In September, Swadesh Chatterjee went to New York to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the new leader’s heralded visit stateside.
On Tuesday, the Cary resident will be the center of attention, announcing his new memoir, “Building Bridges.” The invite-only event will feature local dignitaries, including former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, U.S. Rep. David Price and Attorney General Roy Cooper, to honor the man.
Chatterjee has never been a politician, but for years he has wielded influence at the highest levels in both India and the United States.
For proof, look no further than the back cover of his new book.
“I congratulate you for the important contribution you have made in bringing our two countries together,” former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh writes.
Chatterjee is continuing those efforts with Singh’s successor, Modi, a populist conservative who favors better business relations between India and the U.S.
Chatterjee made a name for himself internationally about 15 years ago, helping convince then-President Bill Clinton to lift sanctions on India. He was rewarded with the Padma Bhushan award. He is one of few non-Indian citizens to receive the prestigious distinction.
He also led the U.S.-India Friendship Council in 2008 to lobby for the passage of the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement under George W. Bush, which outlined the country’s relationship with the United States in terms of nuclear capabilities.
Today, he’s a member of India’s exclusive Global Advisory Council of Overseas Indians, working alongside the CEO of PepsiCo and a Nobel laureate in economics, among a dozen other academics and billionaires.
In Chatterjee’s book, the 66-year-old recounts how he came to the United States and rose to prominence from the suburbs.
Engineering a political career
Chatterjee, whose father was a mayor in West Bengal, India, moved to the Triangle in 1978 to pursue a master’s in business administration at N.C. State University after studying engineering in Calcutta. At Fuquay-Varina tech company Brandt Industries, he rose from plant manager to president, guiding its sale in the tech boom of the ’90s.
He got into politics around that time, after he noticed few Indian-Americans were involved in civic affairs.
Hunt, who was in office from 1977-85 and 1993 to 2001, said Chatterjee led many others into politics.
“Through my terms as governor, he just was a real economic force in the state,” Hunt said in an interview. “And he was that long before many of the Indian-Americans came here.”
Hunt said he frequently turned to Chatterjee for help, particularly in the education initiatives Hunt became known for – everything from the Centennial Campus at N.C. State to the child care program Smart Start.
“Swadesh was just one of those top leaders I looked to,” Hunt said. “And he has just really made his mark in North Carolina, and I am proud to be his friend.”
Chatterjee made his mark in Washington, D.C., and overseas as well. He got his first taste of national politics in 1995, as president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Education.
In his book, Chatterjee devotes an entire chapter to his unlikely relationship with North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. He said Helms approached him in ‘95 looking for support, but he turned Helms down because of his backing of Pakistan and his reputation of racism.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s the perception in the community,” Chatterjee said he told the late senator from Monroe.
Within a year, Helms – one of the most powerful lawmakers on foreign policy – was speaking at Indian conventions and had switched his public support from Pakistan to India. Campaign donations from Indian-Americans flowed in by the thousands.
“I somehow had good chemistry with him, and I turned him around,” Chatterjee said.
Bipartisan, bilateral work
That broke the ice that led to Clinton’s lifting of sanctions, and later the historic India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement under Bush.
Chatterjee said during the treaty discussions from 2005-08, he flew to D.C. 77 times for a mission that “was like moving a mountain.”
His work behind the scenes stateside has won him acclaim in India.
Hunt said he once traveled to India’s equivalent of Silicon Valley to meet corporate VIPs. Everyone knew about Chatterjee.
“I found what a valued person he is in India,” Hunt said.
Modi apparently agrees, sending Chatterjee and several others last month to meet with executives from financial giants such as Goldman Sachs, General Electric and the Blackstone Group.
Back in his Cary office – a room inside his wife Manjusri’s medical practice – Chatterjee mentions HCL, the Indian tech firm that recently added 1,237 jobs to its Cary office. He says he hopes similar deals will follow.
“If you look at the list of billionaires in India ... they’re investing in America now,” he said.
‘Always full of enthusiasm’
Chatterjee, despite his intense focus on international affairs, is a jovial man.
He speaks quickly, with a slight accent, and he gets passionate talking about possibilities for greater ties between his two beloved countries.
“Sixty-five percent of India is 30 and younger,” Chatterjee said, his voice rising. “Think about that. Of 1.2 billion.”
Hunt said one of Chatterjee’s best attributes is his desire to be constantly involved, and on the winning side.
“He was always full of enthusiasm for making policy efforts work,” Hunt said.
But as with Helms, or even Indian-American politicians such as Morrisville Town Council member Steve Rao, Chatterjee also knows how to say no.
Chatterjee and Rao met through an Indian entrepreneurship group Chatterjee founded, and in 2004 Rao mentioned running for office. Rao said Chatterjee wished him luck but told him not to expect his help, since he didn’t seem ready.
Rao took his advice and built up more contacts, and in 2011 – this time with Chatterjee’s support – he became the first elected official in Wake County of Indian descent.
“He’s a real honest guy,” Rao said. “When you make a mistake, he’ll tell you you’re making a mistake. And when he’s proud of you, he’ll tell you.”
Building international ties
Chatterjee said he got into politics so people like Rao, and other Indian-Americans like Lousiana Gov. Bobbi Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Nicki Haley, could be a public voice for the community.
He said it’s also important that India now has a leader like Modi, who has been keen on pursuing foreign economic ties.
Chatterjee was one of 20,000 packed into Madison Square Garden last month to hear Modi’s speech. He said he was delighted by the optimistic, pro-business tone.
“The message is, ‘India is back,’ ” he said.
And India is back, Chatterjee said, at a time when Indian-Americans are becoming more influential.
Rao said it’s amazing that someone in suburban Cary is tasked with thinking on such a large scale, all while making sure not to forget the local community.
Chatterjee has brought Indian ambassadors and political conferences to the area, for example, and helps Indian families from the Triangle send their children to work in Congressional offices.
“At the end of the day he’s the one who’s been the public voice of the community, internationally and nationally,” Rao said.