White House to 10 Downing, Sundar Pichai to Kamala Harris: How 'Indians' are making a splash abroad

Few nations in the world allow people of foreign origin to thrive and prosper in public life and politics as the US, mainly because it is a society and a country built largely on immigration

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Tue 25 Oct 2022, 8:21 PM

A familiar row erupts on social media every time a person of Indian origin makes headlines anywhere in the world: Who exactly is "Indian"? Does one have to be born in independent India and hold an Indian passport to be considered Indian? How about those born in pre-Independent India, say in the area that now constitutes Pakistan or Bangladesh? Or those whose forebears emigrated from India and whose descendants are now integrated into the country where they settled? How about those whose ethnicity is only part Indian? Or those of foreign-origin who embraced India and took up Indian citizenship?

Die-hard Indian hypernationalists generally regard those who have left Indian shores and who have given up Indian citizenship as foreigners whose allegiance is to the country they emigrated to, with their ethnicity irrelevant and their achievements inconsequential to India. On the other side, there are Indian globalists who gloat about PIOs (people of Indian origin) and NRIs (non-resident Indians) making a splash abroad, sometimes lightheartedly parlaying one of the cornier dialogues that the good guys and cops in Bollywood movies essay to the baddies: "Hamare aadmi chaaro oar phail huwe hain! (our people are spread out everywhere!)"

The argument is particularly ferocious when it comes to PIOs and NRIs in the United States, where a largely open, inclusive, and immigration-based society allows people of foreign origin to thrive. When Kamala Harris became the US Vice-President in 2020, most of the Indian media went to town with her Indian-connection — her mother Shyamala Gopalan immigrated from India — largely ignoring the fact that her father was Jamaican. Some Indian hypernationalists scoffed at what they saw as her tenuous connection, with thinly disguised jibes about her mixed parentage.

It is a constituency that also looks dimly at the achievements of PIOs and NRIs in technology, academia, business, and entertainment, areas where they achieve most success. Why should India bother if Sundar Pichai heads Google or Satya Nadella is CEO of Microsoft, one hypernationalist raged recently at the constant attention and coverage they receive in India, arguing that they are US citizens who have given up their Indian nationality. The issue is even more sensitive when it comes to politics and public because its very nature demands fealty to the country of citizenship, not to the country of origin or ethnicity.

Few nations in the world allow people of foreign origin to thrive and prosper in public life and politics as the United States, mainly because it is a society and a country built largely on immigration. Although the American Constitution enjoins that only those born in the US can ascend to the highest office, ethnicity, race, and colour are not a consideration. Besides, foreign-born US citizens can hold every public and political office short of the White House and the vice-presidency.

Which is how a Sikh farmer named Dalip Singh Saund, who went to America in 1920 to study mathematics, became the first Asian American, the first Indian American, the first Sikh American, and the first member of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected to the United States Congress in 1956, only seven years after he became a naturalised American citizen. Saund served three terms in the US Congress and his engagement and rise in public life (cut short by a stroke in 1962) set the template for Indians to enter politics.

Still, it was not until 2004 that a second PIO was elected to Congress — US-born Piyush "Bobby Jindal", from Louisiana, followed by Dr Ami Bera from California in 2013. Today there are four such lawmakers — Ro Khanna from California, Pramila Jayapal from Washington state and Raja Krishnamurthi from Illinois joining Dr Bera — who together form what is jocularly dubbed the "samosa caucus". While Bera and Khanna are US-born first generationals, Jayapal and Krishnamurthi are India-born, in Chennai and New Delhi respectively.

In 2016, the samosa caucus got a boost with the election to the Senate of Kamala Harris, the first person of partial Indian heritage to enter the chamber, long regarded as a White man's club. While Harris declared her liking for idli-dosa rather than the samosa, the fact that she was US-born also made her eligible to run for the White House, which she did unsuccessfully in 2020, eventually getting picked by President Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate to be first in line of succession to the Oval office.

