The Indian Lobby In Washington

How Delhi buys influence with the US Government

Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama at the White House in November 2009. The US administration sees India as an important ally. {{name}}
01 January, 2010

EARLIER THIS AUTUMN, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, Indian-American political players hoped it would be an opportunity to assert their ascendant political clout. The guest list for the formal state dinner, the first of Barack Obama’s presidency, was the talk of the town for weeks—how many Hollywood celebrities would attend? Would Oprah come? But nowhere was it more fervently discussed than inside the Indian-American community. In the end, only the highest profile Indian-Americans made the cut—business leaders like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and authors Jhumpa Lahiri and Deepak Chopra.

Ramesh Kapur, a Boston-based political donor instrumental in pushing forward the US-India nuclear deal, admits he felt hurt and betrayed when he discovered he hadn’t made the list—after all, he is one of just a handful of first-generation Indian-Americans who consider themselves the vanguard of an immigrant community on the rise in Washington. Highly educated and well-established professionally, he is emblematic of the Indian-Americans he claims to represent. Being overlooked by the White House stung all the more when Kapur discovered one of his arch rivals, Sant Singh Chatwal—a long-time donor to and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton—had received one of the engraved invitations to the black-tie affair. “Obviously Sant used up his chits to get invited,” Kapur told me cattily, a week after the state dinner. “If I had pushed, I could have got in, too.”

Kapur has the dynamic energy and bright smile of someone who has spent a lot of time at political fundraisers. He was born and raised in Mumbai, but after forty years in the US, and almost as many years of marriage to an American woman, he describes himself as “ninety percent American and ten percent Indian,” though his accent is equal parts Massachusetts and Mumbai. His life’s work has been to raise India’s profile in the US, driven partly out of a desire for personal acclaim, and also by a love for the country he left behind. For decades, Kapur has raised money and campaigned for Democratic candidates on behalf of the Indian-American community, trying to bring issues that matter to them, like visas, imports from India, and discrimination, into mainstream political discourse.

Ramesh Kapur cozies up to US Vice President Joe Biden. {{name}}

Because Indian-Americans are a relatively new force in Washington, they have not yet had the time to develop the profile and influence that other minority groups have, and their lack of confidence helps explain the often fierce elbowing among them. Although Kapur likes to say that non-resident Indians (NRIs) have learned to work together, he’ll admit they compete intensely for the spotlight.  He is so territorial that he is no longer on speaking terms with either Chatwal or Swadesh Chatterjee, who won a Padma Bhushan award—one of India’s highest civilian honors—for his work to improve US-India relations. Kapur exemplifies the new class of Indian politico who has learned how to navigate the halls of the US Congress and get India’s agenda heard.

RAMESH KAPUR MOVED to the US during the first major wave of Indian immigrants to pursue an undergraduate degree in Illinois, leaving behind an upper-middle class Mumbai family in 1967. Kapur’s family ran a wholesale paper business that, he says, once controlled a large chunk of the Indian paper market. His parents were eager to send him and his brother overseas, and Kapur says he quickly felt at home in the States. He became a US citizen only a decade after leaving India. After university, he started a medical manufacturing company with his brother, but, eventually, he bought his own company in Winchester, a wealthy Boston suburb. His business thrived, allowing Kapur to lead an extremely comfortable life, dressing in Italian suits and playing golf at his local country club. But even though he hails from a family he proudly describes as “seventeen generations of entrepreneurs,” it’s politics that really brings him satisfaction.

Kapur made his first foray into politics during Michael Dukakis’s second bid for the governorship of Massachusetts in 1983. He stuck with Dukakis even after a failed presidential bid in 1988. Kapur felt a common bond with the politician, a second-generation Greek immigrant, and still speaks of his first political fundraiser for him with pride. Kapur held it at his home, raising 8,000 dollars from his friends, all first-generation Indian immigrants. “I didn’t think it was much money, but everyone else thought it was a great success,” he boasts. “After that, it became a little competition among us Indians in the area, to see how much we could raise.” Kapur acknowledges that at first, “politics was more about me than anything else. I got to experience the respect of the community. I was a pioneer, one of the first Indians out there.”

