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Diplomatic Battles on Capitol Hill

January 28, 2021 19:43 IST
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Lobbying on the Hill is time consuming and cumbersome, but very effective to influence US government policies, asserts Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Washington, DC after the 1998 nuclear tests and during the Kargil War.

IMAGE: Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States as his wife Dr Jill Biden stands by on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 20, 2021. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

As more and more videos of the presidential insurrection of January 6, 2021 emerged, the horror of the attack and vandalisation of one of the citadels of democracy, Capitol Hill in the heart of Washington DC, became evident.

The domestic terrorist attack was truly vicious and carefully planned with the collusion of some members of the law enforcement agencies.

The attackers had the upper hand throughout and it appeared that the police was simply watching the proceedings as they rummaged through documents and possessions of the Congressmen, while a man with horns occupied the Speaker's chair.

In total contrast, two weeks later, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in with minimum ceremony, but abundant hope.

Biden declared victory for democracy and unity, but admitted in a somber mood that both appeared fictional at the moment.

A nightmare was over, but the pangs of change had just begun.

The wisdom of hindsight after four years showed the tragedy of lost years.

Finally, it appears that democracy has overcome one of its severest threat.

While the Congress is primarily concerned with internal matters, it also directs the administration on foreign policy and, therefore, diplomats in Washington fight their own battles on the Hill to win support from the Senators and Congressmen.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill is one of the main responsibilities of the diplomatic missions in Washington.

The grand and elegant long corridors of the Capitol and the well-appointed suites of the Senators and the Congressmen are often frequented by diplomats of countries who compete with each other for American attention, some for assistance and others for political and military support.

The easy accessibility to Capitol Hill foe the public and diplomats is striking.

There was no visible presence of security forces and a simple identity card was all that was required to enter the corridors.

The main hazard in going to meetings on the Hill were the long walks involved to reach the various offices.

For some architectural reasons, exits and entrances were only at the two ends of the corridors.

Our shoes got worn out every time we had to lobby hard for a particular cause on the Hill.

I do not know how many diplomats, particularly ambassadors, seek out members of the Indian Parliament.

I guess not many, because the individual MPs do not take initiatives in foreign policy and the treasury benches follow Government policy and the opposition opposes the Government blindly.

On the other hand, US lawmakers are loyal to their parties, but not necessarily to every action of the President.

Senators and Congressman are often ahead of the Ggvernment in formulating policies and they apply their mind to every decision that is presented for their approval.

For this reason, lobbying with the Senators and Congressmen was more productive than lobbying with officials.

Diplomats, with or without professional lobbyists, frequent Capitol Hill to seek support from traditional supporters and even those who oppose us.

During the years that I was in Washington (1997 to 2001) we happened to have one issue or another to lobby for on the Hill.

Ambassador Naresh Chandra and I met every key Congressman and Senator several times, either together or individually because of the several issues which came up one after the other.

The present Ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu, a young diplomat at that time, carefully planned our schedules, with his intimate knowledge of the Congress calendar and the staffers, some of whom have risen to high positions in various administrations.

We had to either reinforce the moves of the President or counter his actions through friendly Congressmen.

Unlike now, there were not many Congressmen of Indian origin and we had to depend on influential Indian Americans or the lobbyists to get attention.

Professional lobbyists or personal friends were essential to have social meetings as the Congressmen are not allowed to accept hospitality from diplomats and they have to pay for their own meal when they break bread with diplomats.

But there is no restriction on entertainment by 'close friends' even if diplomats are invited.

This is how the lobbyists and Indian Americans become catalysts for discussions with the Senators and Congressmen.

Once we select the guests, we choose appropriate Indian Americans or lobbyists to organize the rest.

They generally remain silent except during exchange of courtesies.

IMAGE: Then US President Bill Clinton helps then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Ambassador Naresh Chandra cut a ribbon, opening a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington, DC, September 16, 2000. Photograph: William Philpott/Reuters

The first issue, which took us to the Hill many times was the Burton Amendment.

The biggest headache for the Indian embassy in Washington at that time was the annual Burton Amendment, moved by Republican Congressman Dan Burton from Indiana, an inveterate critic of India, seeking a cut of 25 percent in the US development aid to India.

Burton wanted to 'punish' India for what he called its 'unsatisfactory' human rights record, particularly in Kashmir, and treatment meted out to the minorities in the country.

A majority of the members did not share his view.

He maintained a steady flow of correspondence with the President, the Senators and the Congressmen about human rights violations in India with the help of lobbyists provided by Pakistan.

Over the years, the Burton Amendment became a litmus test of India's popularity on the Hill and the effectiveness of Indian diplomacy.

We did not hesitate to meet many Congressmen, who supported the amendment and Burton himself.

In 1998, Burton decided to drop the amendment as he could line up only two lawmakers to speak in his favor.

In sharp contrast, at least 21 Congressmen, led by Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans Chairman Gary Ackerman (Democrat) took the floor to successfully resist the anti-India proposal.

They included House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman and its Asia and Near-East Panel Chairman Douglas K Bereuter (both Republican) and Frank Pallone (Democrat).

It was the result of our active diplomacy on the Hill, as against heavy lobbying by Pakistan.

Congressmen used to say that India and Pakistan cancelled each other by their competition on the Hill.

What followed after our nuclear tests in May 1998 was much more serious.

President Clinton imposed the Glenn Amendment sanctions against India, which virtually choked trade and even normal cooperation in various areas.

We had marathon meetings on the Hill for several weeks.

Even traditionally friendly Congressmen turned against us and gave lectures on Mahatma Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Indian community exerted considerable pressure on their Senators and Congressmen to lift the sanctions against India.

Senator Sam Brownback (Republican) came up with a number of amendments to the sanctions law, citing the losses sustained by the US economy, business and education.

That started the end of the sanctions regime, which was gradually withdrawn by the US government.

The Kargil War was another occasion for us to fight against Pakistan on the Hill.

At the initial stage, there was an impression that India had started the war.

But after we met a number of Congressmen, the wind changed in our favour, particularly since we did not cross the LoC to stage counter attacks.

Our effort on the Hill finally resulted in a meeting between President Clinton and Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leading to Pakistan's withdrawal from Indian territory.

Our embassy may have been even more active on the Hill during the long negotiations on the nuclear deal 2005-2008 as it involved several legislative measures as part of the deal.

American lawmakers are generally polite in their discussions with diplomats, but some of them demonstrate righteous indignation when they speak on nuclear or human rights issues.

"Do what we tell you to do, not what we do," is the refrain in these matters.

In such cases, we have no option, but to strike a retreat.

But most of them gave a patient hearing, even if they were not convinced.

Lobbying on the Hill is time consuming and cumbersome, but very effective to influence US government policies.

The place is iconic in many ways and the events of January were truly shameful and purposeless.

For those of us, who walked those artistic and polished corridors frequently, the insurrection was traumatic.

Donald Trump had no possibility of preventing the Joint Session of the Congress from verifying the election results.

The blood and dirt left behind by the attackers may have been wiped clean, but the world will long remember the reckless behavior of a serving President.

The insurrection on the Hill may well have hit the last nail on Trump's political future.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to, you can read his fascinating columns here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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