Lobby of one
As the Obama administration makes Pakistan its top foreign policy priority, some Pakistani-Americans are attempting to emulate their Indian counterparts by wielding influence in Washington. Miranda Kennedy meets their young leader. In a personable interview with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn a few weeks ago, Barack Obama revealed that he reads Urdu poetry and cooks Pakistani dishes like dal and keema. It was an attempt to charm one of the world's most persistently anti-American countries, and it may or may not have succeeded, but it certainly pleased one Pakistani-American: Taha Gaya, a 27-year-old lobbyist, who takes credit for initiating the interview. Gaya runs a tiny Washington advocacy organisation called the Pakistani-American Leadership Center (PAL-C), and he made it known to various officials that the community was disappointed Obama had not yet talked to a Pakistani outfit; soon after, the administration reached out to Dawn. Gaya is still crowing about the results: "I had a field day with it," he says. "I teased my friends that you can't even cook keema, and the American president can - what are you doing with your life?"
Gaya, a devout Muslim with a beard and spiky black hair, divides his days between meetings with Congressional staff and Pakistani-American groups. In a town defined by protocol and prestige, Gaya takes the Metro rather than taxis, and carries his papers in a bike messenger bag, which makes him look more like a college kid than a powerful K Street lobbyist, even when he's wearing a suit and tie. But despite his youthful enthusiasm, he now has the ear of some of the most senior figures in the foreign policy establishment.
Obama created a specific diplomatic posting to deal with the region on his second day in office, naming Richard Holbrooke the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Pakistan's representation in the capital remains minimal - and Gaya's own inexperience is emblematic of Pakistan's overall lack of savvy in Washington. In the past, Islamabad has spent serious resources on lobbying in America - it even for a time retained the infamous Jack Abramoff - but now, it lacks the high-profile official representation that is de rigueur for even the smallest nations. India spends more than $100,000 a month to retain two of Washington's most prominent lobbying firms - BGR and Patton Boggs - but Pakistan is primarily represented in Washington by Mark Siegel, a long-time friend of the late Benazir Bhutto, even though he works at a firm better known for litigation than for lobbying, and rarely has dealings with the administration. Perhaps, as one US official suggested, "Pakistan has decided it is not a good use of its resources to spend lots of money on a lobbyist to push the US government, because it knows the US needs Pakistan now."
In the meantime, Pakistani-American organisations have languished. "The State Department didn't know anything about Pakistani-American groups until recently," says Shamila Chaudhary, a senior adviser to Holbrooke. Chaudhary, who is herself Pakistani-American, says it is hard for Washington to take community-funded groups seriously. Even though they are mostly non-partisan, non-religious and unaffiliated, they also tend to be fractured, disorganised and ineffectual. She says the administration is determined to change that, which explains why Holbrooke's office has been so receptive to Gaya's suggestions. Gaya, who refers to Holbrooke as "the man" in joking deference to his importance, is the only paid representative of the Pakistani-American community in Washington, which is buzzing with politically active, well-connected lobbyists of Indian descent. But he is benefiting from the administration's decision to reach out to Muslims in the US - as well as abroad - in the wake of Obama's recent speech in Cairo.
This spring, with the Taliban gaining ground in Pakistan, Obama laid out a new "Af-Pak" strategy in a high-profile speech, creating a separate problem with India, by stoking fears that the United States was shifting its emphasis toward Pakistan. India was so worried, in fact, that it impelled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's five-day trip to the country, which came to a close earlier this week. The visit was meant to demonstrate the American dedication to India - more specifically, to "an unhyphenated India", an awkward piece of jargon used to reinforce the idea that India is a completely separate entity from Pakistan.
India and the United States have a legacy of distrust dating from the Cold War, when India was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which many Americans regarded as a sign of pro-Soviet inclinations. In the same era, the United States cultivated Pakistan as a front-line ally against the Soviets, culminating in the fateful transfer of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen by way of Islamabad. The relationship was rocky throughout the 1990s, but after the September 11 attacks Pakistan acceded to American demands for co-operation; in 2004, the US designated Pakistan a major non-Nato ally, much to India's dismay.
US-India relations were also slow to warm, despite what both countries referred to as a natural allegiance between "the world's oldest and largest democracies". In recent years, India has been eager to depict its own struggles against Islamist militants as part of the US-led "war on terror". But it is India's growing economic might that has done the most to encourage a close relationship with the United States. The politically savvy Indian-American community - the most affluent and highly educated immigrant group in the country - has pushed US-India relations to new heights, working together with official lobbyists to influence policy and legislation in Congress, from limiting US aid to Pakistan to preventing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
In its lobbying efforts, India has unashamedly taken inspiration from the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Gaya says even Pakistani-Americans consider AIPAC "the gold standard". "They talk about the Jewish lobby as though it is the most powerful institution in the world," he says. The India lobby ranks a close second: Gaya can reel off a litany of victories that he attributes to Indian-American efforts, none greater than last year's US-India nuclear deal. High-profile Indian-American political donors pushed hard for the bill's passage, which ended a three decade-long moratorium on nuclear trade with India.
