The Rise Of Indian Americans

Christopher Columbus who failed to reach India, but discovered America instead, would be happy if he were to visit the United States today. He would find Indians, if not India, in every walk of American life. And he would learn that its Vice President Kamala Devi Harris was born of a woman from Chennai that he never visited and a man from Jamaica, barely 800 km from the Bahamas where he had first landed.

At one percent of the population, Indians certainly do not overwhelm the US. But history dictates that the US Census Bureau call them “Asian Indian” to differentiate from the indigenous peoples, commonly called “American Indians”, the ones Columbus had encountered.

At 4,459,999 (Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ 2018 figures), they are the largest Indian diaspora. Their “Westward-ho”, began in the 1890s, trickled into the last century, but really picked up in its second half. The graph has risen since.

Indian Americans are a ‘success’ story for both India and America. They are America’s “modern minority” that also earned notoriety, being targeted during recent presidential campaigns for being ‘snatcher’ of jobs meant for the locals. Actually, they have been job-givers.

Moving gradually from education to employment to enterprise and now, into public life, they are among America’s most educated and prosperous. Learning or having witnessed democracy at work in independent India, the community confidently talks of sending its elected representatives from City Halls across the US to the White House. The trend caught on with governors (Bobby Piyush Jindal, Namrata Niki Randhawa Haley), several lawmakers and now, Kamala has lit the fire.

The buzz begun when Harris became Joe Biden’s running mate in 2019, has since become a popular political lore: an ageing Biden, not seeking re-election, may anoint her instead for the presidency-2024.

It is tempting to speculate outcome of the 2019 election had Biden-Harris “dream team” clashed with rival “dream team” of Donald Trump and Haley. Also whether Haley’s Sikh-Indian-Christian combination would have matched Harris’ Asian-African, Indian-Caribbean, and a Jewish husband’s ethnic credentials. Although Trump is not about to give up the next fight, a future ‘dream’ line-up could be Harris versus Haley. Only time can tell.

Of immediate interest is the growing confidence of this diverse community that traditionally extends bipartisan support to both the Republicans and the Democrats, and is in turn wooed by them. And all this is occurring amidst burgeoning of India-US relations for over two decades now, no matter which party is governing in the two democracies.

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Millions of words spoken and published over this multi-layered phenomenon has the world taking note, approvingly by some, gingerly by others. It has been discussed in a book appropriately titled Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans (Wisdom Tree). It differs from others being a combined effort of Indian Americans and Indians, for them and by them. Edited by media veteran Tarun Basu who has observed the Indo-US and Indian American scene for long years, it is the first such book published in India.

Their combined target is ambitious. San Francisco-based IT entrepreneur M R Rangaswami sees the book as the medium to transform the success of the Indian diaspora as a whole “into meaningful impact worldwide.” He would like the Diasporas elsewhere to replicate his own journey, calling it “a roller-coaster ride of big wins, heart-breaking losses and exciting comebacks.”

Of the IT sector alone, he says, having founded one out of seven, and running one out of 12 start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley, Indians have actually engineered the predominant position the Valley enjoys globally.  

The Indian Americans’ collective effort stands out with their forming large profession-based bodies. The doctors’ for instance, represents a whopping 100,000, so is the hospitality sector – “hotels, motels and Patels”. Facilitating it is the Global Organisation of the People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), the earliest of the community mobilizers with global following.

The book notes how Indians have adapted to the multi-faith and multi-cultural American mores. US-based journalist Aziz Haniffa writes that Haley’s conversion to Christianity while retaining her Sikh roots or Jindal’s conversion did not prevent the community from adopting them. If they took a while accepting Harris it was because, one: she initially projected her African roots, as a black, while not really giving up the Indian one. And two: the general Indian aversion to Africans, “a kind of reverse racism,” as brought out by Mira Nair in Mississippi Masala (1991). Hardly surprising considering the average Indian’s “fair and lovely’ preference.

Basu records Harris’ little-known private journey to Chennai to immerse the ashes of her mother in the Bay of Bengal, where Ganga, the river held sacred by the Hindus, merges. Haniffa, after interviewing Harris finds her “tough yet vivacious, supremely confident yet unassuming, laser-focused on issues, mischievous yet non-malicious.”

The book’s USP is that its contributors are achievers themselves. They include scholars Pradeep K Khosla, Maina Chawla Singh, Sujata Warrier, Shamita Das Dasgupta, corporate leaders Raj L Gupta and Deepak Raj, industry observers Ajay Ghosh, Vikrum Mathur and Bijal Patel and journalists Arun Kumar, Mayank Chhaya, Suman Guha Mazumdar and Laxmi Parthasarthy.

Former United Nations official and Indian lawmaker Shashi Tharoor recalls: “A generation ago, when I first travelled to the US as a graduate student in 1975, India was widely seen as a land of snake charmers and begging bowls – poverty marginally leavened by exotica. Today, if there is a stereotypical view of India, it is that of a country of fast-talking high achievers who are wizards at math, and who are capable of doing most Americans’ jobs better, faster and more cheaply in Bengaluru. Today ‘IIT’ is a brand name as respected in certain American circles as ‘MIT’ or ‘Caltech’. If Indians are treated with more respect as a result, so is India, as the land that produces them. Let us not underestimate the importance of such global respect in our globalizing world.’”

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How was, and is, India viewed? Actually, both Americans and Indian Americans changed their outlook after India launched economic reforms. They saw it shedding Cold War stance and socialism and joining the global economic mainstream. No longer condescending, some tracked back, looking for opportunities, as succinctly bought out by Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Swades (2004).

