Preparations are underway for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to speak at a rare joint session of Congress next week – an event made possible in part by the nation’s only Indian American congressman.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, is one of the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who convinced House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to host the historic speech.
Bera should be celebrating his achievement. Instead, the embattled lawmaker is troubled by a re-election campaign that has been under scrutiny after his 83-year-old father, Babulal Bera, admitted in court that he’d broken campaign finance laws to bolster his son’s career.
The younger Bera also has been entangled in a controversy surrounding donor swaps that were made between his campaign and the campaigns of Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, and senatorial candidate Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Florida Democrat.
In May, an accountability group and Lori VanHamersveld, a Sacramento Republican, filed separate Federal Election Commission complaints that allege Bera mishandled campaign money and took part in “an intricate donor swap shell game.”
He’s also the target of a National Republican Congressional Committee campaign to sap his support in Tuesday’s California primary. Among the topics of committee emails sent to reporters in the past three weeks: “Why Ami Bera Doesn’t Want You to Take Him at His Word” and “Ami Bera Wants to Bring Terrorists To America,” the latter a reference to Bera’s vote to close the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo. The measure had the support of just 162 other lawmakers, including three Republicans.
“My district is probably one of the most competitive districts in the country,” Bera said. “So I can’t control folks who are going to attack me. So what I can control is showing up, serving the residents in Sacramento County, the people that I work for, you know, and being readily available. I’ve not hidden from talking to the press.”
On Capitol Hill, Bera appears unshaken. He goes to the House of Representatives floor to vote on bills. He cordially interacts with other lawmakers in the hallways.
They don’t ask pointed questions. He doesn’t offer any awkward answers. His battle remains internal, and outwardly he focuses on the upcoming Modi visit. The prime minister will travel to the United States on Tuesday, the same day Bera’s constituents will vote in the California primary. Modi is expected to address Congress at 11 a.m. Wednesday. The results of Tuesday’s voting already will be known. While Bera and Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones are the only contenders and will face one another again in November, the outcome should provide some indication to the Bera campaign of how he will perform against Jones in the fall.
Trade has more than doubled between India and California while Bera has been in office, according to California Chamber of Commerce statistics. That’s partly a result of a decline in India’s restrictions on foreign trade and investment.
Last year, India came in just shy of making the top 10 list for California’s export markets. That year, more than $4.6 billion worth in goods was shipped from California to India – 21 percent of the U.S. exports to that country, according to the California Chamber of Commerce – making the state the biggest U.S. exporter to India, followed by New York.
Primary export products in 2014 consisted of $2.5 billion in manufactured items, $846 million worth of transportation equipment, $735 million in computer and electronic equipment, $547 million in agricultural products and $128 million worth of chemicals, according to an Assembly fact sheet.
Bera and his co-chair on the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., formally requested the joint session to hear Modi in an April 19 letter to Ryan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, and the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, also signed the letter.
For them, Modi’s address to Congress is another building block in the short history of the improved relationship between the United States and India.
“On the economic front, a lot of U.S. companies are doing business in India,” Bera said. “They want to see India do the market reforms that make it easier for us to sell our goods and services over there.”
Significant trade barriers remain, including high tariffs, requirements about the participation of local Indian businesses in companies and worries that India doesn’t do enough to protect foreign companies’ intellectual property.
In a May 2 letter, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jay Timmons, asked Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to put those issues on the agenda for talks during Modi’s visit.
“Despite statements made by Prime Minister Modi and other senior Indian officials over the past two years, there has been limited progress in many key areas that make it challenging to do business in India, from policy areas such as localization policies and high tariffs to day-to-day business issues such as administrative licensing and India’s own priority of passing a Goods and Services Tax and Bankruptcy Law,” an accompanying fact sheet said.
The group represents more than 14,000 companies. More than 90 of them have ties to California’s economy, said Jennifer Drogus, a National Association of Manufacturers spokeswoman.
The Embassy of India in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S.-India military-to-military relationship is also progressing, but perhaps not in the way that administration officials initially projected. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on the United States and India in August 2014 to do more to transform their relationship. The two countries have since ramped up their communication and participation in joint exercises.
But military sales between the two have been lackluster. Defense Security Cooperation Agency records show that since Hagel’s call, the United States has sold only equipment to support cargo aircraft that India purchased back in 2011.
“The hopes and promises of the U.S.-India security relationship tend to be overstated,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a policy research organization. “You know, oftentimes there’s not as much as meets the eye.”
This year, lawmakers have begun rallying around legislation that might improve that military-to-military relationship.
Bera said he remained hopeful about the future relationship between the countries. He expects Indian Americans to help build those ties. That’s why he invited National Spelling Bee standout Snehaa Ganesh Kumar, a Folsom Middle School eighth-grader, to be his guest at the joint session of Congress.
“As a son of a Gujarati who immigrated here in the 1950s, who was born and raised as a lifelong Californian, it’s now a chance for me to kind of inspire the next generation,” Bera said, referring to his father’s home state of Gujarat in India, which is also Modi’s birthplace. “I’ve always said my legacy is not anything that I’m going to do, but what the next generation can do.”