Lobbying in Washington The Tribune, Chandigarh, March 5,2005
Lobbying in Washington
India should be in the big league
by T.P. Sreenivasan
LEADING lobbyists in Washington make a beeline to New Delhi whenever the embassy’s lobbying contract expires. Press reports suggest that Ambassador Robert Blackwill, who has moved from the White House to a leading lobbying firm, is among those in the fray this time. His sheer competence and his record as ambassador of India are likely to weigh in his favour in the minds of the decision-makers in New Delhi. The need for lobbyists and their role in promoting India-US relations should also be under review at this time.
Lobbying for foreign governments is certainly permissible in Washington, but it has to be done by open contracts, which have to be registered. The services rendered and the fees paid are spelt out in the contracts. The firms are normally headed by former Congressmen or Senators and manned essentially by lawyers and former congressional staffers. They facilitate meetings rather than argue the case of the government concerned. Their value is in identifying the decision-makers, making the right contacts and arranging meetings. The lobbyists themselves are present in some of the meetings, but they are witnesses rather than participants in the conversations. If the conversations do not go well, they apply correctives at the right places to ensure that the next conversation is more productive.
Foreign governments hire Washington lobbyists to win friends and influence people in the Capitol, the White House, the State Department, and most important of all, the aid agencies. Paying to the lobbyists a portion of the aid received is a habit with small countries. Generally, it is the medium and small countries that have lobbyists in Washington as the major powers have sufficient resources within their own missions to do lobbying. Even major missions hire lobbyists on occasions when there is an issue to be promoted or suppressed.
Lobbyists have a particular role in the US Congress as the members of the Congress and the Senate are bound by ethics that restrict interaction with foreigners. Congressmen can attend parties of diplomats only if the guest list exceeds at least a dozen people. They have to pay for their own meal even when they dine with diplomatic representatives.
The India caucus in the Congress, now exceeding 150 Congressmen, is our biggest lobbying stronghold. Their co-chairmen like Congressmen Frank Pallone, Bill McCollum, Gary Ackerman and Ed Royce have done more lobbying for India on the Hill than all our lobbyists put together. But the same cannot be said about all the members of the caucus, some of whom may have signed up to please someone, without knowing much about India. Some of them see no contradiction in being a member of both the India and Pakistan caucuses. These Congressmen need to be constantly briefed about developments in India and in the Congress so that they vote with the rest of the caucus on India-related issues.
A senior State Department official told me once that lobbying by India and Pakistan on the Hill was so evenly balanced that the US policy towards the two countries could not be amended beyond a point. This is an exaggeration since the India caucus is larger and older than the Pakistan caucus, and the Indian community is more active than the Pakistani community. But what he meant was that the lobbying firms of India and Pakistan were evenly matched. Pakistan, being a recipient of massive U.S. assistance, can write off part of it as lobbying charges. India has no such advantage, but it matches Pakistan’s efforts by hiring first-rate lobbyists.
Pakistan has two “desi” lobbyists in Washington, GS Aulakh of “Khalistan” and the representative of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). They generate letters, remarks and legislation on the Hill for their causes, which challenge the integrity of India. Although such activities that seek to subvert friendly nations ought to be disallowed, they flourish in the name of freedom of speech, and the self-styled champions of human rights encourage them. Aulakh, an impressive Sikh, donned in colourful turbans, walks around the Capitol with a sheaf of papers, allegedly containing facts and figures of police oppression in Punjab. It is not unusual for some Congressmen to be misled by him into signing letters to the President asking him to advise India to be more tolerant of dissent. The letter will be worded in such a way that it may not look anti-Indian at all. To quash these moves before they gather momentum, the embassy needs to have people on the Hill, who will alert the embassy in time. The JKLF too has a number of Congressmen, who routinely write letters about “atrocities” in Jammu and Kashmir. The lobbyists have the necessary contacts and resources to trace these activities.
India’s lobbying efforts were redoubled after the nuclear tests of 1998. The personal views of the lobbyists are not relevant in such cases as they are expected only to package the product and not to analyse it. It is not unusual, however, that the advice of the lobbyists is coloured by their convictions. One of our first lobbyists, who had acquired a certain expertise on India, was personally convinced that the tests would damage India-US relations and felt that it was better for the embassy to lie low rather than campaign actively to gain support for the tests. We rejected his advice and he did not last long as our lobbyist after the tests. But, as a rule, lobbyists support the case of their clients, right or wrong, just as lawyers take up criminal cases.
The need for professional lobbying support for the embassy in Washington is beyond question, but it could well be secured by the embassy directly hiring experienced lawyers, who have expertise on the Hill or in previous administrations. The revolving doors in Washington send out some of them to the job market from time to time. Star-studded firms tend to be very expensive, even though middle-level or lower functionaries do most of the work. By hiring them directly, the embassy can secure their loyalty and put them to use very effectively. With the money that we allocate to hire firms, it should be possible to deploy more people than the concerned firms employ to handle the India account. Major embassies hire experts from the market directly while aid recipients go for major firms, whose expenses can be debited to the aid account. India should be in the big league in Washington.n
The writer is a former Ambassador of India. He has also represented India at the UN.