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Indian Lobbying as a Catalyst of US–India Relations

Shailza Singh (shailza134@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of Political Science, Bharati College, University of Delhi.

Indian Lobbying and Its Influence in US Decision Making: Post-Cold War by Ashok Sharma,Sage Publishers, 2017; pp xxiii + 303,₹ 895.

 

One of the peculiar features of the political system of the world’s oldest democracy is lobbying, a technique adopted by interest groups to influence the government’s policy decisions, and which is institutionalised as a legal practice in the United States (US). American studies scholars in India are introduced to this fascinating aspect of American politics where different interest groups hire professionals—generally advocates but also others registered with the US Congress—to press legislators for favourable policy decisions. Lobbying, also described as private sector policy advocacy,1 is a paid activity.

Ashok Sharma in Indian Lobbying and Its Influence in US Decision Making explores the linkage between the lobbying efforts of the Indian–American community in the US and positive developments in the US–India relationship in the post-Cold War period. During this period, the bilateral relationship witnessed a transformation, marking a departure from its Cold War dynamics and culminated into the US–India strategic partnership in 2008. The volume, divided into six chapters, presents a comprehensive account of the evolution of lobbying by the Indian American ethnic community with the purposive focus on its impact upon the US foreign policy posture towards India. The book falls into the genre of works that explain foreign policy through a domestic political explanation in contrast to the “systemic” or “structural” explanations of state behaviour.

Affluence as Political Clout

The tone of the study is set out by examining the entrenched nature of lobbying in American politics, an activity that gains its legitimacy through the rights guaranteed by the first amendment of the US Constitution which is a part of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing certain freedoms to the citizens. The theoretical roots of the nature of interest group activity are traced to the founding principles of US democracy, and their development in different stages is carefully laid out. The explanation highlights how lobbying, as a tool available to all sorts of interest groups as well as corporations, land firms, cities and foreign actors, is an ever-expanding and consolidating activity in the US. It witnessed an intensification during the democratic reforms politics of the 1960s, the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War, all demanding a more responsive government. It is argued that the US polity and society is conducive to facilitating lobbying by providing “multiple access points” (p 30) to the lobbyists at various levels of government. It has been further consolidated through occupying of the spaces, provided by a weak party system and complex functioning of the Congress, by professionally skilled lobbyists. Highlighting the acceptability of big business and the dislike for big government woven into the American cultural ethos, Sharma quotes Edward S Greenberg:

Americans have been persuaded into believing that business ethics or business philosophy or the pressure group activities of business groups are all integral parts of social and economic system, which promotes public well-being. This also explains enormous influence that the business sector has come to exercise over American Government. (p 24)

Some other recent studies have underscored the fact that beginning as a democratic right, lobbying today has become a highly sophisticated professional activity, but dominated by big capital.2

Three broad characteristics of lobbying woven into the scheme of the book thus emerge: its pervasiveness in American polity; its domination by the economically affluent; and its capacity to influence foreign policy.

Indian Americans in US Politics

Against this backdrop, the book embodies the author’s rationale expressed thus: “foreign policy decisions increasingly reflect ethnic interests rather than an overarching sense of national interests” (p 33). The author uses a descriptive analytical method and does not specifically outline the methodology. Hence, whether lobbying being a domestic-political factor is used as an intervening or independent variable is not stated explicitly. Looking at the lobbying efforts of some of the most influential ethnic groups like the Jewish, Greek, Irish, Latin American and African–American communities, the case for observing the growing influence of the Indian American lobby is made.

Mapping the migrational pattern of Indian Americans from the very beginning of the activity, a compelling account of the emergence of the Indian Americans as a political force in the US is given in the second and the third chapters. An in-depth analysis of the US census, immigration profiles of different immigrant communities over an extended period, and economic, educational and occupational profiling of the Indian Americans lead to the finding that before 1965 the Indian immigrants to the US constituted a smaller number and were of little political significance in the American society. However, people who migrated to the US after independence, facilitated by the Hart–Celler Act, post-1965 to be precise, predominantly belonged to the educated upper class who continued to maintain their position in the US as well. Most
of them pursued higher degrees and also constituted the skilled professional workforce like doctors, engineers, scientists, academics and successful entrepreneurs. Owing to the English-speaking advantage, they assimilated well in the American society, and at the same time, because of a well-knit family structure and values they have been able to emerge as a united and distinct community having a range of over 1,000 well-organised associations.