Kapur says he later thanked Dukakis for making him what he calls “a born-again Indian” because he helped him engage with the Indian community. He began to see himself as an important liaison between Indians and mainstream USA, a world which many of his fellow immigrants found intimidating. Most NRIs were focused on the classic struggles of first-generation immigrants: making a place in the new country for themselves and their families. Most were without the necessary resources or hunger for politics.  But Kapur, who never had children, was willing to dedicate the time and effort to pull himself up the rungs of the Democratic Party. Pitching himself as the representative of the NRI community, he began developing personal relationships with influential Senators like Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Joe Biden. To them, he was the Indian guy who provided entry into a desirably affluent and professional demographic. As time went on, Kapur learned how to translate campaign contributions into something more than just a ‘grip and grin’ photo opportunity. He began holding representatives accountable for following through on their pledges to Indian-Americans.

Anurag Vama in his official photo at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs. {{name}}

Indians made a fairly late arrival in the US compared to other immigrant groups like Jews, Italians and Irish, who have been around for more than a century. Once Indians started coming, though, their numbers grew quickly, and today that number is about 2.5 million. That still makes them a fairly small minority, but when it comes to socio-economic status, Indian-Americans make up for this. According to the latest US census, Indians are the best-educated immigrant group in the country, and one of the wealthiest. The median income for an Indian-American family is more than 60,000 dollars, whereas the average American family earns just over 40,000.

While they thrived professionally, many first-generation Indians chose to keep their social lives separate from both the broader American population and from those outside their regional groups. Many NRIs would restrict their cultural and religious experiences in the US to organisations of their own. Annual Gujarati or Keralite conventions draw tens of thousands of members.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Indian-Americans really sought to enter mainstream American culture. The first group to do so were NRI physicians, who, due mostly to their sheer size and affluence, launched a public relations campaign in the hope of preventing the occasional discrimination they faced. Kapur is not a doctor himself, but he quickly saw the potential there. He started tapping his physician friends for contributions to political campaigns and helping them lobby for recognition; like naming the first Indian doctor to the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine. In the late 1990s, the Association of American Physicians from India (AAPI) decided it wanted to translate its professional cache into some political influence, so the group hired a young Indian-American lobbyist, Anurag Varma. He had a little—but not much—experience on Capitol Hill, but was drawn to the idea of launching his community into the heart of the American political arena.

Varma is part of a new generation of Indian-American politicos: professionals with a slicker, more polished presentation than their predecessors. Indian issues are personal for him just as they are for Kapur—he feels he is forever linked to India and to all those like him in the US—but he finds it more natural to be self-deprecating than boastful about his role in American politics. “They wanted to do it cheap,” Varma told me good-humouredly, over a lunch of crab cake sandwiches at the Front Page, one of his favorite Washington haunts. “They thought they would just hire a kid to put out press releases from DC—but that was where we were as a community then.” Varma has a personable, easygoing manner that is unusual in the buttoned-up culture of K Street, originally home to the august firms that represent American industry and foreign governments. After the 2006 Jack Abramoff scandal, which linked lobbying with political corruption, it’s now more common to refer to ‘political advocates’ rather than ‘lobbyists.’ Many firms have even moved away from K Street.

The culture remains formal, though, and Varma seems relieved to escape it in this more casual bistro, removing his suit jacket as soon as he sits down. He enjoys recalling the ‘work hard—play hard’ days of his mid-twenties, when he would often work until 11 pm and then head to the bar around the corner from his office with a client. Those days obviously paid off. Varma has become one of the most important Indian-Americans in the game, a partner at the heavy-hitting lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which outperformed every other lawyer-lobby firm in Washington during the first half of 2009. His clients now include the Indian government, which advocates for issues like visas, climate change, and security cooperation with the US.

INDIA HAD ALWAYS EMPLOYED lobbying firms on and off, but in 2005, the Indian government made a decision that it needed robust ‘political advocacy’ support in Washington, and it paid two top firms 60,000 dollars a month each for their services. In 2008 alone, India paid more than 5 million dollars to Washington lobbyists, according to filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The impetus for the shift came from the decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then President George W. Bush to “transform the relationship” and open up civil nuclear energy cooperation.

