August 20, 2001
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Indian behind Torricelli's turnaround

Aziz Haniffa in Washington

There was an Indian hand behind influential United States Senator Robert G Torricelli's perceived change from India-baiter to 'close friend'.

That hand belongs to Kapil Sharma, 29, who, till last week, was a senior counsel for the Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey.

"It's a fact. Being of Indian descent, I felt the need that he should have good relations with the Indian American community. The Indian American community makes up 3 per cent of the [New Jersey] population. It would be unwise of him not to want to be friends of the Indian American community," said Sharma, who started his own lobbying firm called KS Group last week.

Sharma, however, refuses to admit that Torricelli, a ranking member of the powerful Senate committees on foreign relations and finance, had ever been rabidly anti-Indian.

Never mind if Torricelli was known to have voted in the past for anti-India amendments that called for the suspension of American aid to India because of its alleged flagrant violations of human rights.

Never mind that he initiated a letter to President Bill Clinton urging him to appoint a US trouble-shooter for Kashmir.

"It was a misperception that he was anti-India. He wanted to see South Asia restore peace and he didn't feel bashing Pakistan was the way to doing that and because he didn't do that, people felt that he was pro-Pakistan. He felt that that just doesn't serve bringing peace by beating up one country over the other," explained Sharma.

"He has been, in fact, supportive of Indian American issues," he said, pointing out that it was Torricelli who introduced a resolution expressing sympathy for victims of the devastating January earthquake in Gujarat, and that he had made a statement on the floor of the Senate strongly supporting improved US-India relations during External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's visit to Washington.

"It is just that he has not been very vocal. I guess with recent events like the earthquake and the Jaswant Singh visit, he has started to become more vocal, and [it] coincidentally appears that there is a policy shift -- but there has not," Sharma said.

"This summer, he had three Indian Americans interning in his office -- two in Washington and one in Newark," said Sharma. "And he, also much to his credit, made me one of the most senior Indian American staffers in all of Congress.

"The Indian American community is a very real part of New Jersey politics. It is now one of our largest [minority] population groups and is rising in influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties. But I am particularly pleased that Indian Americans are disproportionately influential in the Democratic Party," Torricelli said recently.

Undoubtedly such positive statements from Torricelli today make Sharma feel he made the right moves.

In 1996, after obtaining his law degree from Rutgers University, Sharma came to work full-time for Congressman Frank Pallone, founder and former co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, after having interned for Pallone during several summers.

In the summer of 1998, he went to work for a leading Washington lobbying firm, Verner Liipfert et al, which has the India contract worth over $600,000 a year. Sharma, thus became the first Indian American to work for a major lobbying firm.

But in June 2000, taking a considerable pay cut, he went to work for Torricelli. And in the end, Sharma said, "It was just a great opportunity of working in a senior position in the US Senate for your home senator."

Indo-Asian News Service

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