mississippi-based doctor Sampat Shivangi lobbied nearly 15 congressmen, largely in the US South. Democratic Party activist Ramesh Kapur helped land big fish like Senator John F Kerry, Chatterjee brought in Senator Joe Biden and Representative Tom Lantos. Las Vegas-based doctor RD Prabhu was used to rope in ranking Democratic senator Harry Reid.
As more and more Indian-Americans began to rally to the cause, Chatterjee helped form the US-India Friendship Council, an umbrella group that included the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin and Asian-American Hotel Owners Association. Chatterjee took special pains to widen the base of the movement. His group took out full-page ads in the Washington Post on the April day US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified on the deal before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They launched a "Washington Chalo" campaign the next month.
"We spent $15,000 on software that allowed every Indian-American who typed in his name and postal code on our website to automatically have letters and emails supporting the bill sent to his local congressmen,” he says.
However, the ultimate persuader for most congressman was trust. "On May 2, only seven congressmen were sponsoring the House bill. By May 25, there were 30. By June, the figure had passed 40,” says Chatterjee.