One of the lead strategists behind the plan for nuclear cooperation was Robert Blackwill, US Ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003, who made his name as an outspoken believer in India as “a rising great power of the 21st century.” A year after he returned to Washington, he joined the influential Republican lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers, where he helped bring in fees from foreign clients totalling more than 11 million dollars in two years, according to lobbying disclosure reports at the US Justice Department. The Indian government was quick to jump on board with him.

Blackwill had already advocated granting India membership into the global club of nuclear powers, so they saw in him the perfect lobbyist for their cause. Prime Minister Singh decided that the deal was such a priority for his government that he hired a second top Washington lobbying firm, the Democratic-leaning Venable LLP, to protect India when the political tide shifted to the Democrats in Congress. In 2008, India fired Venable and replaced it with Patton Boggs, Varma’s firm. It helped, of course, that Varma was Indian-American and had built up a relationship with the Indian embassy over a number of years. India now pays Patton Boggs 350,000 dollars for a six-month contract, according to Justice Department filings.

Professional lobbying firms started working with the US-India Business Council (USIBC), which represents some 300 American companies with interest in India—from GE to Coca-Cola—and advocates lower barriers to US-India trade and investment. Together, they were determined to make a case to the US Congress for the nuclear deal. USIBC set up a ‘Coalition for Partnership with India’ and held weekly conference calls to brainstorm talking points about the deal’s strategic, environmental, and economic benefits. They printed these talking points in a glossy-covered manual and distributed them to everyone who mattered in Washington. They got researchers at strategic think-tanks to write papers offering a counter-message to non-proliferation groups. As the advocacy picked up steam, lobbyists would meet with as many as three Congressional staffers a day. They usually brought representatives of both US industry and the Indian-American community, like Kapur, to these meetings. They’d pause outside each Capitol Hill office to agree on who was to deliver what message inside. The lobbyists would make the case for ending the ‘nuclear apartheid against a safe, democratic India,’ and the representatives from GE and Westinghouse would emphasise how many US jobs the deal would create. Indian-American representatives say the nuclear deal best demonstrated the community’s commitment and passion.

The new warmth between Washington and New Delhi was energising for the NRI community, who Anurag Varma affectionately calls the “uncle and auntie generation.” He says the nuclear deal wouldn’t have happened without them: “Indian-Americans my age know more about football than about nuclear isolation. They tend to think ‘why should I care?’ But the uncles—they really care about foreign policy.”  Indians relentlessly called their members of Congress to demand they support the deal, so much so that Congress staffers pleaded with the professional lobbyists to “tell the Indian-Americans to lay off the phone lines.”

Many NRIs transformed themselves into fulltime volunteer activists. Swadesh Chatterjee founded a new organisation, the US-India Friendship Council, with the sole purpose of pushing members of the US Congress to ratify the deal. Not to be outdone, Ramesh Kapur founded his own group, the Indian-American Security Leadership Council, and began spending half the week in Washington, leaving his wife in charge of his business in Boston while he was away. He got in touch with the richest Indian-Americans in the country and convinced them that this was the issue for which it was worth getting out their chequebooks. Chatterjee, for his part, raised enough money to buy several 50,000 dollar full-page ads in national newspapers, and to hire Varma to deliver his message on Capitol Hill.

In the past decade, a new generation of Indian-Americans have begun to catch up to Kapur and the other pioneers. Dozens of political action committees have been formed to give the community more representation, such as the US-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), whose web site features a rolling gallery of Indians posing with political celebrities; the Indian-American Leadership Initiative (IALI); and the Indian-American Republican Council (IARC). At the same time, other professional organisations followed AAPI’s lead. A couple of years ago, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, whose membership is almost 50 percent Indian, hired Varma to push its agenda in Washington, and then broke its silence on U.S.-India related legislation for the first time, when it came out in favour of the US-India nuclear deal.

