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Honorary Academic, Politics and International Relations, The University of Auckland
Dr Ashok Sharma

Deputy Chair, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland Branch

Indo-American lobby boosted ties

The Indian American community played a pivotal role in the passage of the nuclear deal.

US President Barack Obama's visit to India as a chief guest on 26 January, India's Republic Day, will be the first by an American President. After a lull in India-US strategic partnership since 2009, the world's two biggest democracies are taking pragmatic steps to bolster the strategic partnership. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi's successful US visit, now Obama's visit to India on the country's Constitutional enactment day is historic and significant for an expanding and a reinvigorating US-India strategic partnership.

US-India relations have come a long way from the conflicting relationship during the Cold War period to the present day of deepening strategic partnership. Though the reasons for this advancing in ties can be attributed to the geo-strategic and geo-economic factors in a changed post-Cold War era international scenario and the post-9/11 security environment, the importance of Indian lobbying is no less significant. Indian lobbying has played a pivotal role in facilitating US foreign policy towards India in the post-Cold War era.

Ethnic lobbying groups play a significant role in US foreign policy. One of the most successful examples of lobbying influence in US foreign policy process is the one by the Jewish-American lobby. But post the India-US nuclear deal, Indian-American lobbying came to be known as the most powerful lobbying group after the Jewish lobby. Indian-American lobbying or Indian lobbying is a combined lobbying effort by the Indian-American community and their political organisations, such as, US-India Political Action Committee, a bipartisan India Caucus in the US Congress, lobbying firms and lobbyists hired by the Indian government for the common objective of the betterment of the Indian-American community and for India-US relations.

Freed from all ideological baggage in a post-Cold War era, international structure provided a platform for both US and India to work on a better bilateral relationship. The economic affluence of the Indian-American community, the formation of Indian-American political organisations, Indian-American political activism and leadership, and the formation of India Caucus in 1993 created a strong cohesive Indian lobby group. Since then, Indian lobbying has grown in size and funding strength. The strength of the bipartisan India Caucus in the House of Representatives has grown from just six members to around 200. For the first time, a Caucus was formed in the US Senate in 2004 dedicated to a single country.

Indian lobbying strategy has evolved over a period of time. In the beginning, Indian lobbying was focused on countering the anti-India propaganda by its adversary, the Pakistani lobby groups and some staunch anti-India Congressmen such as Senator Dan Burton. India's nuclear test in May 1998 brought a significant change in Indian lobbying. It was a watershed moment for the way India sought to cultivate the US government. The Kargil intrusion by Pakistan in 1999 further activated Indian lobbying. After the nuclear test and Kargil War, the Indian-American community mobilised themselves in a more efficient and focused manner than ever before. They successfully defended the nuclear test on ground of the security threat faced by India, cleared apprehensions about India's nuclear posture, put forth New Delhi's standpoint on Kashmir issue and highlighted Pakistan's unprovoked armed intrusion in Kargil. For the first time, the US viewed the Kashmir problem objectively and a strategic engagement began to unfold under the Clinton-Vajpayee and Bush-Vajpayee governments. However, it was during the passage of the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement Bill in the US Congress that the real clout of Indian lobbying was witnessed and its final arrival was stamped. Indian lobbying, during the passage of the nuclear deal bill, was a well coordinated effort, in which the positive aspects of the nuclear deal were highlighted, those opposing the bill were snubbed and the safe passage of the bill at every stage in the US legislature was ensured.

But since 2009, in the post nuclear deal phase, the presence of the Indian lobby on the Hill has been missing. India-US strategic partnership went backstage and the priority of the Obama administration shifted to other major international issues. The Congress led-UPA government failed to reach out to the Indian-American community and the importance of lobbying was neglected. Indian lobbying could not do much in terms of handling the diplomatic row on the Devyani Khobragade issue, blocking US military aid to Pakistan or maintaining the pace of the India-US strategic partnership.

However, Prime Minister Modi's interaction with main modules of Indian lobbying during his US visit has once again activated India's presence at the Hill. His public address to the Indian-American community gathering at Manhattan and meeting with the Indian-American community and India Caucus members of US Congress leadership was a step to re-energise the Indian lobby. Modi's interaction with the leadership of the Jewish-American community and the "Israeli lobby", which played a significant role by supporting their neophyte partner during the safe passage of the nuclear deal, was another significant move.

Lobbying is an established, influential and legitimate way of influencing US foreign policy. Indian lobbying will need continued effort at Capitol Hill, which is not hostile but has just become unmoved towards New Delhi. India will need to re-energise the Indian community, win the confidence of corporate America for its "Make in India" initiative and above all, change the indifference of the US Congress toward India. The step has been taken by the new Modi government and it will need to be continued.

Today, India-US relationship is witnessing a trusted, strong and comprehensive strategic partnership. Despite all the geo-strategic and geo-economic factors that are driving India-US relations, without Indian-American lobbying, this drastic transformation in such a short period would not have been possible. Obama's visit will further restore the confidence and warmth of India-US relations. Once again, India under the Modi-led BJP government is looking to revive and elevate India's strategic partnership with the US. In this the role of lobbying will be pivotal.

-Dr Ashok Sharma (Honorary Academic, Politics and International Relations, The University of Auckland; Deputy Chair, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland Branch)

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