Political Activism since the 1990s

It is highlighted that the material and professional affluence and sense of community did not translate into active political participation until the 1990s. It was only in the 1990s and in the face of discriminatory measures like racial violence, hate crimes and the “glass ceiling”3 that the Indian Americans fortified themselves into a political community. They emerged as significant voting publics, contesting elections and engaged in fundraising efforts. The community leveraged a range of tools, from religion, food, and entertainment to consolidate its cultural capital in the US and transform this into political capital. This further translated into a clout in lobbying with the formal registration of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) as a lobby group in 2002. The political expediency of the community is exemplified in its bipartisan posture. It is emphasised that today neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can ignore the community’s interests.

The last three chapters document the journey of consolidation of lobbying by Indian Americans, and seek to provide evidence for the claims of political clout made in the earlier chapters. Emphasising the role of India Caucus,4 the author argues that they have been instrumental in building a positive image of India in the US Congress through its focus primarily on US–India relations than concerns of the Indian American ethnic community in the US. The analyses based on interviews with experts and primary documents present a nuanced discussion of the lobbying efforts as well as some of the challenges. The author highlights the struggle of the community to organise as a consolidated group by saying, “Too many Indian American organisations many with similar names and objectives send confusing signals to the members of the Congress” (p 251).

Though the explanation weaves the narratives to largely underscore the effectiveness, the limitations of lobbying surface on several occasions. The effects explained, in the case of lobbying during the nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998 as well as on the agenda of permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), seem less supported by the flow of the description. The causality attributed to lobbying also appears overestimated at various points, like when it is claimed that the transformed US policy towards India is the result of positive image creation through lobbying. There is a whole range of scholarship which emphasises that the US policy towards India has been crafted in consonance with its grand strategy and global policy objective that requires it to strengthen political, economic and defence relations with states that share democratic values and national interests (Cohen 2001; Kapur and Ganguly 2007; Schaffer and Schaffer 2016). For instance, democracy promotion was one of the main objectives of American foreign policy in the period which coincides with the period of political activism showed by the community. A knitting of the overarching objectives of US foreign policy and whether it aligned or contravened with the corresponding lobbying effort, could have been more telling. Given the rigour of study, such analyses would contribute to a constructivist reading of foreign policy in terms of how significant domestic factors have the potential to transform the meanings that actors hold for each other in bilateral relationships.

Also, the treatment of the process of transformation of cultural capital of the community into political capital could have been more nuanced. There is a jerk between the descriptions provided by the author that hint at the instrumentality of a Hindu set of values and identity and his conclusions that explain Indian Americans as successful entrepreneurs aligning effectively with conditions created by market liberalism, imbibing both American as well as Indian values in a unique way.

The book also throws up interesting points of reflection through analysis of the role of entrepreneurs and fundraising in Indian American lobbying in the US. The author also mentions the phrase “combined interests of the two nations” (p 111). Like Morgenthau’s “national interest defined in terms of power” in international relations, what all can constitute the combined interest would be worth delving into by scholars.

Overall, the book presents a very insightful study of lobbying, its theoretical grounding in American politics, its origin, consolidation and instrumentality in the case of the Indian American community. It is an engaging read for anyone interested in US–India relations, and the painstaking details would be of much value to future research in this area.

Notes

1 Teresita and Howard Schaffer use this phrase for lobbying in their latest work on India.

2 Lee Drutman’s (2015) work emphasises the corporatisation of politics in America. His study argues that business constitutes 95% of all the organisations spending on lobbying, indicating the increasing hold of the private sector on policy expertise.

3 Discriminatory feature in jobs with bleak prospects of promotion and secondary treatment vis-à-vis white counterparts. The Glass Ceiling Initiative of the US Department of Labor, 1991 defined it as “those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organisational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organisation into management-level positions.”

4 A group of members of US Congress pursuing common legislative objectives. India Caucus was formed in the lower house of US legislature in 1993 and in 2002 in the upper house.

References

Cohen, Stephen Philip (2001): India: Emerging Power, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Drutman, Lee (2015): The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate, New York: Oxford University Press.

Kapur, Paul S and Sumit Ganguly (2007): “The Transformation of US-India Relations: An Explanation for the Rapprochement and Prospects for the Future,” Asian Survey, Vol 47, No 4, pp 642–56.

Schaffer, Teresita C and Howard Schaffer (2016): India at the Global High Table: The Quest for Regional Primacy and Strategic Autonomy, New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers.

Updated On : 11th Jan, 2019

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