Just as building political consensus is a constant challenge in India, political activity among Indian-Americans is extremely splintered. Most groups either cater to a professional group, or are partisan toward either the Democratic or Republican Party. Kapur, whose own allegiances lie firmly with the Democrats, dedicated himself to creating and running an Indian-American Leadership Council at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which he hoped would institutionalise and unify the Indian-American presence inside the party. When it came to the nuclear deal, many Indian-Americans were “pulling on different ropes,” explains an industry advocate who worked on the deal, even though they were on the same side. “At times, they would let go of the ropes to whack each other.”

Brian McCormack, the point man on the nuclear deal for the Bush White House, was one of those responsible for pulling the ropes together. At first, he was at a loss. The Indian community lacked the cohesiveness and professional focus of the Hispanic or Jewish groups that he’d worked with on other issues. “Indian-Americans are diverse in views and focus,” he told me. “I don’t want to call them fractured, but…they needed organisation.” Some Indian-Americans refused to join his weekly conference calls about the deal because their ‘mortal enemies’ would also be present. McCormack told them he didn’t have time to manage all their personalities, but he tried to be patient. Ultimately, he knew he needed them if he was to get the deal off the ground.

For the Bush administration, the nuclear deal offered a chance for a much-needed foreign policy victory. Iraq was a gnarled mess, and there was no sign of a breakthrough in the Middle East. But many Democrats were sceptical of President Bush’s leadership in foreign affairs and reluctant to back a deal that was seen as his legacy bid. There was plenty of opposition to the deal in India, but the US Congress was perhaps even more fiercely against it. Many Democrats believed it would be dangerous for the US to recognise India’s de facto status as a nuclear power without forcing it to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (even though the US has never ratified the treaty, either). They worried it would set a precedent for other aspiring nuclear powers, like Iran, and undermine decades of non-proliferation policies. For some, this concern overwhelmed any sense of affinity with India. The White House and professional lobbyists told Indian-Americans they needed them to make the case to Congress, to prevent it from looking like a purely industry and profit-driven initiative.

In general, India has become a popular cause in Congress in recent years. The House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the US Congress, founded the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans sixteen years ago, and it is now the largest group of its kind. When Hillary Clinton co-founded a similar caucus in the upper chamber, the Senate Friends of India, influential members flocked to join that one, too. “Indians are appealing because they are a growing domestic voice in the US,” says Alyssa Ayres, a consultant who formerly worked on the India desk at the State Department. “But also, what Congressman wouldn’t want to be seen to be on the side of the world’s largest democracy? They’d look like a Cold War stick-in-the-mud!”  Others have a more cynical take. Now that the ‘uncle generation’ has proved willing to open its well-padded pocketbooks to American politicians, Congressmen see Indian-Americans as a desirable source of funding.

Washington’s K Street, where many lobbying firms are based, has become shorthand for the industry. AP IMAGES/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Several years ago, Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, raised these issues at a discussion held to measure the effectiveness of the India caucuses. “If truth be told, at least some members regard it primarily as a cash cow, “he told the group, “as an opportunity to shake down the Indian-American community for political donations.” They get away with it because the Indian-American community allows them to, Hathaway added, according to reports of the event. Other country caucuses hold members of Congress accountable by withholding donations and votes.

American Jews, for example, don’t need a Congressional caucus to make their voice heard in the House and Senate, because they have one of the most efficient and effective political lobbying operations in Washington. Indian-Americans have tried to model themselves on organisations like the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC, America’s pro-Israel lobby, and are often compared to them; but they have a long way before they will even approximate the political might of Jewish groups in Washington. While few Congressmen would want to risk alienating Indian-Americans, their support often does not translate into action. Congressman Jim McDermott, founder and co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus, for example, voted against the nuclear deal, even though it was arguably the single most important issue for India and Indian-Americans ever to pass through US Congress.

