When US President George W. Bush promised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005 that he would get the US Congress to end a quarter-century of nuclear apartheid against India, few believed him. India was a foreign policy minnow.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which India on principle has refused to sign, was a leviathan in the path of any compromise.
But a handful of Indian-Americans recognised that the deal was possible, and if it came through would transform relations between their original and adopted homelands.
North Carolina-based entrepreneur Swadesh Chatterjee was among them. “I believed that once India was recognised as a de facto nuclear power, the perspective of the US establishment about India would change completely,” he says.
The initial debate on the deal was dominated by the non-proliferation lobby and its feisty spokesman, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey. Markey had walked this path before.
Says Democratic Party activist Ramesh Kapur, “It is forgotten that Markey almost single-handedly killed the Tarapore nuclear deal in 1978, although it was backed by the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.”
However, Indian-Americans who had spent decades raising funds and winning votes for US politicians, knew their community had its own fund of goodwill. “It was time for payback.”
The first shot was fired at two Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee conferences in California and New York. Nancy Pelosi, who will become the speaker of the House of Representatives next month, was chief guest at both. Kapur privately told her at the California meeting that Indian-Americans were watching the deal.
At the New York get-together in December, however, Chatterjee went public. On the podium he warned Pelosi that Indian-Americans took the nuclear deal seriously. US politicians would need to back it if “they wanted to work with us,” he said. “She was dumbfounded,” he says.
The outlook indeed, was bleak. The Pakistanis were lobbying to kill the deal. The US business community was silent, fearful of China’s reaction. The Democrats were dead opposed and many Republicans were fence-sitting. “At that time, I was alone,” recalls Chatterjee. Tomorrow: Personal Indian touch brought N-bills to life