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Commentary / Rajeev Srinivasan

For all our affluence and our numbers, Indian influence in the US is minimal

Bill Clinton The silence from Washington was nothing short of deafening when Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was removed from office rather unceremoniously. Not a peep! I suspect there were some red faces at Foggy Bottom, the home of the US State Department: After all these were the same worthies who had applauded Bhutto's government as a 'model, modern, moderate' Islamic democracy, in the immortal words of Robin Raphel, assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs. Nice alliteration there.

So why didn't the American white knights ride to the rescue of the good-looking, well-bred, well-spoken, Western-educated (every news story about her emphasises her Harvard/Radcliffe and Oxford antecedents) Benazir Bhutto, their favorite South Asian leader?

It may be because US interests will be served quite well by the generals of Pakistan; they have always acted as good surrogates, from the days of CENTO to today's Afghanistan. This fact must have somewhat assuaged consciences at the State Department. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that the champion of democracy worldwide is so cozy with generals. But then, this is not new.

A commentator in The Times of London pointed out an interesting contrast: It is widely known of course that corruption is endemic in South Asia. But look at the recourse. In India, a (former) prime minister accused of corruption is charged under due process of law, and despite much legal maneuvering, dragged into court. In Pakistan, a prime minister is booted out casually in yet another coup d'etat, as the military stands by approvingly. Vive la difference!

There are some interesting rumors in the air these days: a well-placed source tells me that Robin Raphel might become US ambassador to Afghanistan. Now that would be deliciously ironic -- after all, Raphel has steadfastly supported Pakistan's interests in the region.

If widespread speculation is correct, the Taleban militia in Kabul is armed and abetted by Pakistan. So that which Raphel sowed, she would reap. Furthermore, it is interesting to speculate how the strict and fundamentalist Taleban would react to a woman plenipotentiary. Poetic justice, indeed.

Turning to US news, of concern to India was the election defeat of US Senator Larry Pressler, who by accident became a friend of India's primarily because of his arms control interests. The Pressler Amendment had made it unlawful for the US to transfer arms to Pakistan; the Clinton administration had to go to great lengths to bypass it last year.

All this made Pressler obviously an enemy to Pakistan, and also by extension to various anti-India entities, such as supporters of Sikh and Kashmiri separatist causes. I believe funds were channelled into the race by all these groups, and also by Indian Americans.

It was not enough; just as in the case of Stephen Solarz, the India-friendly politician who lost his seat in 1994, whatever Indian-Americans did was too little, and too late. On the other hand, consistent India-bashers Dan Burton and Robert Torricelli were re-elected. We can anticipate the bi-annual gratuitous anti-India bills to reach the US legislatures right on schedule. We will miss Solarz and Pressler.

This debacle is a matter of some concern. What can be done? Almost all countries hire lobbyists and political activists who have the skills and the contacts to develop new 'friends' amongst the power-brokers in the American legislative branch. Furthermore, the Indian-American community could be a little more assertive.

My thoughtful Indian-American friends constantly bemoan the fact that the fairly numerous Indians in the US are completely apolitical and apathetic. Just as in India, the middle class Indian in the US is very wary of politics, and keeps aloof. Maybe it really is time to rethink this. For all our affluence and our numbers, our influence is minimal. We get nothing more than a few photo-opportunities for the millions raised by and from Indian-Americans.

An interesting development is the accusation of influence-peddling and even outright espionage by Asians: we might see new restrictions on the ability of foreigners and their US-resident agents to channel money to campaigns. This might affect Indian-American lobbying efforts.

The current rules of the game are that any contributions made to politicians must be made by American citizens out of their own earned income. It is believed that the latter rule is widely flouted by vested interests channelling money through agents. The Wall Street Journal recently initiated investigations into alleged violations by Pakistani-Americans, for example.

At issue in the Chinese case are allegations that large sums of money were raised from foreign proxies by John Huang, a Taiwanese-American who used to represent the Indonesian-Chinese conglomerate Lippo. Apparently Lippo chief Mochtar Riady funnelled $1 million to the Clinton campaign through various intermediaries, including Buddhist temples. There is also the intriguing story of an Indian-American who 'donated' $325,000 to the Clinton cause, but later turned out to be bankrupt!

According to a story in The Times of London, the Chinese government has essentially infiltrated the US administration and succeeded in squelching various initiatives that were potentially harmful to China. The Times quotes an unnamed intelligence source who says, wryly, 'The Chinese have clearly pulled off the kind of coup that we would have loved to have done.'

The legislature has ordered an investigation into these allegations, which maintain that the Chinese, taking advantage of lax security and a pattern of corruption, were able to influence American trade policy to benefit Lippo, the Indonesians, the Taiwanese, and the Chinese.

The trail points squarely to Huang, who became an official in the commerce department, and had access to confidential CIA reports. He apparently influenced the most-favoured-nation deal for China, and provided advanced information about US trade policies and positions to the Chinese. In his spare time, by the way, Huang raised $5 million for the Democratic National Conference.

Maybe some of this explains the remarkable run of good luck the Chinese seem to have had with the Clinton administration. Maybe there is less strategic calculation, and more pure corruption than meets the untrained eye.

All this is heady cloak-and-dagger stuff, vintage John Le Carre and Graham Greene. Except it is the NATO guys who are being outsmarted. Smiley must be turning over in his fictional grave.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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