In the course of completing the Indo-US nuclear deal, New Delhi put together a remarkable coalition in Washington that was rated as second only to the Israeli lobby in influence. From 2009 onwards, however, the “India lobby” fell apart and New Delhi’s influence in the White House evaporated.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his civil society interactions in the United States, will be reaching out to key components of that coalition: the Indian-American community, Wall Street, the US congressional leadership and the Israeli lobby. Much of the future success of his US policy will depend on whether a new India lobby can be stitched together.
Modi has reached out to the Indian-American community, which has felt neglected the past several years.
“The nuclear deal was a lot of work for the Indian-American community because they felt that it is good for the US and India but nothing has happened subsequently, so there is a bit of scepticism,” says Sanjay Puri, head of US-India Political Action Committee, a lobby group.
Similarly, by meeting Jewish leaders and the Israeli prime minister in New York City, Modi will seek to resuscitate an Indo-Jewish relationship that was allowed to dissipate after the deal was signed. American Jewish leaders complain privately how Indian ambassadors gave them the silent treatment after 2008.
Modi’s itinerary is full of meetings with US CEOs and chambers of commerce.
“This group is absolutely necessary to getting the US Congress to support you and was one of the pillars of the nuclear deal,” says a former Indian ambassador to the US.
Corporate America will not be easy to win over. Explains Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund and ex-foreign policy aide of Senator John McCain, “In 2005-08, the US outlook was shaped by hope in India’s rise. This present phase is tinged by the experience of the past few years, when things have drifted. The bar is now higher.”
Rekindling faith in India among the Indian-Americans, corporate America and other civil society groups “collectively”, says the former Indian ambassador, is how you win over the US Congress.
Modi will make a start by meeting the congressional leadership.
“At present Congress is indifferent to India,” says Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment and a key player in the nuclear deal.
But Capitol Hill is not necessarily hostile. A member of Barack Obama’s national security council noted that “India is one of the few policies on which there is bipartisan support”.
There are other elements in US society that the Modi government will have to work on over the coming years: the Mormons, the Black American caucus and the Latino leadership. The Prime Minister is also making little effort to reach out to the US media.In the end, Modi knows half his job will be done if he can rekindle the Indian economy.
“Washington’s enthusiastic reception of Modi is founded on his commitment to a strong Indian economy,” says former US diplomat Teresita Schaffer.