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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 21-34

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Unfinished Passage:
India, Indian Americans, and the U.S. Congress

Robert M. Hathaway

Only half-jokingly, Representative Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), former cochair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, claims that until recently most members of the U.S. Congress believed that "IndiaPakistan" was a single word. This assertion of course exaggerates the paucity of South Asia knowledge prevalent on Capitol Hill for much of the past half-century. Ackerman's jest does, nonetheless, underscore what has been a painful fact of life for many in India: 50 years into its national existence, their country has seldom commanded the attention, let alone the respect, of the U.S. Congress that its standing as the world's largest democracy demands.

The point of Ackerman's quip, however, is that this neglect is rapidly fading. Today, India can identify scores of U.S. legislators who publicly and proudly declare their friendship for New Delhi. More than a quarter of the members of the House of Representatives have joined an informal congressional caucus, one of whose principal goals is to promote close Indo-U.S. ties. Congressional travel to India has jumped dramatically over the past half-dozen years. Legislative attempts to cut U.S. foreign aid to India--long an annual tradition in the House of Representatives--now produce lopsided votes in favor of continued U.S. assistance and are remarkable chiefly for the spectacle of members of Congress elbowing each other out of the way (figuratively if not quite literally) to reach the microphone to denounce such efforts.

Not even India's May 1998 nuclear tests stemmed this tide of congressional support for New Delhi. Most legislators conceded that then-President Bill Clinton had little choice but to invoke the Glenn amendment, which [End Page 21] imposed extensive economic and military sanctions on New Delhi (and following Pakistan's tests, on Islamabad as well). 1 Yet the ink on the presidential orders triggering sanctions was hardly dry before members of Congress began to voice doubts about the wisdom of an action their own legislation had mandated. Over the next year and a half, Congress adopted a series of measures easing the Glenn amendment sanctions. By the fall of 1999, legislators had given Clinton authority to waive the entire package of penalties slapped on New Delhi the previous year. All, apparently, was forgiven.

Of course, things on Capitol Hill are never this straightforward. Even as long-time analysts of Indo-U.S. relations marvel at the past decade's change in congressional attitudes, genuine knowledge on the Hill about South Asia remains woefully shallow. On the region's most volatile issue, for instance, most U.S. legislators "have an understanding of Kashmir that is about one sentence deep," according to one well-placed source. A congressional aide with extensive experience in the region is even less charitable, judging that most members of Congress "wouldn't know India or Pakistan if they came up and bit them on the ass."

Even if this harsh verdict overstates the case, it does accurately reflect an important reality: members of Congress possessing a well-developed strategic vision of South Asia, and of U.S. interests in the region, are still very much the exception. For all the apparent change in congressional attitudes toward the Indian subcontinent, and notwithstanding the new prominence of the Indian American community, the majority of U.S. legislators remain remarkably oblivious to the one-fifth of humanity for whom South Asia is home. Ackerman's "IndiaPakistan" may have passed from congressional discourse, but the foundations on the Hill for a solid Indo-U.S. partnership remain unsteady.

Indifference Becomes Keen Interest

Recent years have witnessed what may prove to be a fundamental reordering of Indo-U.S. ties. Clinton's widely acclaimed (in India, at any rate) visit in early 2000 represented the first presidential trip to the subcontinent in more than two decades. Six months later, Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee experienced all the trappings...


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