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September 18, 2000



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The Vajpayee visit E-Mail this report to a friend

'The India Caucus still has a long distance to go'

Amberish K Diwanji in Washington

So who's responsible for setting up the Congressional Caucus for India?

1. Indian Americans
2. Congressmen
3. Robin Raphael

And you guessed right. It is all three! Robin Raphael, former assistant secretary of state for South Asia, is also one of the reasons, perhaps the catalysing factor, for the India Caucus being set up.

Himanshu Shukla, who came over from India over three decades ago when he was just 11 years old, was one of the people behind the move that saw the India Caucus being set up in the early 1990s.

"Believe me, Raphael was instrumental, though not directly," he informed rediff.com

Shukla was part of an association called the Indian American Forum for Political Education, set up in the late 1980s.

"We guys would meet and discuss politics and about how we could help raise the profile of India in the US. In those days, India was less than a blip on the radar of the United States. They just did not know about the country at all, had no clue about the issues that concerned India," said Shukla.

At the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, India had a 'command' economy, it was still seen as pro-Soviet (Russia would be formed a couple of years later), and the US and India had little going for each other.

In 1993, Bill Clinton became president and in his first administration, Robin Raphael was appointed assistant secretary of state for South Asia. It was also a time when the Kashmir issue had blown up, with killings every day and numerous reports of human rights abuses coming out of the valley.

Many Indians remember Robin Raphael, and the reasons they do are mostly negative. Raphael was seen as the cowboy who lectured senior Indian ministers on the Kashmir policy and gave vent to her spleen on the issue of Kashmir at random. She, to put it mildly, got on the nerves of many Indians in India and abroad.

She certainly got on the nerves of the IAFPE.

"Her statements would irritate us no end," remembered Shukla.

"One day, we were having one of our meetings, and we decided that we must do something anything to somehow stop her rampaging around like a bull in a china shop," he recalled.

The idea of setting up an India Caucus came from one of their members, Kapil Sharma.

"It was Kapil Sharma who suggested to get together a Congressional Caucus on India, along the lines of the Black Caucus that already existed then in the Congress. The idea was to educate Congress members on the issues concerning India so that the Congress could in turn then question the administration and influence policy," he said.

And so an idea was born.

Implementing it was the next stage. "We decided to target those representatives whose election constituency or district had a large Indian population," said Shukla.

Certainly if there is one area where Indians are concentrated in sufficient numbers to have an electoral impact, it is in the state of New Jersey. Three representatives were targeted, including Frank Pallone who would become the first chairman of the India Caucus. The other two were Robert Andrews and Bob Menendez. These three, along with three more from across the United States were also part of the Caucus that was born in 1994.

"It was quite eventful, because we from the IAFPE were invited to testify before the Congressional members to help forge together this Caucus," he said.

After the Caucus was born came the task of informing the members of the issues at stake. "The level of ignorance about India was amazing. They just didn't know a thing," he said.

Shukla also gives credit to the Caucus members in general and Pallone in particular. "These guys really began to study the issues, especially Pallone. So while they started with almost zero knowledge, in a year or so, they knew a lot more, were much more aware and knowledgeable. They worked very hard," he said with admiration.

And it began to pay off. In the Congressional hearings where Raphael would be summoned to testify, the questions went from generalities to specifics, from ignorance to knowledgeable. The difference became clear with Raphael having to defend her statements to the Congress, and which in turn would force her to be more circumspect in her use of words.

Today, the Caucus is seen as being one of the reasons for the greatly improved Indo-US relations. The role played by the Caucus was appreciated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he thanked the members for their effort in helping bring the two largest democracies closer.

Shukla, while justifiably pleased at what has happened, still feels there is no room for complacency. "You have to see how efficient the Black Caucus is to realise that the India Caucus still has a long distance to go," he pointed out.

According to Shukla, so far the Caucus is still loosely structured and works on an informal basis which no doubt helps. But he feels it needs to be more formally structured so that it can start definitely influencing policy decisions.

"I am sure that will happen soon," he said.

rediff.com has assigned Associate Editors Amberish K Diwanji and Savera R Someshwar to cover Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the United States. Don't forget to log into rediff.com for news of this historic visit as it happens!

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