KAPUR IS QUICK TO TAKE CREDIT for the success of turning Congress around to support the deal, although it took dozens of Indian-Americans and professional advocates to make it happen. He boasts that he met “almost every” Democratic Senator in Congress during that time. “I never took no for an answer,” he said. He focused his advocacy effort around American veterans’ groups, hoping that by gaining their support, he would be able to win Democrats over to the idea that India was good for US national security. Most agree this angle was helpful, but to hear Kapur tell it, you would think he was a one-man band singing the tune for India on Capitol Hill. Kapur’s bio on his organisation’s web site boasts in bold letters that he was ‘the key person to convince most of the Democratic members of the House and Senate’ to vote for the initial 2006 act that permitted nuclear cooperation with India. The bravado in that claim shows how personally invested Kapur was in seeing the nuclear deal to fruition. In fact, two key Congressmen from Kapur’s home state of Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and Edward Markey, staunchly refused to support the deal, even though they were both traditional India supporters.

When Ramesh Kapur found himself dispirited by these losses, and wondering whether this single piece of legislation was worth the sacrifices he was making—the time away from his family, the money and effort he’d spent—Kapur says he’d recall the discrimination that Indians faced in the US after the attacks of 9/11, because of their skin color, beards or turbans. He’d remind himself of the embarrassment and shame he felt when he was regularly pulled out of airport security lines for random checks.  “My Polish-origin wife will be standing next to me, saying, ‘If I had only married a nice Polish boy this wouldn’t be happening.’ She’s joking, but you know, that makes me think, this is what I’ve been fighting for. The nuclear deal, this is the ultimate thing—it will legitimise all the work you’ve done all these years, and it will legitimise our community in the eyes of Americans around us.”

Former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill at his farewell lunch organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers for Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi in July 2003. Blackwill later became a lobbyist for India in Washington. AP IMAGES/GURINDER OSAN

But Kapur’s passion for the cause has occasionally overwhelmed his more diplomatic instincts. In 2007, he and some 200 other Indian-American politicos were invited to the White House for a meeting about the legislative progress on the nuclear deal. McCormack, who organised the briefing, had hoped that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice would be able to attend, but since she couldn’t, he arranged for Karl Rove to replace her. At the time, Rove was senior advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush, but he was not senior enough to satisfy Kapur. A few minutes into the briefing, Kapur interrupted Rove, yelling, “We are the elite of the Indian-American community!” Many Indian-Americans in the room clapped in support, according to several people present, which encouraged Kapur to continue with his outburst. “We deserve to be spoken to by higher-ranking officials. We demand to see the President!”

McCormack, who was on stage with Rove, says Rove was “taken aback”—this kind of thing does not happen often in the White House—but calmly explained that the President and Secretary Rice were on a secure video call that morning about a national security situation. “I thought it was a bit presumptive of Kapur to think that the President would come,” McCormack says. “That was never on the cards, and he had no reason to believe it was.” After the incident, McCormack banned Kapur from the White House. Last year, however, he was allowed to attend the second White House signing ceremony for the nuclear deal.

When I asked Kapur about the incident, he paused for a second, as though trying to decide what tack to take. Then he started laughing. He laughed long and hard, with the glee of someone who had bested an enemy. As a lifelong Democratic fundraiser, Kapur made it clear that he had plenty of reasons to dislike Rove, the Republican strategist behind both of President Bush’s successful election campaigns. “A mutual friend told me later that he called me ‘rude, crude, and obnoxious’ and said that as long as he’s in the White House I’ll never be allowed back,” Kapur cackled, “I think that’s the best compliment you could get from Karl Rove!” He insisted he doesn’t regret it, even though his name is now synonymous in Washington with the event. “I think something good came out of it,” he said defiantly. “It helped the White House see the passion in the community.” Still, he adds quickly that “I don’t want to be remembered as the Democrat who took on Karl Rove; I want to be remembered as the Democrat who did right by the nuclear deal.”

Like many of the Indian-Americans in the room, Anurag Varma was shocked and dismayed by the outburst. McCormack remembers seeing him with his head in his hands. Now, though, with the perspective of the nuclear deal having been won, Varma can be more reflective. “When Ramesh popped off at Rove like that, I think it was just a way of trying to show that he was a leader,” he said thoughtfully over lunch. “Remember, Ramesh was once the sole powerful Indian guy in DNC circles across the country; now he’s in a room full of others in the community who have also figured out how politics work in this country. He tried to hold onto his position by yelling first.”

