Indian Americans Lobby for U.S. Nuclear Deal
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Bush administration is still trying to sell its controversial nuclear deal with India to a skeptical Congress. Officials want lawmakers to allow the United States to sell nuclear technology and fuel for India's power plants; benefits that have been denied because India has not signed a nuclear non proliferation treaty and has nuclear weapons. Some lawmakers fear this deal could undermine the non proliferation regime around the world.
The Bush administration is getting a boost now from a new political force: Indian-Americans. They're eager for strong U.S. ties with their homeland.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:
In a cramped Washington office, a few members of the U.S.-Indian Political Action Committee, and the U.S.-India Business Alliance are getting in touch with Hill staffers.
Unidentified Man: Hi. This is (unintelligible). I'm calling on behalf of the U.S.-India Business Alliance...
KELEMEN: They're trying to get a good Congressional turnout for their next news conference on Capitol Hill. This lobbying effort is the brainchild of Sanjay Puri, who splits his time between politics and his information technology business in Chantilly, Virginia.
(Soundbite of telephone ringing)
Unidentified Woman: Thanks for calling Optimos.
Mr. SANJAY PURI (President and CEO, Optimos; Chairman, US India Political Action Committee): The name of my company is Optimos. I'm an optimist.
KELEMEN: Puri came to the U.S. when he was 18. He worked at the World Bank before he started this business, and the U.S.-Indian Political Action Committee.
Mr. PURI: It used to be that you had two professions when you were growing up as an Indian-American, you know, you'll be a doctor or an engineer. I was the black sheep. I couldn't be either one of them. But now there are many, many more choices for young people. And they are figuring out that maybe entering into the public policy dialogue is important.
KELEMEN: Sanjay Puri describes the Indian immigrant community as a relatively new one to politics. His political action committee says it has 27,000 active members. And there's a large India Caucus in Congress.
Puri argues that the nuclear deal will bring two big democracies even closer together, and he thinks much of the Indian-American community is behind him.
Mr. PURI: I'm really hoping that something tangible comes out of this, because, like I said, it's truly a historic opportunity. Two democracies, the oldest, the largest, you know, you've heard that expression. But truly, people who like each other, and I think we have a chance to kind of take it to the next level.
KELEMEN: But even some members of Congress in the India Caucus are caught in a bind, hoping to boost relations with India while not undermining the non proliferation regime.
Mr. CHARLES FERGUSON (Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations): So I kind of feel tugged in kind of both directions, and so I think the type of approach we outlined in our report would appeal to that type of Congressman or Senator.
KELEMEN: That's Charles Ferguson, of the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a self-described non proliferation ayatollah; a tow the line kind of guy. But he recently co-authored a paper on a compromise approach for Congress to show support for the deal without giving final approval until some critical non proliferation needs are met.
His co-author, Michael Levi, says the idea is to make sure India reaches an agreement with the UN's nuclear watchdog, to insure that inspections of India's nuclear facilities are permanent, to maintain a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, and to make sure the nuclear suppliers group signs off on the deal.
Mr. MICHAEL LEVI (Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations): Congress doesn't have a direct say on those things. What it can do is wait until those pieces are in place before it passes its own legislation changing American non proliferation law. And that's precisely what we recommend.
KELEMEN: In the meantime, members of Congress could pass a resolution to show that they support the idea, but buy some time to be more responsible on the non proliferation side.
Levi hopes that this approach will break a deadlock on an issue that has divided even analysts within major Washington think tanks.
Mr. LEVI: Pick a major think tank in Washington, and there are people writing for and against this deal. It is really - it's actually - it's quite encouraging to see that kind of non rigid discussion and debate.
KELEMEN: Sanjay Puri, who plans to be back up on the Hill this week, also doesn't see this as a partisan issue, and he describes the members of his political action committee this way:
Mr. PURI: The majority still is democrat. You know, just like in a lot of immigrant communities. Even though there's been a continued sense, especially after the last presidential race, a tremendous outreach that's happening from both parties to our community. So I think the community is in play, and it's an important community.
KELEMEN: It is a wealthy and fast-growing community, as well, he says, and one that is facing a test of its political muscle with this India nuclear deal.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.