In New Delhi this week, Secretary Clinton announced agreements intended to foster sales of advanced weapons and nuclear power reactors to India. Clinton presents this strategic relationship - which the US shares with only about a half-dozen other countries - as evidence that ties with India have been "upgraded" to what she calls "US-India 3.0". To buttress that claim - a rather corny reference to India's prowess in information technology - Clinton invited India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to meet Obama in November, in what will be this administration's first state visit by a foreign leader.
When the Obama administration made it clear it wanted to tackle Pakistan, Indian officials groused that it would undermine their status as an equal partner. They were horrified by rumours that Richard Holbrooke's State Department portfolio would include India as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. That sounded like a throwback to the bad old hyphenated days, and awakened fears that Holbrooke would try to force action on Kashmir. Furious lobbying ensured that Holbrooke stayed out of India; more recently, Indian officials insisted that Clinton's visit not include stops in Pakistan or Afghanistan; she stopped off in Thailand instead.
"It's a basic fact of India-Pakistan relations that they always want to know if the US loves them more than the other," says Teresita Schaffer, the director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, she says, there really is no contest: the United States is serious about a partnership with India; its interest in Pakistan, by contrast, is driven by fear. "Pakistani-Americans may be trying to get more politically involved," Schaffer says, sceptically, "but frankly, they don't have as good a story to tell."
Chaudhary, the Holbrooke adviser, has met with several Pakistani-American groups, including PAL-C, and she points out that they've had some successes, such as setting up a Congressional Pakistan Caucus in 2004. But Chaudhary says the community desperately needs to unify its goals, which is why the State Department has been supportive of a new diaspora group called the American Pakistan Foundation. It does not aim to be a lobbying organisation, but Chaudhary hopes it will help draw the community together and identify a young dynamic leader.
It is this leadership role that Gaya now hopes to fill. Born in California's Bay area, he was raised in a peripatetic family that established strong ties to the local Pakistani-American community wherever they lived. He went to college and law school in San Diego, and passed the California bar before moving to Washington. When he decided to take a job on Congress's judiciary committee, he placed himself in a small minority of Pakistani-Americans with experience in Washington. Gaya took the position with PAL-C mostly because the board of directors convinced him they needed his services. He had some savvy about the US political system - at least, he had more than the first-generation Pakistanis who hired him - although he knew very little about the country where his parents were born. He admits that when he was hired, two years ago, he wouldn't have been able to identify Asif Ali Zardari, now Pakistan's president.
Parvaiz Lodhie, a Los Angeles engineer who cofounded PAL-C in 2004, wasn't concerned about such details. He'd decided he needed someone like Gaya - a Pakistani who is more American than Pakistani - if he was to gain a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill. Gaya is a practicing Muslim who prays on Friday afternoons at the Capitol with young Hill staffers, but he can also navigate the maze of Congressional subcommittees and organise events on Facebook.
Like other first-generation Pakistani-Americans, Lodhie says that when he moved to the states, "we all just tried to make it on our own. For 42 years, I've been living the American dream and ignoring Pakistan." Now he's unequivocal about the consequences of that choice: "Our community has failed." Like other financially successful Pakistanis, Lodhie occasionally held political fundraisers: he'd invite a congressman to his home, and his Pakistani-American friends would raise tens of thousands of dollars. Afterwards, he had a photo of himself posing with the politician, but he never followed up to ask for action on issues that affect Muslims in America or his relatives back in Pakistan. It was only after Lodhie witnessed discrimination against Pakistani-Americans after September 11 that he decided he wanted to get political.
PAL-C's most obvious priority is to mobilise Pakistani-Americans like Lodhie, who have previously limited their engagement to what Gaya calls "fakey photo-op assets". Gaya asks them to go back to the politicians and call in their chits. He also works to develop friendly relationships with key politicians like the former presidential candidate John Kerry, who chairs the Senate's foreign affairs committee, and his counterpart in the House, Howard Berman.
This spring, President Obama urged Congress to approve an unprecedented $1.5 billion in annual aid to Pakistan for the next five years. When the funding bills were before the House and Senate, Gaya and other Pakistani-Americans were on the Hill every day. They lobbied to eliminate elements they saw as problematic, such as a clause that made the aid conditional on Pakistan's co-operation in dismantling nuclear material supply networks. Shamila Chaudhary says this confused some congressmen, though: she heard from some House and Senate staffers that they couldn't work out whether the Pakistanis who came to visit them actually wanted the bills to pass.
Perhaps because of their confused messaging on the Hill, the Pakistani-American lobby did not manage to cleanse the aid package of everything they found objectionable. But on balance, Gaya considers the bill a major victory. Nevertheless, he is keenly aware that he is one of a few lonely advocates of an unpopular cause in Washington; that he's in a different league from the influential Indian colleagues he occasionally crosses paths with. Reflecting on India's worry that it is getting short shrift from the Obama administration, Gaya can only smile wanly. "There's a reason Pakistan has been getting a lot of attention," he says. "If anything, India should feel grateful that the US hasn't been focused on it for the same reason that it's been focused on Pakistan."
Miranda Kennedy's book about women and globalisation in India will be published worldwide next year.
Published: July 24, 2009 04:00 AM