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US Elections | Punching above India’s weight could be counterproductive

The Indian American community has taken only baby steps in political outreach in the United States in recent years. The potential of people of Indian origin to shape American public policies and to wield influence in the corridors of power in the US is vastly overstated
Nov 20, 2020 / 01:08 PM IST

Every time an Indian American name is added to United States President-elect Joe Biden’s transition set-up, their ethnic brethren back home are overjoyed. At the last count, there were two dozen of them. Most of these men and women will eventually get jobs in an incoming Biden administration.

Speculation among Indians is rife that when Kamala Harris resigns her seat in the US Senate to be Vice President, she will be replaced by one of two Indian origin members of the US House of Representatives from California: Ro Khanna or Ami Bera. Both men won re-election to the House this month.

The Indian American Impact Fund, an advocacy committee of desis, has already endorsed Khanna’s appointment to the Senate by California Governor Gavin Newsom. Such lobbying has lent credence to chatter that another Indian American will replace the only incumbent Senator with Indian roots. Indians, it would appear, are nurturing a sense of entitlement with the victory of Harris to the second-most important political office in the US.

This does not augur well for the Indian American community, which has taken only baby steps in political outreach nationwide in recent years, and is still small both in numbers and in its capacity to raise campaign money. The potential of people of Indian origin to shape American public policies and to wield influence in the corridors of power in the US is vastly overstated.

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Nor does it bode well for India to forget that its relevance to the US is no more than two decades old. Compare this to Europe and a conclusion is inevitable that punching above India’s weight can be counterproductive. Israel is the only country which has the US’ indulgence to punch above its weight.

Even China has an ethnic history of deeper engagement with the US than India: witness the large Chinatowns in cities like San Francisco and New York or the smaller one in Washington, and India’s relative weakness becomes obvious. Japan is imprinted too in the US consciousness through annual Cherry Blossom festivals, for example.

But there is nothing yet about India which makes the country a household name. The experience of a Bengali-German friend is instructive. In Nashville, Tennessee, on business, he found himself in a downtown bar one evening, sitting next to a local patron of that establishment.

“Where are you from?” the local patron asked the Bengali, who replied that he was from India. “India,” the man reflected. “Is India east of Tennessee or west of Tennessee?” Logic demanded my friend’s answer that India was, indeed, east of Tennessee. The local man was satisfied with the reply. No more questions about India. It just did not matter.

As Indians exult in the growing number of their former compatriots who are in Biden’s transition team, it is necessary to bear in mind that throughout history, it is Americans of non-Indian origin, who have laid the foundations of their country’s relations with India and continue to add substance to that relationship.

In the outgoing Donald Trump administration, it is Lisa Curtis, Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for South Asia at the National Security Council, who has done the most for deepening relations with India throughout the Trump presidency. She is an old India hand and a strong force of long-standing in Washington’s policy circuit, but she is not of Indian origin.

Former US President Barack Obama had a large number of Indian Americans in his administration, but when push came to shove, these ethnic Indians were squeamish about helping India any more than the very minimum that they were required to do. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar knows this more than anyone else.

As Ambassador in Washington when Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was improperly arrested and deliberately mistreated, and New Delhi needed a critical push from the Obama administration, some Indian Americans from within privately told Jaishankar that they would like to help, but it would not help their careers or future political pursuits if they were seen as being demonstratively pro-Indian because of their ethnic roots. A white or black American in any US administration would have no such reservations.

In the urge to cosy up to Biden, Harris and their team, it should never be forgotten that they represent only one half of America. In the US Senate, exactly half its composition is Republican and nearly as many in the House of Representatives. The majority of America’s Governors are Republican and will remain so even after Biden is President.

Florida is one such and its importance for India should not be overlooked. It is necessary to look beyond such states’ conventional structures to ensure that India remains relevant overall.

Recently, when Trump was at his weakest point in his re-election campaign, Digvijay (Danny) Gaekwad launched an advertisement blitz for the President on 30 TV channels. At a victory celebration for the Florida Governor’s election at Gaekwad’s sprawling estate in Ocala, which bears the insignia of his erstwhile Baroda royal family at its arched entrance, the Indian American got Governor Ron DeSantis to promise that he will host the first Diwali celebration at the gubernatorial mansion. DeSantis fulfilled that promise.

Also in Florida, Indian American doctors Kiran and Pallavi Patel recently donated $200 million to a local educational institution, the Nova Southeastern University, to build and run medical colleges. It was the biggest donation to a university in Florida’s history. It is the Gaekwads and Patels who will eventually shape America’s bi-partisan engagement of India, not some Indian-origin assistant secretary in the Biden administration.

KP Nayar reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.
KP Nayar

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