The Indian-American lobby that’s quietly pushing Washington towards New Delhi

Fan following.
Fan following.
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One has 32.9 million Twitter followers; the other has 31 million.

When US president Donald Trump met Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the White House on June 26, Trump chose to draw attention to something the leaders have in common by saying, “We are world leaders on social media.”

Prior to the June 26 meeting, news analysts focused on how the US-India relationship was strained over possible changes to the US H-1B visa program. Approximately 70% of these visas were issued to Indians in 2014. Another source of friction: Trump’s remarks railing against India and China while withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement.

But Modi’s meeting with Trump showed these events would cause little loss of momentum in US-India relations. In fact, as a scholar of US-India relations, I’d argue that the ties between the two countries are so intertwined that derailment is almost impossible.

From logjam to strategic partnership

The economic relationship between the two countries has seen a tenfold increase in the past 15 years—from US$5.6 billion in 1990 to $103 billion in 2015.

The US has displaced Russia as the biggest supplier of arms to India. It is also the country with which India conducts the most military exercises.

These stronger economic and military ties are two signs of ways the US and India have drawn closer since the end of the Cold War. Other common interests include securing the Indo-Pacific region as China increasingly asserts itself there, and fighting Islamic extremism.

A lesser-known catalyst pushing the US and India together—lobbying by Indian-Americans—is the subject of my new book. In my view, this relatively new political force has played a pivotal role in transforming US foreign policy towards India.

The emergence of Indian lobbying

Although Indian-Americans make up just about 1% of the total American population, they are an influential group.

Measured by per-capita income, Indian-Americans are the wealthiest ethnic group in the US. Beginning in the 1990s, their professional success gave the community confidence to play a more active role in American social and political life. Backed by their own financial resources and a growing population, Indian-Americans took to lobbying through a network of professional and political organizations such as the Indian American Forum for Political Education, Indian American Committee for Political Awareness, and the US-India Political Action Committee.

The bipartisan Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans was formed in 1993. The caucus expanded from its original membership of eight to 50 within 12 months of its founding. Its membership peaked at approximately 200 members a decade later. Although it is somewhat smaller now, it continues to be the largest caucus dedicated to a single country.

In 2004, a bipartisan India Caucus was formed in the US Senate, which was headed by Hillary Clinton, Democratic senator of New York, and John Cornyn, Republican senator of Texas. This was the first time a Senate caucus was formed dedicated to a single country.

An evolving strategy

In the beginning of the 1990s, the Indian lobby focused on countering the Pakistani lobby groups, which had a strong presence during the Cold War period.

The first major test came in defending India’s nuclear test in 1998, an act by which India essentially declared itself as a nuclear power in defiance of international norms. Another early test was exposing Pakistan’s military adventurism in the Kargil War in 1999, and creating a more objective view of the Kashmir issue.

However, it was during the passage of the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement Bill in the U.S. Congress in 2008 that the real clout of Indian lobbying was confirmed. The India lobby emphasized the positive aspects of the civilian atomic agreement, ensuring its safe passage at every stage in the US Congress.

The caucus members were responsible for turning around the negative impression of India that dominated the Cold War period. They highlighted India’s credentials as a democracy, the value of its market economically, and its growing strategic importance.

The growing support for India in the US Congress was reflected when 40 congressional representatives attended an address given by Modi in Manhattan in September, 2014, and by the applause Modi received during his address to a joint session of Congress two years later.

Visits from Modi

Modi’s frequent visits have reinvigorated both India-US ties and Indian lobbying.

During his second visit to the US in 2014, Modi met with a 50-member delegation of the Overseas Friends of BJP, India’s center-right ruling party, and listened to their concerns and issues.

The first-ever US convention to mobilize the diaspora , organized by the same group, helped Modi connect with the Indian community.

The Indian lobby is paying close attention to the issue of the H-1B visa as the IT industry is one of the major success stories in the India-US relationship. But Indo-US ties go way beyond any single issue.

The Trump administration seems to realize this. Welcoming Modi’s visit to the U.S., White House spokesperson Sean Spicer listed “fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and reforms and expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region” as common priorities for the two countries. The Indian side was looking for “a new direction for deeper bilateral engagement.”

Modi and Trump each have a corporate style of administration. This may help the India-US economic cooperation accelerate, and achieve their target of $500 billion in trade in the coming years.

A challenge for both leaders will be how to reconcile Trump’s “America First” policy with Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. However, I believe the synergies between the two economies are strong enough to overcome this challenge, especially with the help of the India lobby.

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