The last two months of the passage of the Indo-US civilian nuclear bill were harrying for the Indian-American community. As Ramesh Kapur, head of the Indian-American Security Leadership Council, says, “Time was our biggest killer amendment.”
The House of Representatives had voted in favour of it in July. But political bickering held up Senate vote till November 16. This meant that the last step of reconciling the two bills and holding the final vote would be pushed into a truncated lame-duck session.
The reason for the delay in getting the Senate to vote depends largely on who you talk to. However, throughout August and September, the bipartisan spirit that leaders like Swadesh Chatterjee and other Indian-Americans had carefully maintained, began to fray. Democratic and Republican activists accused each other of dragging feet and worse.
One reason for the slowdown was that “ambitious” US senators remained chary of the bill. Sometimes Indian-Americans played hardball: No vote, no money. “I know of instances when the community withheld fund-raisers until the congressmen or senator came out in favour. I understand this is what got Hillary Clinton come down in support of the bill,” says Walter Andersen, South Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins University. Indian-Americans downplay the dollar weapon.
Says Sanjay Puri of the US-Indian Political Action Committee, “One billion dollars was spent in the last US presidential election. Indian-Americans raised only $ 10 million of that.” Concurs Kapur, “If money was the only thing that mattered, the Saudis would rule the Congress.” Sampat Shivangi, a Mississippi Republican Committee delegate, blames the Senate delay on Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the then Senate Minority Leader.
The opposite is true says Democratic activist Kapur: “It was Republicans like Senator John Ensign who put a hold on it. Accusations that Reid was killing the deal did us a favour: It led him to become pro-active.” Being charged with anti-Indian sentiment was galling for Reid, who keeps a Mahatma Gandhi’s statue gifted to him by Indian student friends in his office.
What seems to be evident is that both Democrats and Republicans were wary of being blamed by the Indian-American community in the deal’s failure. Keeping Indian-Americans on your side — US politicians are learning to make this part of their survival strategy. US undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns summed it up at a congressional reception in early September. The Indian-American community’s fight for the deal, he said, “has been your coming out party in our country.”
Email Pramit Pal Chaudhuri: pramitpc.gmail.com