Two days before the US Senate approved its version of the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation bill in November, the Arms Control Association held a last-ditch seminar in Washington DC against the deal.
Norman Wulf, a nonproliferation lobby member and George W Bush’s former special envoy, attributed the bill’s expected passage to the US business lobby. “The other factor is the India lobby. It is, some have suggested, perhaps the second most powerful, shall we say, foreign lobby in the US Congress. The first being Israel."
Yet only 18 months before, New Delhi had despaired at the number of US legislators who had come out against the deal despite being members of the India Caucus or the Friends of India. Many Indian officials argued Indian-Americans were too fragmented to be an effective lobby.
The community admits unity is not its strong point. Swadesh Chatterjee, head of the Indian-American Friendship Council, likes to say the community "has 2.2 million members and 10 million egos." However, the nuclear deal galvanised the community in a way no other issue had done. Says Texas-based Ashok Mago, "There had never been an issue like this in the past. No issue of this magnitude had come before us."What excited Indian-Americans was an understanding of what the deal would mean in terms of bilateral ties. Sanjay Puri of the four-year-old US-India Political Action Committee says, "We told people you should support this because it takes critical relationship to a new level. If it was just selling a reactor, we would not have won votes."
Activist Ramesh Kapur found it useful to invoke the US civil rights movement when he canvassed Democrats. "We made it personal and passionate. We said this is our satyagraha, our civil rights movement.” When Iran and North Korea were invoked, he accused them of “collectively punishing" India. Indian-American lobbyists had many arguments in favour of the deal. But the first step was to get politicians to listen.
US corporations had joined the fray by March 2006, but could not match the Indian-Americans when it came to one-on-one relations. “Businesses interact with congressional staffers because they use their corporate relation departments. Many Indian-Americans could talk directly to congressmen. This allowed us to overcome opposition of some staffers," says Chatterjee.
California-based Krishna Reddy’s US-India Friendship Council, has been canvassing US politicians on India-related issues for a decade. “We have been educating them for so many years.” Sometimes it was remarkably easy. Republican activist, physician Sampat Shivangi, says when he approached his network in South, “not one of the senators said they would oppose." Says Mago, who marshalled 30 legislators, "It all comes from personal relation."