Washington’s new strategic partnership


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A DOZEN years ago, India Abroad publisher Gopal Raju sought out Rep. Stephen Solarz for advice on how the Indian-American community might increase its political clout in Washington. Hire an Indian-American who has interned in the US Congress, counselled Solarz, widely regarded as India’s best friend and most forceful advocate on Capitol Hill. When, after a fruitless search, Raju reported that no such person could be found, Solarz then recommended that Raju hire someone from AIPAC – the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, reputed to have some of the most impressive political muscle in Washington. Out of that casual conversation, and others like it, has evolved one of the most interesting partnerships in US politics today – the new collaboration between the Indian-American and Jewish communities.

The new ties between Indian-Americans and Jewish-Americans parallel the dramatic turnaround in recent years in relations between India and Israel. Burdened by distrust throughout the heyday of India’s obsession with non-alignment, the two countries established full diplomatic links only in 1992. Since the installation of a BJP government in New Delhi in 1998, ties between the two – centering on shared security interests, arms sales, and intelligence cooperation – have kicked into high gear. Israel is already New Delhi’s second most important source of arms and military technology after Russia, and the projected sales of the Phalcon early-warning radar and, possibly, the Arrow missile defence system will further solidify the arms relationship. Facing a common foe in Islamic extremism, the intelligence services of the two countries have also fashioned a thriving if largely clandestine partnership.

Some officials and commentators have envisioned adding a third party, the United States, to this emerging Indo-Israeli partnership. Speaking in Washington at the annual dinner of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) last May, Brajesh Mishra, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s national security advisor, underscored the ‘fundamental similarities’ linking the three countries. ‘We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity.’ Beyond that, he added, all three were uniquely confronted by the scourge of terrorism. As ‘the main targets of international terrorism,’ Mishra told his appreciative audience, ‘democratic countries should form a viable alliance against terrorism.’

L.K. Advani, the deputy prime minister, has also urged the creation of this three-cornered partnership. Increasingly, one hears Israeli leaders and American politicians pushing this course as well. Nor is it coincidental that many of India’s best friends in the US Congress are Jewish. Jewish members of the House of Representatives are nearly twice as likely to join the Indian caucus as their non-Jewish colleagues.



It was not mere happenstance that led Mishra to speak before the American Jewish Committee last May. Increasingly, senior Indian leaders meet with American Jewish groups whenever they visit the United States. Vajpayee himself found time for representatives of five influential Jewish groups, including AIPAC, the AJC, and the Anti-Defamation League, when he attended the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2002.

The manner in which the announcement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to India last September was made also illustrates this new constellation of forces in American politics. As the first ever official trip to India by an Israeli prime minister, news of the proposed visit was of considerable interest in both India and Israel. And where was the announcement of the upcoming visit first made? In neither New Delhi nor Tel Aviv, but at a private dinner in Washington hosted by the AJC.

Reflecting the new warmth in relations between the two communities, India’s ambassador in Washington has hosted Hanukkah celebrations at his residence each of the past two years, complete with candles, prayers, and a skit about the Jewish holiday performed by children from a local Jewish elementary school. The event last December was attended by over 250 American Jews, as well as a handful of Indian-American Jews.



Indian-Americans have long sought a voice in the US political arena commensurate with their economic and professional attainments, but only within the past decade has the community begun to command a respectful attention from US politicians. Even now, however, it remains an immature and politically unsophisticated grouping riven by personal rivalries and competing organizations, each jockeying for access and influence with American policymakers frequently focused more on financial contributions to their political warchests than on issues of concern to the community. Indeed, Vajpayee has complained, only half-jokingly, that there are more Indian organizations in the United States than there are Indian-Americans.

Leaders in the Indian-American community have recognized for many years that they could learn much about using the US political system effectively from the Jewish community. But until rather recently, talk along these lines had not been followed with action. The US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) is widely credited with a leading role in deliberately reaching out to American Jews for the purpose of promoting a sustained partnership. Created in 2002 by Sanjay Puri, an IT entrepreneur in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, USINPAC is a bipartisan organization whose stated mission is to strengthen bilateral security and economic ties between India and the United States and to help shape US policy on issues of concern to the Indian-American community.



