Several months ago, if you’d been following the pending Indian civilian nuclear deal via the op-eds of the New York Times ("Still a Bad Deal"), you may have assumed it was headed for trouble. Yesterday, the deal was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate (the House already approved it) and at least outside of DC, one person who deserves credit is Ram Narayanan.
Narayanan is a photo-shy retiree living in Buffalo, but among Indians he is one of the most influential grassroots activists in America, exerting a considerable impact on Indo-US opinionators inside the Beltway. His activism has mirrored, and helped define, the increased political sophistication of Indian-Americans in recent years. As a registered independent, he doesn’t openly support any party in the US or India, but his issues are pretty defined: he wants a more muscular economic and military partnership between the 2 countries, and he wants American lawmakers to crack down on cross-border terrorism driven by Pakistan.
It was the Kargil episode that got him going, in 1999. He started his website, www.usindiafriendship.net then, after which he started the email list. Today, with help from his wife, Loral Alberta Narayanan, he has about 15,000 subscribers, more than any other South Asian (see list of top email activists and networkers). I heard from several dozen subscribers – politicians like Kumar Barve, Congressional aides and academics, as well as community activists across the country.
A couple things repeatedly came up in their answers.
“Congressional staffers are always trying to get up to date, and non-editorialized information on pressing issues,” says Rich Verma, senior national security advisor to Senator Harry Reid. “That’s what Ram’s listserv assists with.”
The other thing, and probably the quality that makes Ram’s list even more influential than its numbers suggest, is his ability to motivate subscribers. More than merely informing readers by passing along articles and op-eds, Ram gets people to write letters to the editor and to their elected representatives, even circulating templates of letters to help things along. This moves the issue from backrooms on the Hill to the public arena, and makes Congressional aides take notice.
“He has been instrumental in mobilizing public opinion on various issues,” says Dr. Chandresh Saraiya, the national president of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation. “During elections in US, he was very helpful in providing back-grounds on candidates for congress and senate and their stand on US-India relationship. He was helpful for building a larger India Caucus. He has spent tremendous energy on Us-India Civil Nuclear Energy agreement. I have written to Congressman in my area after his efforts on this and other issues.”
Here’s what Achamma Chandersekaran had to say:
“When he felt that the effort on the part of Indian Americans may not bear fruition, he sent out the names of the bill sponsors by state so that we could contact our law makers and ask for support. Based on that, many Indian Americans, like me, contacted their friends to get their attention to the situation.”
One Beltway observer says Narayanan’s contribution is ‘significant,’ in terms of holding politicians’ feet to the fire, primarily by making it known who has voted and who’s still sitting on the fence. The effect is less that of an analyst than a grassroots activist, and that Narayanan’s strength lies in his independence (“he’s not a Congress-wallah or BJP-wallah”). If there’s any downside, the observer thinks it rests in Narayanan’s approach to U.S.-India-Pakistan relations as a “zero-sum game,” wherein what’s good for Pakistan is by definition bad for India.
But Ram disputes this.
"I am not against Pakistan nor do I think US-India-Pakistan relations are a zero-sum game," he says. "I am against Pakistan's policy of training and directing terrorists against India and the rest of the world. I am looking forward to the day when Pakistan would be to India what Mexico is to the US."
Ram is originally from Chennai. He worked in banking before moving to the US and becoming a marketing executive. He now spends several hours a day on the effort, combing press reports from the mainstream media and Congressional journals and such, and formulating summaries. He also has a lot of emails from subscribers to answer.
"The list, I may add, embraces the diversity of India and the Indian American community," he says, "whether occupation-wise, religion and caste-wise, language-wise or by political persuasion. You name a category and I am fairly certain you will find some one belonging to that category on the list."
Here's his email address: email@example.com