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The coming of age of the Indian-American lobby

By Anil Athale
Last updated on: November 13, 2006 21:18 IST
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As the sole superpower, internal changes in the United States have a global impact and India is no exception. Even before the first vote was cast, it was clear that there was a pro Democratic Party wave of sorts. According to predictions, the Democrats easily wrested a majority in the House of Representative. But the Senate race was of equal interest. Here the Democrats 'had to win' three solidly Republican seats to gain control in the Senate. The Senate that controls the US foreign policy is of immense interest to other countries.

It is here that the Democrats were helped by a 'monkey'; no, I am not referring to the Republican George Allen who lost to Webb by a slender margin but to his remarks last August that led to the turnround in his, and the Republican Party's electoral fortunes. It is necessary to recall the sequence of events to understand the major change taking place in the US in terms of emergence of a powerful lobby of Indian Americans.

At a campaign rally in southwest Virginia on August 10, Allen called an Indian-origin volunteer for Democrat James Webb a 'macaca'. It is common practice in US electioneering for volunteers to cover a rival candidate's meetings. During the speech in Breaks, near the Kentucky border, Allen pointed at S R Sidarth in the crowd and called him 'macaca' (a species of African monkey). Allen did not stop there but sarcastically 'welcomed' Sidarth to America. The irony is that Sidarth was born in Fairfax county in Virginia while George Allen himself had moved there from California.

The normally apathetic-to-politics Indian-American community in suburban Washington was galvanised into action. What many felt as a great affront was the fact that Sidarth had built an impressive record of achievements for such a young man: a straight-A student at one of Fairfax County's finest high schools, a tournament chess player, a quiz team captain, a sportswriter at his college newspaper, a Capitol Hill intern and an active member of the Hindu temple his parents helped establish in Maryland. What was insulting was that Allen himself is a man of 'modest' intellect and academic achievements.

Till then Allen, a former Governor and incumbent Senator, was leading the race with a sizable lead. As the Indian Americans raised a furore, Allen apologised, not once but twice and that too in public. But the floodgates had opened and many skeletons in Allen's cupboard came tumbling out. Batch-mates from college days brought out stories of his racist attitude towards Blacks. A desperate Allen then resorted to an aggressive posture to consolidate the Whites, easy in state like Virginia that was and is a conservative bastion dating back to the Civil War days. That Allen has lost due to his racist remarks against Indians has the makings of history of sorts.

Allen was no ordinary Senator. Son of a former Redskins football team coach, he was already quite famous. With his good looks and political record, he was aiming at becoming a Republican Presidential candidate in 2008. All that is now history. It would be churlish to attribute his defeat solely to the 'macaca' incident, obviously many other factors like dissatisfaction with the Iraq war etc played a role. But it is undeniable that the ire of Indian-American community and its determined role to teach him a lesson played no small part in his defeat. The polls clearly showed that while he scored in the southern part of the state, he lost heavily in areas bordering Washington, DC, that has a concentration of Indians and other Asians. The Indian initiative also galvanised otherwise marginalised Blacks of the state.

The current election results were possible due to a split between 'Social Conservatives' and 'Religious Conservatives', the latter led by President George W Bush. The split occurred over the Iraq war as well as the ban on stem cell research. On both these issues the two groups of Conservatives have major differences. But the election results and narrow victories also showed clearly that the demographic balance is shifting in many states of the US. It is this that has empowered the numerically smaller community like Indian Americans. As this trend persists the Democrats would woo the Indian Americans while the Republican would be ever more sensitive to their concerns.

This indeed creates great opportunities for Indian Americans to play a more positive role in building up Indo-US partnership. Conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats who are more vocal on nuclear non-proliferation would now scuttle the Indo-US nuclear deal, presently pending before a lame-duck Congress. On the other hand, the politically savvy Democrats instead may well support it to further consolidate their Indian-American vote bank. Many polls have shown that close to 75 per cent of Indian Americans tend to vote for Democrats, thus it is likely that they would be mindful of their sensitivities on the subject. Obviously for this to happen, there has to be synergy between the Indian diplomatic establishment and the Indian-American lobby, currently hobbled by snooty Foreign Service men jealous of the Indian-American community's wealth and boorish Indian Americans who tend to behave as if only they are the 'cream of Indian society'. But some sensible leadership on both sides can easily iron out these minor creases.

Much is made of the so called 'non-proliferation lobby' led by Democrats and its opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal on 'moral' grounds. This is a sham as the NPT is not about stopping proliferation but limiting the nuclear weapons in the hands of six powers -- the US, Russia, France, China, the UK and Israel. Those Democrats who claim moral outrage at India's nuclear programme have never uttered a word about Israel's arsenal. It was during Democratic regimes that the master proliferator from Pakistan, A Q Khan, was bailed out from charges of theft of technology from Holland. The truth is that there has always been good proliferators and bad proliferators. By all accounts today India is in company of the 'good guys'. The Democrats, who are mindful of US national interest, are hardly likely to raise the proliferation bogey in the light of a rising China. One suspects that the delay in approval of Indo-US nuke deal was possibly due to their desire to deny credit to the Republicans.

It is true that the Presidential race is a totally different ball game due to the electoral college system where small minorities are marginalised. But the racial balance in the US is changing. According to the US Census data for 2004, a state like California now has a 41 per cent non-white population while in South Carolina it is around 30 per cent.

It would be naive to give sole credit to the Indian American lobby for George Allen's loss or equate the Indian American influence with that of the famed 'Jewish lobby'. What Indians probably did in this election was to act as a catalyst. If the Indian Americans and our government act in concert to lobby for the deal, neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to place hurdles in their path. Alfred T Mahan, the American military thinker who studied the role of sea power, had propounded a concept of 'sea control' and 'sea denial'. The former meant that a country has power to use the sea fully while the second, a less complete domination, meant that a country could deny the use of sea to the adversary. What the Indian American community has demonstrated that it has a 'denial' capability, crudely put it could be called as nuisance value. In the world of realpolitic, it has indeed come of age.

There is a lesson in this for the Indian middle class as well, that it is no point in bemoaning their 'irrelevance' and staying away from the electoral process. It is this apathy that has foisted the out of sync with time Communists on India. It is time the Indian middle classes take a leaf out of the Indian Americans' book and take to activism.

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Anil Athale