In the two years of its existence, USINPAC has been remarkably successful in establishing a presence on Capitol Hill and in forging friendships with key US legislators, including Republican Orrin Hatch, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Republican Richard Lugar, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joseph Biden, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democrat Tom Lantos, the ranking minority member of the House International Relations Committee. Puri currently serves as the organization’s executive director.

USINPAC has worked closely with a variety of Jewish groups to promote ties between Indian-Americans and US Jews. Last July, USINPAC, AIPAC, and the AJC hosted a joint reception for US lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Marvelling at the impressive number of legislators in attendance, one Indian-American complacently congratulated a community colleague. ‘Don’t kid yourself,’ the latter replied; ‘they’re not here because of us.’

In another joint endeavour, AJC and USINPAC presented a memorial plaque to the American space agency NASA to commemorate last year’s Columbia space shuttle tragedy, in which an Israeli astronaut and an Indian-American scientist perished. USINPAC also collaborated with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) last summer to organize a conference in Washington on terrorism in India. As USINPAC’s Puri puts it, there’s a ‘natural fit’ between the Indian-American and the Jewish communities. They share common values and a commitment to democracy, capitalism and free markets. Notwithstanding their successes, both are still somewhat outsiders in the larger American society. And both are victims of terrorism.



By all accounts, the AJC, one of the largest and most influential Jewish organizations in the United States, spearheads the new Jewish interest in reaching out to Indian-Americans. The AJC has sponsored trips to Israel by Indian-American community leaders, and organized more than half a dozen trips to India for prominent US Jews. Jewish leaders who visit India are accorded meetings with many of New Delhi’s most senior officials. During a visit last year, AJC president Harold Tanner met with President Kalam, Deputy Prime Minister Advani, Mishra, and other Cabinet ministers. AJC leaders have also been invited to speak at the biennial convention of the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), and AJC position papers are circulated to convention delegates. A few months ago the AJC opened an office in New Delhi.

Pursuing a somewhat different tack, JINSA has been particularly active in working to foster trilateral cooperation among India, Israel and the United States. In early 2003, JINSA organized a conference in New Delhi on national security, intelligence, and counterterrorism. Among the conference speakers were retired FBI and CIA counterterrorism experts, the former head of Mossad (the Israeli foreign intelligence service), and a former Israel Defence Force deputy chief of staff. ‘Hundreds’ of past and present Indian security and intelligence officers attended, one of the conference organizers later reported.

According to this source, the Indian foreign ministry fought hard to quash plans for the event, but ultimately failed because the conference enjoyed the backing of senior BJP politicians. JINSA officials met with both Advani and Kalam for tea and conversation at the conclusion of the conference. A follow-on trilateral conference was held in Herzliya, Israel earlier this year. The statement issued at the conclusion of the 2004 event applauded ‘the growing interactions between Indian and Jewish communities and their respective organizations’ in the United States and praised this cooperation as an ‘effective vehicle for the promotion of interests and values common to all three’ countries.



In one of the more interesting manifestations of this new collaboration, Indian-American groups have invited Jewish organizations to give seminars to community leaders on lobbying Congress and other means of maximizing their political effectiveness. One of the first of these training sessions took place in October 2002, when the AJC and the Indian American Center for Political Awareness invited representatives from the two communities to AJC national headquarters in New York to discuss the nitty-gritty of political mobilization.

Topics reviewed in this and similar gatherings included coalition building; communication with membership; working across party lines; the key role of congressional staff; and organizing at the grassroots level. In these training sessions Jewish representatives frequently note that they, like the Indians, are a fragmented community, and emphasize the importance of overcoming internal divisions before seeking political support beyond the community.

Kumar P. Barve, the majority leader in the state assembly of Maryland and the highest elected Indian-American official in the United States, explained the logic behind these activities in an interview with the Washington Post last year. ‘Indian Americans see the American Jewish community as a yardstick against which to compare themselves. It’s seen as the gold standard in terms of political activism.’ Kapil Sharma, a young Indian-American activist who works with the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, puts it another way. Jewish groups, he explains, are educating Indian-Americans on the techniques of ‘political empowerment’. Or as USINPAC’s Puri succinctly says, ‘It’s pointless to reinvent the wheel.’