Notwithstanding the nuclear tests India undertook, successive US administrations, of both parties, have embraced it. Arguably, the tests gave India “nuclear notoriety”, but also respect that enabled Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, a place on the global high table.

Moving out of their professional comfort zones to join public affairs, many Indian Americans value giving and receiving political support. Many are engaging in philanthropy and in raising funds for parties and candidates of their choice. Harris was the first to support Barack Obama. In appreciation, Obama, as also Trump and Biden administrations, have appointed many Indian Americans to key positions that would be the envy of other diaspora.   

Noting their rise ‘From Struggling Immigrants to Political Influencers: How a Community came of Age’, Basu,  recounting  their “long and hardy road,” notes: “It was said that successful ethnic lobbies were those with an ‘elevated’ socio-economic profile like high education levels, good communicating skills, deep pockets with generous contributions to campaign funds, and Indian-Americans ticked on all these boxes as they grew in size, stature, and influence, becoming in effect the newest kid on the block.”

There are, and will be, critical voices when two diverse democracies are at work. But as Arun K. Singh, former Indian envoy to Washington DC, says, the relationship “is headed for further consolidation” and that the Indian community in the US is “well-placed to deepen them.”

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Biden And India: The Way Forward in Asia

The United States of America (US) will inaugurate Joseph R Biden as the President from January 20, 2021. New Delhi and many governments around the world have begun to speculate the kind of relationships the Biden Administration will establish with them. In the context of India, the relationship has seen upswing since the Indo-US Nuclear Deal under the Bush II Administration. It achieved new heights and rhetoric with public display of bonhomie between President Trump and PM Narendra Modi. It will, however, be a grave mistake to disregard it as only rhetoric and on the other hand consider the same in euphoric terms. That moment also had tremendous difficulties with Trump at the helm.

During the Biden Presidency, the scepticism around Trump’s commissions and omissions will no longer be there as Biden is a politician with an outstanding track record and experience at both domestic and international levels. As a Vice-President in the two Obama Administrations (2009-2016) he was responsible for some key decisions regarding policy towards South Asia.

China figures prominently in the United States calculus for the region. The Biden administration is very likely to carry forward the “Rebalance to Asia and Pacific” and “Indo-Pacific” idea, with the Quad as its initial operational strategy against the Chinese Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Furthermore, India has resisted China’s attempts to bully countries in the South Asian region.

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In terms of geopolitics, therefore, US will maintain India as its major ally in the region. The signing of Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), COMCASA and BECA during the Trump presidency has strengthened the partnership has been raised to strategic level by Washington. It finally seems that the US has decided that along with its long-standing major allies in East Asia, India is a key actor to balance China.

Joe Biden has been critical of Pakistan’s approach to its neighbourhood in the west in Afghanistan and its support to the insurgent groups operating from Pakistani territory. During the first Obama administration as Vice-President, Joe Biden was part of the decision making which led to the Abbotabad strike for Osama Bin Laden’s execution.

Due to Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and India, Biden’s efforts led to suggestion of a number of stringent conditions incorporated in the Enhanced partnership with Pakistan Act, 2008. The conditions related Pakistan’s support to Al Qaeda, non-interference of the Army in judicial and political processes and the funds ($ 7.5 Billion) were not to be used by the Army. These caveats ultimately led to a major blowback by the military in Pakistan and created a rift between the two countries.

Trump Presidency’s overt show for India and Indians in the US was closely scrutinized because of its frequent calls for limiting immigration in various categories, especially H1B visas. Indian immigrants and people of Indian descent have been at the forefront of the development of American technology industry and innovation. This contribution was frequently invoked against Trump’s calls for indigenization of major industries and limiting migration and citizenship visas.

Biden on the other hand has promised to expand high-skilled visas positively impacting mobility of Indian tech graduates. It is expected that the new administration may revoke the suspension of work permits of spouses of H1B visa holders imposed by Trump. This also has positive implications for Indians employed in the United States.

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An election promise by Joe Biden about higher taxation for the corporates in the US may be beneficial for India as this can drive out investments to overseas destinations. India with its reduced tax rates can be one such attractive destination for such investors and the growing international partnership between the two countries provides the right environment. India on its part has to create conditions favourable for investors with reduced red tape and bureaucratic impediments.

US Foreign Institution Investors (FII) account for more than 30% of total FIIs in India making them the most important actors in the Indian financial set up since 2000. Similar speculations have been made for the enhancement of trade by a number of economic pundits because the Trumpian ideas of protectionism for the US may be abandoned. Trump Administration removed India from the Generalised List of Preferences in June 2019. India can expect a review of the list under the Democrats administration.

Biden’s larger outlook for South Asia and his experience combined with Antony Bliken’s knowledge of the region may lead to enhanced partnership with India. On the other hand, it must be taken into account that Americans have a penchant for realism and it still is the most important theoretical strand guiding US foreign policy.

New Delhi without being euphoric about the unprecedented engagement with and attention from the mighty US may do well to remember that India has a strategic location vis-à-vis China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific and the US needs a strong ally in the region to counter/contain the Chinese. That this realism is the original and real driver of the United States’ approach towards India since the beginning of the millennium.

People Of Indian Origin Offer A Diplomatic Edge

“mitti ki sugandh” sentiment, it helps to have someone who ‘understands’ India and is not hostile, even if and when the situation requires tough talking, like Haley did. The rising number of Indian-origin diplomats being stationed in diplomatic missions in New Delhi testifies to this ‘understanding’. There is no other country that enjoys this position. (The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com )]]>