India’s interests at the most important political event in the United States of America in this election year were taken care of by just four persons. Badly outnumbered by their counterparts from similarly placed countries, the four Indians did a valiant job of making their nation’s presence felt at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Boston, the launching pad for the final lap of the US presidential election, due in 83 days.
The four-day convention was a scripted show. More substantive work was done elsewhere: there were several hundred events all across Boston and neighbouring centres such as Cambridge. At Boston’s Harvard Club, which will celebrate its centenary in four years, there was a foreign policy luncheon, which saw the crème de la crème of America’s foreign policy circuit rub shoulders with their peers from many parts of the world.
Those uninitiated in the ways of American politics could have easily mistaken the Democratic National Convention for an Israeli event. Jewish American organizations bombarded television viewers during the four days of the convention with an advertising blitz that was tailor-made to bolster Israel’s standing with the next administration if John Kerry is elected president on November 2. These organizations mobilized Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill so comprehensively that no one was left in doubt that it would make no difference to the Jewish state if Democrats were to replace George W. Bush in the White House and take control of both the US Senate and the House of Representatives.
The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs brought together 600 political leaders and diplomats from 120 countries at an International Leaders Forum to coincide with the convention. There were parliament members from Britain and Japan, to mention just two countries which had a visible presence. The event was an opportunity for leaders from different parts of the world and within the US to understand and learn from each other.
Sadly, these major events passed India by. India paid very little attention to the Democratic National Convention. It invested no effort in working out any strategy on how it could exploit the event to any long-term advantage.
The four Indians who represented India in Boston were Rakesh Sood, India’s charge de affaires in Washington, Tarun Das, chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Kiran Pasricha, CII’s senior director for North America and Vikram Misri, political counsellor at the Indian embassy in Washington. Considering that the organizers invited 15,000 guests, the small Indian presence speaks volumes for the political engagement between India and the US.
These four Indians put their best foot forward, tried to be at as many events as possible, which could be of use to India, and make their presence felt: but the task was daunting. Considering the substantial attendance from a number of other countries, there were obvious limitations to what these four Indians could do.
The world has changed beyond recognition in the last 15 years, but New Delhi continues to view events such as political conventions in the US the way they approached the Congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for decades. The CPSU meetings were carefully scrutinized by Indians, often with deep background briefings from the inside, but New Delhi’s approach, understandably, was always one of maintaining a distance. To be effective in the US, on the other hand, you have to plunge headlong into the process, never mind the fact that you are a foreigner. But it cannot come easily to a country which resisted until a decade ago the idea of hiring a lobbyist in Washington, something which even Eritrea and Malawi have done as a matter of routine.
When the Israelis are encumbered by their “foreignness” into limiting their involvement in the US political process, they mobilize their supporters — especially on Capitol Hill — to speak on their behalf. The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans is the biggest caucus of its kind in America’s legislative landscape. The only Senate caucus devoted to a foreign country is about India: a third of Senators are its members. But while Senators and Congressmen were lauding Israel from the convention podium in Boston, the India caucuses made up of members of the House of Representatives and Senators were nowhere in evidence at the conclave of Democrats.
At the more prestigious events on the sidelines of the convention, such as the Harvard Club gathering and the National Democratic Institute’s event, there was hardly any mention of India.
Last week, Kerry and John Edwards, his running mate for vice-president, released a 263-page book called Our Plan for America. The book is an improvement in its treatment of India than the Democratic Party’s platform or manifesto for the coming election, which was approved in Boston. The book has some half a dozen references to India, but almost wholly in the context of China, the disputes with Pakistan or the nuclear issue. It presents a dismal picture of what India means to the US — or at least to half its electorate voting for Democrats and their leaders.
There has been much discussion on the treatment that Democrats reserved for India in their manifesto. The document almost wholly dismissed India, referring to the country only in the context of how America must work to resolve differences between New Delhi and Islamabad and to make sure that the nuclearization of the subcontinent is dealt with in terms that suit Washington.
Rajen Anand, an Indian American delegate from California with experience of Democratic conventions and the seniormost Clinton appointee from among south Asians in the US, said that India was neglected in the manifesto because “no one pushed for it”. Anand has been a member of the manifesto committee at two previous conventions: he knows how the system works.
If India is seeking an enduring relationship with the US as New Delhi claims, it is not enough for ministers to visit Washington, New York and Silicon Valley, make the right noises in front of their counterparts or Indian Americans and then go back home, more often than not, to forget everything they said or promised on the trip. The engagement with the US has to be wide-ranging, broad and long-term.
Election-year conventions of American political parties offer an ideal opportunity for such broad engagement — especially with the party that is not in the administration. Such engagement cannot be done at the eleventh hour, but requires planning in which New Delhi gets actively involved instead of leaving everything to its embassy and consulates in the US. Given the imperatives of election year activities in the US and the opening they provide for bilateral interaction, there is a strong case for not changing an ambassador to Washington once the US presidential poll campaign has started.
There is another psychological handicap which chronically affects Indian policy-making, which Sonia Gandhi has personal experience of. When she was in Washington as Congress president and leader of the opposition, one of the meetings fixed for her was with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. The meeting was cancelled, then reinstated amidst considerable embarrassment all round. The reason for the flip-flop was advice from the Indian mission in Washington that since Clinton was a Democrat, it was inadvisable and unnecessary for Sonia to meet the Senator.
The same attitude partly contributed to the small Indian presence in Boston. Plans should have been made at least a year ago by the Indian mission in conjunction with New Delhi to have a large Indian presence. The scenario is unlikely to be much different at the Republican National Convention in New York at the end of August if only because New Delhi is also yet to grasp the opportunity cost of not using such political events in the US to its advantage.