So, while the samosa caucus is getting stronger in Washington, PIOs have been running for public office at the state level — often the starting point for federal politics — with growing intensity in recent years. In fact, back in 2008, "Bobby" Jindal jumped back to the state to become Governor of Louisiana, the first PIO to ascend to a gubernatorial mansion. He was followed by Nikki Haley nee Nimrata Randhawa, who became the first female governor of South Carolina in 2011.

Amid all this, a growing number of PIOs dot public offices across the US in very visible ways. In 2019, a young man named Raj Shah, 33, stood in for the regular presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was on vacation, making him the first person of Indian origin to speak from the White House briefing room lectern as a spokesman, not counting the time desi hacks accompanying Indian prime ministers took selfies for a lark – or an ego boost. It was a milestone for the Indian-American community, coming on top of a staggering range of PIO debuts over the past couple of decades — from the first PIO governor to first senator to first US attorney to first cabinet official to first federal judge to first surgeon-general. Today, no one is surprised when a Patel — Vedant Patel in this case — officiates as a State Department spokesman rather than being behind the desk at a motel.

How did all this happen? In some ways, the answers can be seen on the curbside during election season: posters and placards canvassing for a Shruti Bhatnagar running for the Montgomery County District Council for an Ashwani Jain for the school board. Across counties and districts in America, PIOs, Indian-Americans, and even recent immigrants are running for public office in droves, starting at the local level. Much of the drive, largely unacknowledged, derives from India’s own thriving democracy that has given immigrants a taste of electoral politics.

It has not been an easy journey. The immigrant and immigrant descendants' level of participation and engagement has left some nativists rattled. During an election some years ago, racist posters surfaced in Edison, New Jersey, seeking deportation of two Asian-American school board candidates Jerry Shi and Falguni Patel. Edison, incidentally, is New Jersey’s desi central — so much so that the desi moniker for it is Ediyur (37 per cent Asian population). “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town!” one poster raged, with the word “DEPORT” against Patel’s name. “Indian School! Cricket Fields! Enough is Enough!” it huffed under the slogan Make Edison Great Again. Edison, incidentally, allows election material to be printed in foreign languages, including Gujarati, to address immigrants from Gujarat.

Patel didn’t back down and won the election, but the incident illustrated the importance of both participatory politics and immigrant mainstreaming at a time of growing nativism — not just in the US but many countries across the world. If you want to be out there, you have to be in it. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Run for office; if you can’t run, vote; and even if you don’t vote, put your money where your life is. Which is why, PIOs and Indian-Americans are also putting their money where their mouth is, setting up and hosting fundraisers to openly endorse candidates of their ethnicity, “who will help fight back against xenophobic rhetoric and regressive policies and fight for economic opportunity and a stronger, fairer economy”.

A big reason why PIOs are taking to politics and public life across the world — aside from India's own democratic tradition — is also sheer numbers: A country of 1.3 billion people that accounts for nearly 18 per cent of the world's population also puts out one of the largest emigrating diasporas. To get a sense of how much of an advantage India gets from its large numbers and vast diaspora even as far back as 2008, one only has to look at the ''desi'' highlights in Esquire magazine’s 75th anniversary issue featuring ''The Diasporas: Three great human migrations that are changing the world'.' It included the American diaspora, the Google diaspora, and the Indian diaspora — even the Google diaspora listed several people of Indian origin.

The magazine’s list of the 75 most influential people of the 21st Century (the kind of palaver Indians feast on) included half-a-dozen Indians or people of Indian origin: Ratan Tata, Lakshmi Mittal, Mukesh Ambani, Bobby Jindal, Parag Khanna, and Ronnie Screwalla. Ten of the 100 richest people in the world listed in the magazine were Indian or of Indian origin, and leaders of at least three countries in the world (Singapore, Mauritius and Guyana) were of Indian origin. And this was long before Kamala Harris or Rishi Sunak rose on the political horizon.


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