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February 28, 2000
The doctors organise 'em better
J M Shenoy
Not too long ago when American politicians sought out a fund-raising event in the Indian community, they usually thought of doctors. They are still attending big fund-raisers organized by doctors but they are also finding money-bags in Silicon Valley, and in Indian high-tech businesses. But unlike the doctors, desi Silicon Valley bigwigs hardly get the press, national or ethnic.
"When a fund-raiser is held in Silicon Valley, the donors do not want to be high profile," says Sanjiv Dhawan, a hotshot attorney in the Valley. "The fund-raising culture is very different." But the doctors are masters of showmanship and photo opportunities, observers say.
When George Bush was a presidential candidate for the first time, he attended a fund-raiser at the home of physician and activist Raj Bothra. Michael Dukakis was a front runner in the Democratic Party then.
Bothra, who has also produced and acted in a movie, Mehndi starring Raj Babbar, coined a slogan -- 'Dukakis Means Doom, Bush Means Boom.' Bush's people liked the idea so much that they used the slogan for several days.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Dr Zach Zachariah has held $ 10,000 per person fund-raisers for the Republican cause, he has received plenty of media attention. He is among the top 10 fund-raisers for Geroge W Bush in Florida.
"In the Valley, Indian Americans are raising big money," says one venture capitalist. "Both parties are getting big money, though the Republicans seems to have an upper hand." He would not be surprised if over $ 1 million is raised for both parties in the next few months.
"But we do not make much noise about it," he says. "For us, what is important is what we could get out of the candidates after the fund-raisers are over. We want to keep in touch with them on regular basis, and make sure our interests are protected.
"We also want to demonstrate to them that we are involved in social projects -- and we are not here to make money just for ourselves."
But many Indians outside Silicon Valley say they are disappointed that Indian businesses have not tried to influence American politicians in issues other than politics and business.
"When the Southern Baptists published a booklet last Diwali season attacking Hindus as people living in eternal darkness, why weren't there dozens of Congressmen to pass resolution against this kind of bigotry?" asks an Indian journalist. "Why didn't the Indian doctors, motel owners and Silicon Valley businessmen influence their Congressmen to pass a resolution against the Baptists?"
Silicon Valley and other IT businesses run by Indian Americans reportedly earned about $ 62 billion last year, according to Stanford University economist Rafiq Dossani. This is nearly five times the earning of Indian moteliers and hoteliers who control about 40 per cent of the hospitality industry in the economy class.
Naturally, politicians are expecting much more contribution from the IT sector. And they believe they have good reasons to expect more moolah. For many American politicians and leaders in the Indian community believe that it was the work of such IT stalwarts like Swadesh Chatterjee that helped many Washington politicians understand what was happening in Kargil.
'Like all Americans participating in politics, American Indians are now sufficiently mature to advocate for their motherland, much as the Jews became capable advocates for Israel,' Congresman Gary Ackerman, New York Democrat and chairman of the 118-member Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, told The Washington Times this weekend.
Chatterjee, president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Education, is widely acknowledged to be the one person who helped arch conservative and pro-Pakistan Senator Jesse Helms to soften his attitude towards India.
Chatterjee and his associates say they are far more effective in managing the attitude of American politicians towards India than the high-priced lobbyists for the Indian government.
"We offer the human touch," Chatterjee, who has businesses in Helms's home state of North Carolina, says. "When Senator Helms has been in good health, I have visited him. When he was sick, I have been by his bedside in the hospital."
Chatterjee, who has held several high-flying fund-raisers for Helms, says it would have been impossible to imagine a few years ago that Helms could be made to look at India from a new perspective.
The Washington Times reported this week that Mark Lagon, Helms's senior foreign policy aide, said Wednesday at a Georgetown University forum that America should drop sanctions on India, imposed after Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests two years ago.
'But he did not offer such largesse to Pakistan,' the newspaper reported.
While many Indian American businessmen and community leaders say that fund-raising and other political contributions are important, some also say that Indian organizations feel shy of asking for a commitment from politicians before agreeing to hold the fund-raiser events for them or inviting them to speak at a convention.
"Several years ago Indian doctors paid $ 100,00 to the Democratic Party so that they could have President Clinton as the keynote speaker at the doctors's convention in Chicago," says an Indian physician who did not want his name disclosed. "But did they ask him if he could guarantee some initiative to help international doctors?"
"There are many things we should learn from other communities such as Jews about lobbying."
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