How do you win friends and influence a superpower? The answer traditionally in Washington is: hire a lobbyist.
Foreign governments and corporations trying to catch Uncle Sam’s ear is one reason there are some 17,000 registered lobbyists in the American capital. In the first quarter of this year alone, $1 billion was spent in lobbying in the United States.
Until the India-US civil nuclear deal, India was seen as a laggard when it came to making its case in Washington, especially given that Pakistan often had four or five lobbyists on its payroll as compared to India’s one or two. The game has changed in recent years, largely in India’s favour, for three reasons.
One, the expansion of the Indo-US relationship has meant lobbying is no longer just about Kashmir or military sales to Pakistan. It is about trade policy, outsourcing, of cabbages and kings. For a few years it was all about the civil nuclear deal. “India has moved to a different, higher level,” says Ashley Wills, senior advisor to lobbyists WilmerHale.
Two, the India position is no longer just a government line. Deep-pocketed Indian corporate bodies ranging from Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies) to Reliance Industries keep US lobbyists on their payrolls. Even US corporations chip in, pushing for
legislation that would assist India and their bottomlines. The term for the Indian embassy’s single registered lobby firm, Paton Boggs, has just expired. So there’s a gap to filled there. But even during the hectic parleying of the nuclear deal it only had two.
Three, the nuclear deal showed that the biggest gun in India’s armoury was the Indian-American community in the US. They raised money and merged it with votes in a way New Delhi has never been able to do before. The Indian embassy usually spends about $400,000 per year for its lobby firm. Pakistan spends closer to $ 1.5 million for its clutch of lobbyists. Indian-Americans, estimates one of the leaders of the nuclear deal effort, Swadesh Chatterjee, spent a blowaway $7-8 million. But as a Capitol Hill-watcher puts it, “It’s no Indian but [former US ambassador to India] Robert Blackwill who is India’s most vociferous lobbyist in Washington.”
This does not mean India can do without lobbyists. “The one good thing a good lobbying outfit can do better than a good embassy is provide early warning on what might be coming up in Congress — and the finer points of procedure as an important bill goes through,” says Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Most Washington observers believe the Indian embassy, post-nuclear deal, has been slipping under the radar again. It has made a poor sell of India’s Afghanistan position. “It’s not clear to many people in this town what India seeks from the US on AfPak issues,” says a lobbyist close to the Democratic Party. India still needs to lobby hard, Wills says, warning against complacency, “to make sure Capitol Hill isn’t hearing only a Pakistan or Chinese point of view”. The Indian-American community has refocused on domestic US concerns.
New Delhi should worry. The new lobby powerhouse in Washington is China, which has tripled its lobbying spending,
leveraged US companies with whom it trades and among the most proactive Asian embassies. Much of Beijing’s effort is focused on chipping away at Taiwan’s support base in the US, but it has been turned against India in the past. “The Indian effort isn’t in the same ballpark as China’s,” says the Democratic lobbyist.