White House guests during a State Dinner with President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington in November 2009, a party where Kapur didn’t make the guest list. AP IMAGES/SUSAN WALSH

Ultimately, Varma says, all the internal squabbling doesn’t really matter: “What the record will show, down the line, is that the nuclear deal turned the page, and the India lobby emerged.” Sanjay Puri, the head of USINPAC, calls the nuclear deal “game-changing for India and for Indian-Americans.” He got involved in national politics seven years ago, and from then until now, Puri says, “is a difference of night and day. People in Washington understand now that this isn’t a community that’s going to just come in, ask for a photo, and go away again. We’re going to be here.”

In late 2008, India provided further evidence of its new clout in Washington. When word got out that the Obama Administration planned to name Richard Holbrooke as South Asia envoy, Indian officials made it clear that they considered it unacceptable for Holbrooke’s portfolio to include India as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. To India, that smacked of the old hyphenated days, when it was linked to Pakistan inside the US foreign policy establishment. It also awakened fears that Holbrooke would try to force action on Kashmir, one of the most sensitive issues in Indian foreign policy. After what several people describe as an intensive lobbying campaign, the Obama Administration announced that Holbrooke’s scope would not include India.

The question now is: what’s next for the community, now that the nuclear deal is done? Varma says it’s getting more Indians politically engaged and elected to office in the US. “As Indian-Americans get more excited about politics in this country, we want to see our own people out there,” he says. “It’s a natural progression as the community grows up.” There are almost three dozen Indian-Americans serving in the Obama administration, but even positions like White House Chief Technology Officer and General Counsel do not pack the same political punch as a Cabinet Secretary or Member of the House or Senate. There have only been two Indian-Americans elected to Congress in history, including Bobby Jindal, who gave up his seat two years ago when he was elected Governor of Louisiana. He is now the highest-ranking Indian-American in elected office, and for a while last year, he was in the running to be John McCain’s vice-presidential candidate. Kapur says if that had happened, “I would have had a hard decision to make. Even though I disagree with all of Jindal’s policies, it would have been difficult to vote against a fellow Indian.”

Lobbyist Taha Gaya alongside Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry. {{name}}

Varma says the community still lacks the infrastructure and the savvy to be able to influence politics. He likes to give this example: when a Hispanic-American leaves his Congressional seat, the community lobbies furiously for another Hispanic to fill it. But Indians are still unable to do that, although groups like IALI, where Varma is vice president, and the IARC, the Republican counterpart, are trying to build up that necessary infrastructure. Varma says his work with IALI offers him an exciting chance to be a ‘pioneer’ at the operative level, much the way Kapur was a pioneer at the activist level for the community. Kapur agrees that the only way Indian-Americans can continue to grow their influence is to get into the political mainstream, In fact, he says, he often considered running for office himself. But he is at a loss to explain why so few Indian-Americans have made it to Congress. “I guess we haven’t done our job,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically defeated. “Maybe we are just too young as a community.”

Kapur admits to feeling exhausted after the long process of pushing for the nuclear deal. He needs to concentrate on his business for a while, he says. “I need to make some money! This is an expensive hobby!” But he is already working on trying to convince Senator Kerry to speak at January’s meeting of the Indian-American Security Leadership Council. He wants him to address Pakistan and China, the issues that are top of the list for India right now. Of course, these foreign policy issues aren’t the kind of thing that professional lobbyists working for the Indian embassy– or, any foreign embassy for that matter – can raise directly to the US government (India has to be careful never to appear that it is trying to tell the US what to do). Instead, the Indian government takes pains to ‘educate’ members of Congress and the Administration about India’s own experience and history and hope they take the hint. But Kapur, who doesn’t have any direct allegiances, can be as blunt as he wants to be. In the wake of the nuclear deal, he tells Indian officials that they “owe” US defense contractors deals in India. And whenever he gets a chance, he tells US officials that “China will always be a problem, and Pakistan is a problem because of China.” For a tired man, Kapur still has plenty of passion. He says he feels less alone now--and maybe he’ll even secure a seat at the next state dinner.