Sanjay Puri, Founder and CEO of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), is the father of Indian American political activation. An American citizen and US resident for 30 years, he founded USINPAC in 2002. Since its inception, USINPAC has supported 48 candidates for local, state and federal offices and encouraged political participation among the Indian-American community.
It was USINPAC, which sowed the seeds of what was witnessed in the American Congress on January 4; Five Indian Americans taking oath for Congress. They were all Democrats and supported by USINPAC. Just a coincidence and no reflection of USINPAC’s bipartisan nature. Various times during the hour-long phone conversation from his office in Washington DC Sanjay reiterated the importance of staying neutral.
“The 2016 US election was the most polarised ever. While the Democrats in USINPAC were all gung-ho about Mrs. Clinton, our Republican colleagues decided to sit out and not support Mr. Trump. Elections results sent both groups in a tizzy. Democrats were baffled and Republican groups were not left with any locus-standi to reconnect with the party,” says Sanjay Puri.
USINPAC, however stays as connected with the Trump administration as it was with the Obama government. “We are not here to carry the load of individual ideologies. Our objective is to serve the Indian American community,” adds Sanjay.
Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley both Republicans also benefitted from the heavy lifting USINPAC did at the time of their campaigning.
Indian Americans have historically supported Democrats, tied to the party due to the party’s support for immigration, proactive outreach of Indian diaspora and to a large extent aggregation of Indian Americans in Democrat-heavy areas. The Democratic party has evolved into a ‘coastal’ party in line with where the majority of Indian Americans reside in the US. Along the East and the West Coast. From California to Seattle, NY tri-state area and up and down Washington DC. All heavily democratic zones. Shaping the political ideologies of Indian Americans.
Capitol Hill, today has time for USINPAC. Their voice is heard and counsel is respected. Sanjay is seen on national television demystifying leaders and strategies of BJP and Congress alike. That was not the case when Sanjay Puri and team went across American states selling the idea to the diaspora across the country in 2002.
“After the Vajpayee government tested the nuclear device India started getting hammered by the US with legislations and sanctions. Strong negative perception started building about India. The narrative of India being called a banana republic not only reflected on us poorly but more importantly, it became an issue of how would our children perceive their own heritage. We had to do something and USINPAC was the answer. An organisation which could give voice to Indian Americans in the political corridors was needed,” says Sanjay.
“Fool’s errand” in Sanjay’s own words started at the grassroots level. They went across the states evangelising the concept in Diwali melas, local fairs and community events. There was a high degree of skepticism among the Indian community. There were no precedents and it took two to three years of groundwork among the diaspora and Capitol Hill before USINPAC started getting noticed.
Early victories came in form of getting the US congress to place some strong conditions on the American aid to Pakistan and signing of the Indo-US nuclear agreement. USINPAC had a strong role to play in both and found themselves in the front pages of Washington Post and New York Times. It has been an uphill ride for USINPAC ever since, backed with loads of continuous hard work.
Sanjay clarifies, “Our work is primarily to give voice to the Indian American community. We played a very proactive role when Mr Modi was being demonised in the American Congress. Over 70 members of the Congress proposed action against him. We made regular representations against all such action. Not because we favoured Mr Modi or BJP but we felt and argued that the US Congress had no business meddling in the affairs of a democracy like India. And once again the anti-Modi rhetoric was bad for Indian Americans.”
Thanks to the emergence of Indian American politicians, political ambition has grown among Indian Americans. There is a sea change in the attitudes towards participation in active politics. Matters have progressed tremendously from getting a picture taken with a senator to parents actually considering it as a career for their kids. Articulating and laying out what is that Indian-Americans care about, taking part in policy making, asking for and getting positions in administrations.
Sanjay and team have their work cut out with the Trump administration. Neutrality of stance has kept them in good stead. USINPAC has hosted a Presidential dialogue series with members of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s election campaign and transition team. Their site is actively propagating Indian Americans to take up jobs in the new administration. “Indian Americans desiring to work with the incoming administration should send their resumes to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit USINPAC to apply.”
All the anti-immigration noise during the build-up to the US elections would have parents of Indian kids going to America nervous. Sanjay assures, “As long as these kids are coming to study they are fine. There is no need to worry. Tuition fees are a big source of income for the USA. Administrations do realise that if the USA has to maintain its 4 per cent growth there will have to be a balance of in-country and immigrant talent. We continue the process of supplying our position papers to the government and will continue to work on issues like visas and immigration.”
USINPAC’s bipartisan nature extends to the support they have provided Indian political parties, from having hosted Kapil Sibal to Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh. Sanjay does have strong words of praise for PM Narendra Modi.
Reminiscing his first trip to ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ when he had chaperoned a business delegation to the summit and Mr Modi was the Chief Minister, Sanjay says, “Level of preparedness to support the visiting businessmen was very impressive. Specific bureaucrats and officers were assigned to the delegates depending on their industry and approvals were granted on the spot. Not two or six months later. I haven’t seen that happen even in a country like the USA. He was and is an action oriented, visionary, tech savvy, and in tune with youth. As a Prime Minister also he has a clear vision for India.”
Over the last 14 years, Sanjay has closely monitored and worked in some of the most tumultuous political times. Individuals rising amidst the highest level of adversity, filled with self-belief whether it was the first African American President or the political novice Donald Trump or PM Modi with an army of detractors outside and inside his own party.
“I feel what Mr Modi has done vis-a-vis US is remarkable. A decade back the man had 70 American congressman gunning for him. He was denied visa to the country. What does he do when he becomes the PM? Instead of sulking he lavishes unprecedented attention towards the USA, made the country his number one partner. I think he will be able to curry up the same with Mr Trump’s administration,” says Sanjay.
An experienced visitor to Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, being one of the most influential Pravasi himself, Sanjay feels Mr Modi has outdone even Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the erstwhile pied piper of NRIs.
Well, with three more years to go for Narendra Modi and four clear for Donald Trump, Sanjay Puri and team are in for a roller coaster ride of their life.