- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

California entrepreneur Arjun Bhagat concedes that his fellow Indian-Americans have been a little slow to use their economic power to promote closer U.S.-Indian ties — by a couple of decades or so.

“Getting these two countries together should have happened 20 years ago. They are natural allies, but somehow it never happened,” he said. “Now we have a real chance to make it so.”

The political clout of one of the country’s wealthiest and best-educated minorities is being put to the test as the Bush administration faces a tough fight in Congress to pass a major civil nuclear-power agreement with India, one that administration officials say could cement ties with an emerging world power and redraw the strategic map of Asia.

The agreement, reached last month by President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, would carve out an exemption for India from U.S. laws limiting trade with countries that have refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

After a late start, State Department officials have begun a full-court press to sell the deal to lawmakers, highlighted by a day of testimony last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Senate and House foreign-affairs committees. With the war in Iraq dragging on, administration officials say privately the India accord could rank as the signal foreign-policy achievement of Mr. Bush’s second term.

India has agreed to open the bulk of its civil nuclear sites — but not its military ones — to monitoring and inspection by the United Nations’ nuclear-watchdog agency, but critics of the deal warn it will blow a hole in the U.S.-led drive to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, weaken the NPT and possibly spark a South Asian arms race with Pakistan and China.

Mr. Bhagat, chairman and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Calibrated Group, a technology-services firm, said that for the nation’s estimated 2 million citizens of Indian ancestry, the stakes and the payoff are even higher.

“This issue has galvanized our community like nothing we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “If this deal does not pass, we fear that those in India who never wanted a closer tie with the United States will have all the ammunition they need to turn against us.”

Sanjay Puri, CEO of the U.S.-India Business Alliance and chairman of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), said Indian-American groups and U.S. businesses hoping to tap the booming Indian market are already in “full campaign mode” to sell the deal.

“Frankly, it is a campaign for us, the first of its kind. We’ve been organizing letters, faxes and calls to congressmen, briefings for lawmakers and staffers, doing whatever we can,” he said.

More than two dozen lawmakers joined Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, a lead negotiator of the deal at a Capitol Hill pep rally Thursday organized by USINPAC. The PAC provided a form letter to members in support of the deal to mail to lawmakers, generating the name of the individual’s senator and representative based on the sender’s ZIP code.

The U.S.-India Business Council, which includes more than 100 Fortune 500 companies on its roster, has engaged the top-line lobbying firm Patton Boggs to win passage of the nuclear deal. The Indian government has spent a reported $1.3 million on lobbying assistance from two other major firms, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers and the Venable LLP law firm.

Among those working for passage of the deal are former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and former Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana.

Deal supporters acknowledge they got a late start in the debate.

Many nonproliferation-policy specialists were immediately critical of the accord when it was first outlined last summer in Washington during a White House visit by Mr. Singh.

Michael Krepon, director of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s South Asia program, slammed the negotiation as “major, major geostrategic bet” comparable to the invasion of Iraq in its secrecy, its poor execution and its exclusion of Congress and outside experts.

“Like Iraq, it’s another major detour from the U.S.’ topmost objective of keeping the most dangerous weapons out of terrorist hands,” he said.

While opponents were quick to leave the starting gate, many would-be supporters were more cautious, saying they needed to see the details of the agreement before committing themselves publicly. Leading congressional figures complained that the Bush administration’s close-to-the-vest strategy left them blindsided.

Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, told Miss Rice at her Wednesday hearing, “I’ve been at least among the most vocal supporters of this proposal … and at the same time, I’ve been at least among the most vocal critics of the way this has been presented to the Congress and to the American people.”

The X-factor in the coming debate could be the Indian-American community, long known as an economic giant but a political pygmy.

“It is slowly changing, but the reputation has been that the Indian-American community never had the political unity to match its undoubted success in other fields,” said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and before that a senior staffer for the House International Relations Committee.

“Then again, the community never had a single unifying issue to rally around like the nuclear deal,” he added.

One U.S. business executive with extensive ties to the Indian business community said Indian-American political groups long had been seen as a “a pit of vipers,” re-creating in the United States the political, ethnic and social divisions of their homeland.

The modest political record is in sharp contrast to the success the Indian-American community has racked up in other fields.

Indian-Americans were the fastest-growing ethnic group in the 1990s, according to census data, and remain one of the largest sources of legal immigration to the United States.

Indian-American entrepreneurs own nearly 20 percent of all Silicon Valley high-tech startups, and an estimated 55 percent of all U.S. motels are owned by Americans of South Asian ancestry. In 2000, a staggering one of out every nine Indian-Americans was a millionaire and almost 60 percent of Indian-Americans over 25 have graduated from college.

The Congressional India Caucus began in 1992 with eight members. It now boasts more than 180 — among the largest on Capitol Hill — but Mr. Hathaway told a Capitol Hill summit last year that many members appeared to look on the Indian-American lobby as a “cash cow,” not a serious force in politics or foreign policy.

When Rep. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Republican, won a House seat in the 2004 election, he was the first Indian-American to serve in Congress in a half-century.

Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, is a past co-chairman of the India caucus, saying he first appreciated the achievements of Indian-Americans practicing real estate law back home. Indian-Americans, he found, own the majority of hotels and motels in his state.

“One problem, ironically, has been that Indian-Americans are so successful here and assimilate so well, you don’t appreciate their numbers,” Mr. Wilson said. “I think they now see they are more welcome in the political arena and that both parties are competing for their votes.”

Mr. Wilson noted that, like many immigrant groups, the first generation of Indian-Americans tended to support Democrats, and the Capitol Hill caucus was once heavily tilted toward Democratic members. Now, he says, the ratio is about one-to-one.

Mr. Puri of USINPAC said the modest political power of Indian-Americans reflected the priorities of the first generation of immigrants, many of whom were far more focused on business and education success than on political clout. With so many doctors, entrepreneurs and managers in its ranks, the community targeted issues such as malpractice reform and visa policy instead of grand foreign-policy issues.

“That’s why the nuclear deal is a tipping point, a defining moment for a lot of us,” he said.

Mr. Bhagat, the California high-tech executive, said Indian-Americans never had a unifying “existential threat” to their homeland that has made groups such as Jewish Americans and Cuban-Americans such potent political forces.

“Our diaspora was always much more divided, but now we have the nuclear deal to unite us,” he said. “I have been contacting my own congressmen here in California, and I know many of my friends and colleagues are doing the same. This whole fight has brought out of the woodwork Indian-Americans who were never involved in politics at all.”

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