- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

After years of sitting on the political sidelines, the Indian-American community is organizing, lobbying Capitol Hill, collecting campaign funds — and U.S. politicians are paying attention.

“Howard Dean was the first to send us a position paper,” said Sanjay Puri, executive director of the Virginia-based U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). “We sent Dean’s comments out to our members. It was written up in the Indian press. He was very good on Kashmir and immigration. I’m told [that] after we sent it out to our members, his Web site got a lot of hits and donations from Indian Americans.”

Mr. Puri, an information-technology entrepreneur and founder of USINPAC, said Indian-American doctors, professionals and business owners have been asked for money by politicians for years. They donated, but rarely asked a candidate’s position on issues of interest to the Indian community.

“That has got to change,” said Mr. Puri, whose lunch at Capitol Hill’s White Tiger was interrupted several times by Indians who recognized him and wanted to say hello.

Just 14 months old, USINPAC has 27,000 members among the estimated 2 million Indian Americans living in the United States. It is an affluent and educated population that is growing by 10 percent a year.

Mr. Puri said 40,000 Indian physicians are practicing medicine in the United States. Some 60 percent of the small hotels in the United States are owned by Indians. In addition, Indian information technology (IT) specialists, who have created more than 1,000 IT businesses and hundreds of thousands of IT jobs in the United States, are everywhere in the U.S. computer industry.

“The Indian population [in the United States] will double by the next census,” he said. “And we are slowly taking over — in a good way — the hospitality industry. Indians are hard-working people, fulfilling the American dream. ”

Mr. Puri said the idea for an Indian-American political action committee jelled when a friend, Lane Forsythe, encouraged him to start one. Mr. Forsythe had several years’ experience with the pro-Israel National PAC. He is now listed on the USINPAC Web page, along with Mr. Puri, as responsible for “Capitol Hill Outreach.”

“The Jewish lobbying groups work hard. They participate. They show up. They are a successful model. We’ll do the same. … Our community is on the move, so far untapped, but we are working our way toward recognition,” said Mr. Puri.

And USINPAC has become a force to reckon with.

The Indian caucus in the House of Representatives has more than 175 members. USINPAC held a very successful Capitol Hill reception on July 19, with several Jewish lobbying organizations, to raise awareness of international terrorism.

“We have a consensus on terrorism, whether it is at the World Trade Center, the Parliament in Delhi, or on the streets of Jerusalem. Terrorism has to be addressed and stopped,” Mr. Puri said.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, met with USINPAC last year and asked the organization to identify Indian Americans qualified for federal judgeships. He applauded USINPAC’s involvement in the U.S. political process.

Indian Americans should “continue to get involved in the process, continue to break down barriers and reach out to political leaders in both political parties,” he told the group at a meeting on Capitol Hill.

USINPAC also takes credit on its Web site for helping defeat the candidacy of Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, who in January sought the chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee subcommittee on South Asia. “Burton has long tried to damage U.S.-India relations,” the Web site contends.

Mr. Burton’s office, while acknowledging “some tension” with Indian Americans regarding his positions on India, said this week that the congressman took the chairmanship of Government Reform’s human rights and wellness subcommittee, precluding him from the South Asia post, one that by seniority should have been his.

Asked if the organization has the breakdown of Hindu and Muslim membership and how that might affect the issues USINPAC tackles, Mr. Puri bristled.

“We are a political organization, not a religious organization. Our members are Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Jain. We are a political organization, addressing the issues that concern our community,” he said.

Next on USINPAC’s domestic list of issues is immigration and the controversial H-1B visas that allow foreign professionals with special skills to come to the United States to work. Indians currently are major beneficiaries of the program, obtaining 40 percent of the 65,000 visas issued annually. There are bills in Congress to reduce or eliminate the H-1B visa program, but Mr. Puri said his organization has been working that issue hard, and he is confident the program will remain in place, at least for the time being.

USINPAC is also making its presence known internationally. It is lobbying hard for the United Nations to admit India as a permanent member of the Security Council. And in September, India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met with senior officers of USINPAC.

“The mission you have started has to succeed,” he told the group.

The Indian diplomatic community sees the organization as a “positive,” noting that USINPAC and the Indian government sometimes work similar issues on Capitol Hill.

“The Indian community has reached a level of economic, social and cultural stability that they are now confident and want to take part in the political life of the United States. We see that as a positive factor,” an Indian diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

He said that while the embassy sometimes helps educate USINPAC about issues by providing information that is not always readily available or public, he cautioned that USINPAC should not be seen as an arm of the government or embassy.

“They are independent. We do not jointly coordinate activities,” he said.

Mr. Puri said that a few years ago the majority of the Indian-American community voted Democrat, but that is changing.

“We are definitely trending toward Republican,” he went on. “Doctors are concerned about malpractice insurance and trial lawyers. There are many Indian small businessmen and entrepreneurs. Lower taxes and less regulation is a message they hear.”

He said that he expects the Indian-American community to vote about 50 percent Democrat and 50 percent Republican in the next election — and this is reflected in USINPAC’s donation record.

According to the Political Money Line Web site, which tracks campaign contributions, USINPAC has given $25,000 to Democrats and $35,000 to Republicans for the 2003-2004 election cycle. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, is the largest recipient so far, getting $10,000 from USINPAC.

The recent campaign of Republican Bobby Jindal for governor of Louisiana brought a ground swell of support from the Indian community, Mr. Puri said.

“Most of the support was from outside the state, from people who had nothing to gain by an Indian being elected governor. It was a matter of pride,” Mr. Puri said.

While that campaign failed, Mr. Puri said his organization has its eye on next November.

Shortly after Mr. Dean’s comments were posted on the USINPAC Web site, Mr. Puri said the other Democratic presidential candidates got their own position papers to his office in Tysons Corner.

He said the Republican outreach to the Indian community, so far, has been a little clumsy, focusing more on tapping the Indian wallets on his mailing list, rather than addressing Indian issues.

Asked if he had received a position paper from President Bush, he smiled.

“Not yet. We are working on it. It’s in the pipeline,” he said.

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