One of the techniques of political empowerment that Indian-American organizations have borrowed from their Jewish allies is a systematic programme to place young interns, usually college students, in congressional offices on Capitol Hill. These young people are exposed to the American political system, make potentially valuable contacts, and get a first-hand introduction to how the system works – and how it can be used to address the needs of outside groups. Occasionally these young people return to Washington after graduation to assume full-time positions as legislative aides, where they can act as a channel of communication between the community and members of Congress. The idea for this internship programme came directly from AIPAC; indeed, Ralph Nurnberger, who set up the largest and most successful programme for Indian-American interns, cut his political teeth working for AIPAC.



Since 11 September 2001, Indian-Americans and US Jews have been linked most forcefully by the need to make common cause against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Tom Lantos, a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, a Holocaust survivor, and an ardent friend of Israel, has declared that the two communities ‘have been drawn together by our joint fight against mindless, vicious, fanatic Islamic terrorism.’ No three countries in the world better understand the nature of the global terrorist threat than India, Israel, and the United States, AJC executive director David Harris told the NFIA convention a year after the 9/11 terror attacks. ‘And no three countries are doing more to stand firm and resolute, not to bend, not to break, before the violence and intimidation.’ In a tactic not uncommon on these occasions, Harris then followed these observations by turning to the neuralgic issue of Pakistan, which, he asserted, must not be allowed ‘to have it both ways’ by supporting cross-border terrorism while simultaneously claiming membership in the community of civilized nations.



Reflecting this perception of shared security interests and a common adversary, lobbyists from the two communities have worked together to shape legislation coming out of the Congress. Last summer, for instance, representatives from the two communities – some sporting lapel pins featuring an American flag flanked by the flags of Israel and India – joined forces to secure adoption in the House of Representatives of a provision requiring, as a condition of US aid to Pakistan, an annual presidential report on Pakistani support for anti-India insurgents in Kashmir and Pakistani activities bearing on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The two groups have also combined to lobby the Bush administration on behalf of an Israeli sale to India of Phalcon early-warning radar technology.

Some of those active in this collaboration argue that because both communities are highly educated, affluent and disproportionately represented in certain professions such as medicine, engineering, education and high-tech, they share tangible interests that extended beyond opposition to Islamic radicalism. Ralph Nurnberger, the former AIPAC lobbyist who is now associated with the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, insists ‘it is more than just Muslim extremism. It is the same basic issues that both [communities] face. Discrimination, hate crime legislation, immigration legislation, education policies, as well as so many social issues that are domestic in this country.’



Indeed, in the anxious weeks immediately after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a venerable Jewish organization dedicated to opposing not just anti-semitism but discrimination in all its manifestations, reached out to the Sikh community, several of whose members had been the victims of attacks by incensed if poorly informed Americans who believed that the Sikh turban signified the wearer was a Muslim. Racial profiling, which resulted in Indians being pulled off airliners because US inspectors thought they looked ‘Middle Eastern’, provided another arena where the ADL and other Jewish organizations shared valuable experience. The two communities also worked together during the 2002 elections to defeat Georgia Congress-woman Cynthia McKinney, who was viewed as openly hostile to both India and Israel.

These examples of collaboration on domestic issues notwithstanding, terrorism and the need to oppose Islamic violence is the glue binding this partnership. The shock occasioned by the 9/11 attacks first drove the two groups together, and the shared conviction that both communities, and their respective ancestral homelands, confront a common mortal threat provides the incentive for continued cooperation – that and, as one Jewish leader concedes, the need to ensure that America’s own commitment to fighting terrorism does not slacken.



Some activists in both communities – few are eager to go on record – worry that USINPAC and, by extension, the Indian-American community have allied themselves too closely with the American political right wing and/or the Republican Party. They cite, for instance, the distinctively hawkish cast to the speakers at a USINPAC-organized conference in Washington last summer on terrorism in India – Frank Gaffney, president of the hardline Center for Security Policy and a former Ronald Reagan appointee; Thomas Neumann, executive director of the equally tough-minded JINSA, whose roster of political friends reads like a Who’s Who among US conservatives; and Thomas Donnelly, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington’s most influential conservative think tank and a way station for past and future officials of the Bush administration. Arnaud de Borchgrave, former editor-in-chief of the ultra-conservative Washington Times, has also spoken at USINPAC events. A right-wing patina might be useful in today’s Washington, one Jewish leader warns, but could be a long-term liability. Yet, as Puri disarmingly explains, these are the people who have access to key decision-makers in the current US administration.

