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Home / Politics / Policy /  Narendra Modi likely to leverage rising clout of Indian-Americans in US visit

New Delhi: It was an awkward moment. Florida congressman Curt Clawson turned towards two high-ranking US officials at a congressional hearing in July and said: “I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?"

Clawson had mistaken Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar for Indian citizens rather than Americans—a story that went viral on the Internet.

Biswal broke the ensuing silence with: “I think your question is to the Indian government… We certainly share your sentiment, and we certainly will advocate that on behalf of the US."

The incident, which reportedly resulted in an apology from Clawson, serves as an example of how ubiquitous the Indian diaspora has become in every aspect of US life—as doctors, healthcare experts, software engineers, academics, business leaders—and now as politicians.

In numbers, America’s “Asian Indian" population (to distinguish from the American native Indian population) has risen rapidly over the past decade, shows 2010 US Census data. The population of Asian Indians numbers 3.18 million, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country.

Besides Biswal, who is assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, and Kumar, the assistant secretary for global markets in the US department of commerce, some of the others holding key positions in US administration and public life include Puneet Talwar, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs in the department of defence; Preet Bharara, US attorney for the southern district of New York who shot into prominence when he ordered the arrest of Indian consul general in New York Devyani Khobragade on charges of alleged visa fraud in 2013; Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina; and Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana.

The likes of Satya Nadella, chief executive officer (CEO) of Microsoft Corp.; Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo Inc., or CNN’s Emmy-award winning chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, a practising neurosurgeon (who reportedly refused President Barack Obama’s offer of the position of surgeon general in 2009) are already established names in their professions in the US.

And days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to the US, Obama named Indian-origin American Richard Verma, former assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs in his administration, as the next US ambassador to India. If confirmed, he will be the first Indian-origin US ambassador to India.

According to Sanjay Puri, chairman of Washington-based US-India Political Action Committee, a prominent Asian Indian-American association in the US formed in 2002, the swelling numbers of Asian Indians in US politics illustrates “the coming of age of the Indian-American community".

“The first generation of Indian-Americans were busy building their homes and family. Now the second generation is looking at opportunities" before them, he said in emailed comments.

Pointing to the large numbers of staff of Indian origin on the Capitol Hill—the metonym for the US Congress—besides state legislators, Puri said that his group brought “a better understanding" to the relationship, besides having to power to strengthen it.

While most people of Indian origin in the 19th century migrated mainly to countries of Africa, South-East Asia, Fiji and the Caribbean, those who migrated to the US left India mainly in the second half of the 20th century—during the so-called “brain drain" period, said a diplomat who served in the Indian embassy in Washington in the early 2000s. The diplomat didn’t want to be named.

Recent Indian immigration into the US though has been channelled largely through foreign temporary worker, family- based preference and student admission programmes.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center covering 3,511 Asian Americans in 2012, seven in 10 Indian-American adults aged 25 and above have a college degree, compared with about half of Americans of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese ancestry, and about a quarter of Vietnamese Americans.

The median household wealth for Asian Americans was $83,500 in 2010, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. The median household wealth for households overall was $68,529 in the same period, the survey said, adding that 9% of Asian Indians were classed as living below the poverty line compared with 11.9% for Asian Americans and 12.8% for the US. In 2008, Asian-American voters supported President Obama over Republican John McCain by 62% to 35%, according to Election Day exit polls. “Most of the Asian-Americans today—the second generation who were born there—have learnt how to leverage their influence, which is considerable," said another diplomat, who served in the Indian mission in New York in the late 1990s. “The earlier generation, while contributing to the campaigns of US politicians, did not ask for anything in return. This second generation is different, many of them are well to do, they have been in touch with India through the families or by visiting India, they are aware and interested in the events taking place back home, thanks to the Internet editions of Indian newspapers."

“These are the people who are also taking an active interest in US politics and participating in it," added the diplomat, who also requested anonymity.

A measure of the clout wielded by the community can be gauged by the fact that at one meeting in 2002 of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, “I remember there were 60-75 US congressmen and senators and it was just an ordinary meeting of the group," said the first diplomat quoted above.

It was watching the power wielded by the Jewish American community, for example, that made policymakers in the Indian government think of reaching out and leveraging the Indian-American community to influence US policymaking vis-à-vis India, said the first diplomat. “In the 1990s, India’s economic growth picked up, there was a buzz about India, thanks to its information technology industry. India was in the limelight due to these factors and that helped the Indian-American community, and ignited greater interest in India because their home country’s prestige in the world was rising. It’s difficult to project yourself and your community if your home country is not doing well," he said.

It was a combination of the two that helped India through difficult times—a case in point being the post-nuclear tests period in 1998 when the US and other countries slapped sanctions on India, said the second diplomat. The Indian-American community joined hands with the Indian embassy in Washington and the Indian missions in New York and other places to forge a strategy to reach out to opinion makers in the US, to explain the rationale behind India going nuclear.

According to the second diplomat, the clout of the Indian-American community also came in handy during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, which erupted when a group of Pakistani army regulars in the guise of Islamist militants occupied Kargil in Kashmir.

“The Indian-American community is very patriotic, and they grabbed the issue and did their best to influence the policies. There was a convergence of efforts between the Indian embassy and the Indian-American community, and the result is there for all to see," said the diplomat, referring to then US President Bill Clinton advising Pakistan to withdraw across the de facto frontier in Kashmir.

During Modi’s five-day visit to the US, one of his engagements is a speech to about 20,000 Indian-Americans at the Madison Square Garden in New York, in which he is expected to appeal to precisely this sense of patriotism in the community. “One of the recurrent themes of the Prime Minister in many of his speeches has been the importance of skilling young Indians; he has also spoken of how he wants to build up India’s manufacturing sector to create employment—the ‘Make in India’ theme—and also how he wants to attract investments into India to promote economic growth. I suspect these will be the lines of his address to the Indian-American community," said an Indian government official, who declined to be named.

In a statement on Thursday before his departure to the US, Modi said the success of the Indian-American community “in diverse fields, their contribution to the US, their abiding bonds with India and their role as a vibrant bridge between the two largest democracies is a source of pride for us. They serve as a window to our heritage, progress and potential".

According to Puri of the US-India Political Action Committee, “there is genuine excitement" among the Indian- American community to listen to the Prime Minister, given that he comes across as a strong leader. “There is a unique opportunity with a pragmatic leader like Modi for the Obama administration to forge some deeper economic and political ties based on the synergies in the fields of energy, infrastructure and defence," he said.

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