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.”

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Kamala Harris Signifies Vibrancy Of US Polity

Being elected the first woman vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris signals the coming of age of the country that her parents migrated to six decades back. For, the USA, in its 230 years history as a democracy, has never elected a woman to the two top constitutional posts. To contrast this, one would have to trot out a very long list of women leaders who have adorned top offices across the world.

Born of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica, Harris is the first woman, first Indian American, first woman born of a Black father, first South Asian American and the first Asian ever elected as vice-president.

Come January, she will be sworn in in the second-most important post in the world’s most powerful nation. Otherwise, people with Indian roots have been presidents and prime ministers in a dozen countries across the world, from New Zealand and Singapore to the Caribbean, to Ireland and Portugal. Their number is growing.

Carrying forward the democratic tradition back in India or what they may have heard from their seniors, many have been elected to city mayors, lawmakers and ministers. Look at the US’ “Samosa Caucus.” Look at the two Indians holding key posts in Britain or four of them in Canada. These numbers, too, are bound to grow. A head count of the elected leaders conducted some years ago touched 45.

Indian diaspora are growing. The Obama administration had sent out six Indian Americans as envoys. Look at the diplomatic staff in foreign missions, not just of the Commonwealth countries and not just New Delhi.

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Arguably though, this does excite Indians. They are learning, hopefully and gradually, that the loyalties of these persons lie, as they should, with the countries they, or their ancestors, adopted as home. No two things about it. If Niki Haley representing the Trump administration did convey some sour things to the people in the Government of India, Harris, or even President Biden, one whose forefathers married an Indian girl, will certainly do that. This is how it will be, and should be.

The Indian American community was electrified by Harris’ selection. Deeper study of the election results would be needed to know how many of those supporting the Republican Party switched sides. “Harris has mobilised Indian Americans, especially Democrats,” said a survey report by Carnegie. “Harris’ vice-presidential candidacy has galvanised a large section of the Indian American community to turn out to vote. But clearly, her candidacy galvanised the Democratic campaign and presumably helped in stemming any switch by pro-Democrat voters to Republican under the influence of the support Trump had received from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kamala Harris nurtured the Indian ethos that typically speaks of the family. She spoke of mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who came to the United States from Chennai and was a breast cancer researcher, frequently while campaigning. “How I wish she were here tonight but I know she’s looking down on me from above,” she said at the Democratic Party convention while accepting her nomination.

“I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman—all of five feet tall—who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California… On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States of America,” Harris said.

Her pride for her mother, of her preferences for things Indian, not necessarily projected for the election, have been talked and written about in a big way, at times more than Biden who was a known person having been the vice president under Barack Obama.

Kamala had accepted Biden’s announcement of her selection with a shout-out to her Chithis (Tamil for a mother’s elder sister) connected with several constituencies at the same time: African Americans, Asian Americans, South Asian Americans and, of course, the 4.5 million Indian Americans, 1.9 million of them eligible to vote.

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Once her name was announced, lampooning bean. Her name was deliberately misspelt and mis-pronounced as a tactic usually employed to make Americans of different ethnicities feel unwelcome.

Trump soon realised that he was up against a tough woman who was at once articulate and popular. He had welcomed her as a “fine choice” as Biden’s running mate, but began to target her right away, calling her “nasty” and a “monster”.

One can look ahead, now that it is done and dusted. The redeeming feature, in a manner of speaking, is that Kamala Harris, age 56, is being billed as a potential President four years hence. This is mainly because of the advancing age of the winner, Joe Biden, who is not expected to seek re-election, but also because she has a proven record. Through her long career and through the rough and tumble of the election campaign, she was perceived as a woman of substance.

By comparison, her predecessors – women who contested for the vice president’s post but did not make it – had less to show. Sarah Louise Palin was Governor of Alaska in 2006, a post she quit in 2009 to contest as the running mate of Republican Senator John McCain. Before her was the first woman candidate for the vice president’s post who did not make it, Geraldine Farraro in 1984.

Kamala stood out for an added reason: the success of a vibrant America, despite warts and all. She displayed her multiple roots from a family that arrived in the US and grew by dint of hard work. Essentially a nation of immigrants, the US has in the recent years witnessed resentment against those coming from outside, something that Trump selectively but vociferously encouraged to consolidate his White American base.

Significantly, Kamala had herself sought to contest as the president and had been openly critical of Biden. The latter still thought her worthy of being the running mate and Kamala accepted as yet another point of distinction. Again, this shows the vibrancy of the American polity and its institutions.

Kamala Harris began as public attorney and was California’s Attorney General. As the vice president, she can still be expected to continue her career as champion of public causes.

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