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'Bush took time out for Indian Americans'

Last updated on: August 31, 2004 14:49 IST

Punctuality is not a particularly Indian virtue. Thus, at 7.30pm Sunday August 29, leading lights of the Republican faction of the Indian American community were still straggling in for their own pre-convention bash, when a quietly dressed, soft-spoken gent strolled in and began shaking every hand that was stretched out to him, and then some.

Congressman Joe Wilson (South Carolina, Republican) - accompanied by wife Roxanne, sons Hunter and Julian, and legislative aide Dino Teppara - was among the earliest arrivals at the Indian American Republican Committee bash at Shaan Restaurant in New York (48th Street, between 5th and 6th avenues).

He was also the first of the speakers, once the event finally kicked off at 8pm, an hour behind schedule.

Wilson is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans - it follows that when speaking before a gathering of the community, he knows the right buttons to hit.

Unerringly, he hit them all - Indo-US relations as a coming together of the world's two greatest democracies; the contributions of the community in the fields of medicine and science and academics and, increasingly, politics; the increasing clout the community has earned for itself in the political arena¬Ö

Joe Wilson with the IA copy carrying an exclusive interview with President BushEach popular theme was played with expertise; an interesting aside came when Rep Wilson, while delineating the increasing political clout of the Indian American community, flourished the latest copy of India Abroad, the newspaper owned and run by rediff.com, and pointing to the lead story, said, "India Abroad has this week an exclusive, in-depth interview with no less than President George W Bush - the only one ever given to a South Asian newspaper."

It is, Wilson said, a measure of the importance of the community that President Bush took time off in the midst of a hectic schedule made further frenetic by the election campaign, to give such an interview (to India Abroad's National Affairs Editor Aziz Haniffa, who was made, blushingly, to take a bow).

The community, Wilson said, has already come a long way. "And when George Bush is elected for a second term, I am certain the efforts of the IARC in the election campaign will be duly recognized with more prestigious appointments."

It was precisely what the 150-odd Republican supporters among the community had come to hear; they rewarded Wilson with a sustained ovation.

Tampa, Florida-based physician Raghavendra Vijaynagar, an alternate delegate at the upcoming convention and founder of the IARC, took the podium to elaborate on the points Wilson had touched on.

There were, he pointed out, 14 community members who were delegates or alternates for the Republican convention, the largest ever. The current Bush administration had 16 Indian Americans installed in various positions in the Administration, besides several more appointed to serve on various presidential committees - again, an unprecedented achievement.

Vijayanagar argued a case for the community becoming even more politically active; it could not, he said, afford any more to stand on the sidelines and watch the political process, but needed to engage with, and in, it in order to further the power of the community within the American space.

A surprise guest was Ronen Sen, less than a month into his tenure as ambassador to the United States, who came accompanied by Consul General in New York Pramathesh Rath, and Consul General in Chicago Skand K Tayal.

Given that it is not the norm for an ambassador to participate in a political event, Sen skirted references to the political purpose of the gathering, and contented himself in a brief speech on lauding the community for its achievements in diverse fields, within the American space.

"It is good," Sen said, "that the community is playing a significant role in the political process; such a role is fitting given the community's contributions in all other aspects of life in the United States."

Joining Wilson in flying the mainstream flag at the community event was Virginia's first term Senator George Allen, who was accompanied by wife Susan. The Senator kicked off with a Namaste, and joked with Vijaynagar about football (Allen's father George Sr had coached the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl win; the Senator himself has the height and broad shoulders of a lapsed ballplayer).

Talking of how his work with the Foreign Relations Committee had given him a greater understanding of the importance of India on the world stage, Senator Allen underlined the importance of ethnic communities in the American mosaic with a quote from the late President Ronald Reagan: "Our origins matter less than our common destination."

The event was intended to parade the Republican faction of the community's growing influence; it achieved its objective not only through the presence of Wilson and Allen, but also of Renee Moore, the chair of the Republican Delegation from Pennsylvania, who was introduced by Ash Kare, the elected delegate from that state; and Tom Gallagher, chief financial officer for the state of Florida and seen by many as the likely successor to Governor Jeb Bush.

With much kidding around about "the heroine of 2000", Vijaynagar introduced a surprise guest - Katherine Harris who, as Secretary of State to Governor Jeb Bush, was instrumental, in the 2000 Presidential elections, in overruling the Florida State Supreme Court and certifying that Florida's 25 electoral votes had been cast in the name of George W Bush.

Harris was brief - a little stroke about feeling at home in this gathering of Indian Americans, the confidence that the community, as represented here, would do its damndest to re-elect the President, and she was done.

The acknowledged star was Fort Lauderdale physician Zachariah P Zachariah - the star fund-raiser and close friend of President George Bush, who was introduced by Vijaynagar to the audience with these words: "President Bush once asked Zach what movies he had seen lately; Zach said he hadn't had time for movies lately and the President then said, why don't you come over to the White House and let us watch a movie together. How many people do we know who gets asked by the President to watch movies with him?"

A visibly embarrassed Zachariah thanked the attendees for coming, expressed his confidence that the incumbent would win a second term, and sidled as far away from the spotlight as he could manage, true to his understated nature.

At hand, too, were Dr Akshay Desai, the leading geriatric care specialist who attends the convention as the alternate delegate for St Petersburg; Dr George Thomas, alternate delegate for Brandenton, Florida; Dr Sampat Sivangi, one of the two vice chairs of the IARC and a delegate from Mississippi (the other vice chair, Dr Sudhir Parikh of New Jersey, was also present); realtor and leading fund-raiser Narender Reddy, delegate from Georgia; Dr Sambhu Banik (Maryland); Pakkiri Rajagopal (Cincinnati); and Rhaddha Chandraj (Las Vegas).

In that politically polarized gathering, one late entrant stood out - Mahesh Bhupathi, who will figure in the US Open doubles competition alongside partner Max Smirnyi, came on invitation of the New Jersey based Republican activist Dr Priscilla Parameswaran.

"I am not here for the politics," Bhupathi told rediff.com. "Dr Parameswaran and her son Prem are friends, they called, I came." And his chances at the upcoming Grand Slam event? A shrug, a smile: "As good as anyone's, what can I say?"

The Republican activists present were not as ambiguous about the chances of the man they were in New York to root for. Dr Banik, Dr Sivangi, Dr Parikh and others each privately called it a close race, but predicted President George Bush would emerge the winner.

The reasons, they argued, were obvious - as on date, Bush and his main rival, Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry, were neck and neck. The Republican convention is expected to give the former a favorable bounce in the polls - and with just two months to go for the election, there was not enough time for the bounce to erode.

Much of it is grasping at straws in the political wind; Democratic adherents among the community interpret the same set of circumstances differently. But Vijaynagar, Zachariah, Banik, Shivangi, Desai and others say that for now, they are focused on the convention, and in ensuring that the community's causes are taken note of in the party platform.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

Prem Panicker in New York