Others in the community have voiced concern that USINPAC is affiliated too closely with the Indian embassy in Washington, with the current government in New Delhi or, more generally, with the BJP. The BJP of Advani if not of Vajpayee is deeply distrusted among US India-watchers, and a repetition of the violence in Gujarat two years ago could tar Indian-Americans viewed as BJP sympathizers. Yet, these connections with Indian officialdom are undoubtedly a reflection of the prevailing pro-BJP sentiment within the entrepreneurial-oriented Indian-American community.

Skeptics see this new partnership between Indian-Americans and Jews as nothing more than a cynical marriage of convenience built on the ‘lowest common denominator’ of anti-Muslim sentiment and anxiety over terrorism. This, however, misses the conviction found in representatives from both communities that each is strengthened by working with the other, and moreover, that such an alliance serves to promote both American interests and universal values such as democracy and freedom.



Still, at the moment anyway, this is something of a one-sided partnership. Indian-Americans get more from the relationship, and value it more highly, than the Jewish community. In sharp contrast to the recent practice of Indian leaders, Israeli officials visiting New York or Washington do not yet routinely meet with Indian-American groups. When asked why he valued the partnership, one Jewish leader referred to a joke circulating among American Jews that together, Hindus and Jews make up one-fifth of humanity. In other words, Israel may find India a useful partner on the international scene, even if at the moment most of the domestic benefits of the new collaboration flow to the Indian-American community.

But an identity of interests is not ensured even in the global arena. New Delhi will, of necessity, continue to temper its commitment to a full-fledged, across-the-board alliance with Israel out of a desire not to sever completely its ties to Arab countries. India, moreover, enjoys a close relationship with the resolutely anti-Israeli government of Iran. An occasional Indian display of sympathy for Palestinian grievances, or a refusal to back Israel under all circumstances may well create disgruntlement among American Jews, who may be tempted to conclude that their new Indian-American friends are not reliable allies.



Perhaps more significantly, the emerging partnership between the two US communities threatens to enlarge the already significant divisions within the Indian-American community. This embrace of American Jews and of Israel may be widely applauded among Indian-Americans who are Hindu, but Indian-American Muslims as well as many Sikhs find it disturbing if not deplorable. As one Jewish leader confessed, this is less a partnership between the Indian-American and the Jewish communities than a Hindu-Jewish alliance.

Within the Jewish community, the AJC has a history of reaching out to Indian Muslims in the United States, and AJC leaders have been stung by the sharp complaints of Indian Muslims about a relationship that, in their eyes, seems aggressively anti-Muslim. These fissures within the broader Indian-American community would exist even in the absence of any collaboration between Indian-Americans and American Jews, but the greatly expanded cooperation between the two communities since 9/11 has aggravated old wounds.

Pakistani-Americans have also been angered by this new alliance, viewing it as directed specifically against Pakistan. Resentment of this sort may serve to perpetuate old antagonisms and make more problematic cooperation between Pakistani- and Indian-Americans, who at least in the domestic arena have similar interests, and who would find it mutually advantageous to submerge ancestral feuds in the face of common problems.

At the end of the day, American Jews exercise political clout because most non-Jewish Americans have come to believe that their Jewish neighbours share their basic values and beliefs. This is not to say that the affluence of the Jewish community is not an important political asset, but all the money in the world would not buy American Jews their political muscle unless other Americans had a high level of comfort with the exercise of this muscle.



Furthermore, the majority of non-Jews in America, and their elected leaders in Washington, are convinced that close ties between the United States and Israel further American national interests. Political dexterity, skillful leadership, and ample money are necessary but not sufficient explanations for the remarkable successes American Jews have encountered in the US political arena over the past several generations. Instead, it is these beliefs on the part of non-Jewish America that account for the influence wielded by the Jewish community.

By the same token, Indian-Americans will flourish in US politics only to the extent that the larger American body politic continues to believe that India remains an attractive partner for the United States. And only so long as Indian-Americans are seen as Americans first, and only then as Indian-Americans.