For Indian-Americans it seems there is much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. By and large they vote Democrat, and the Democrats have regained control of the House and the Senate. And the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement just cleared the Senate by a whopping 85-12 margin. “Cold War blinkers have finally come off in India-U.S. ties,” rejoiced an editorial in The Times of India, remembering the days when no matter what the issue, the United States reflexively cold-shouldered India because it was perceived to be in the Soviet bloc.
It should be time to start handing out the mithai (sweets).
Maybe not so fast. For Indian-American Democrats, life actually got a little trickier. Sure, the Senate bill passed with bipartisan support, but all 12 no-votes came from Democrats. Like Sen. Barbara Boxer. She introduced what India considered a deal-breaker amendment. It linked the nuclear deal to India agreeing to “suspend military-to-military cooperation with Iran.” India complained that was both an unfair intrusion into its sovereignty and not part of the original deal between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The amendment was defeated 59-38. Republicans didn’t strongly back the bill; only nine voted for it. But of the 29 Democrats who voted in support of it, two are heavyweights being touted as 2008 Presidential nominees who were probably trying to build up their tough-on-Iran street cred—Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Clinton, incidentally, is also the co-chair of the Friends of India caucus.
Another amendment that called for reaffirmation of the U.N. resolution that condemned India and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests was routed 71-27. But, again worth noting, the man behind it was a Democrat—Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. While condemning nuclear testing may not be seen as specifically anti-India, resurrecting an old U.N. resolution can easily be seen as an effort to humiliate.
That feeling was further underscored by another amendment on the bill offered by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), which went down 71-25. Support for this amendment included a by now familiar roster: Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Barack Obama and longtime Indian-American community friend Edward Kennedy. Et tu, Brute!
The Senate and the House will meet next month to reconcile the amendments. The bill will need to be approved again by the two chambers before Bush signs it into law.
The American opposition is in part about the fear of nuclear proliferation, and there’s no avoiding that a special deal is being cut for India. Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has already demanded “a level playing field for civil nuclear energy,” which should not be “country specific.” Good point, but Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns wasn’t buying it. “India is being treated here by the U.S. as a unique, exceptional country. We are not planning to confer this status on any other country. No other country will qualify,” he said frankly.
Indian analysts are also seeing considerable pressure from the pro-Israel lobby to rein in India’s fast track to “exceptional status.” Israel wants the bill to be both carrot-and-stick to pressure India to sever its relationship with Iran.
As the new Congress comes in, analyst T.V.R Shenoy writes in Rediff.com that Indian-Americans might find new roadblocks. It’s not that the Democratic majority is intrinsically anti-Indian. (Russ Feingold sugarcoated his poison-pill amendment by calling India “one of our most important partners”). But several of the newly elected members (e.g ,Sherrod Brown, senator-elect from Ohio) are strongly protectionist. “They may not care a toss for the arcana of nuclear pacts but they can, and do, care about the outsourcing of jobs to India,” Shenoy writes. “And that will make it just a bit harder to push through legislation that favors India.”
Perhaps that is why the Senate passage has been greeted with cautious optimism by the Indian government, but without the exultant whoops that accompanied the earlier July House vote. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to the United States in 2005, he made it clear he was going not with a “begging bowl” but to apprise the American leadership of “India’s aspirations.”
Here’s the quandary: Indian-Americans are generally Democrats, but the cheerleader-in-chief for India, at least as far as this nuclear deal goes, is President Bush. And when the House and Senate switch over to Democratic control, Indian-Americans are probably going to find themselves caught between their Indian roots and their American lives.
Already one reader on the popular Indian news portal Rediff.com is demanding that the list of 12 no-voters on the bill be published prominently. “Traditionally, Indians, like all immigrants to U.S., favor Democrats. but if Democrats do not realize it, at least Indians in the United States are entitled to know,” he writes.
Indians in India, meanwhile, see the deal as part of its ascension into the big boys club. As the Senate passed the bill, The Hindustan Times newspaper was celebrating this new muscle by organizing a leadership summit around the theme “India: the Next Global Superpower?” The next prize would be a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
But the Democratic opposition hasn’t escaped notice. “The rising star of the Democrats, Senator Obama, has lent his name to an amendment that prevents India from storing fuel for its imported reactors,” pointed out M. J. Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Asian Age. And The Hindustan Times described it as “a clear indicator that doing business with a Democrat-dominated Congress will not be easy.”
Now as the House and Senate bills move toward reconciliation, the Indian American community will no doubt be watching the Democrats it raised money for and voted for.
Friends-of-India Democrats might find it’s not going to be enough to just show up at the Diwali function.
Sandip Roy is an editor at New America Media and host of UpFront, NAM’s weekly radio program on KALW-FM 91.7 in San Francisco.