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The Indian-Americans driving Biden’s agenda

A large number of second-generation ‘desis’ are starting to mainstream themselves in US politics.Premium
A large number of second-generation ‘desis’ are starting to mainstream themselves in US politics.

  • Swift end to covid, a US-led global economic recovery and tackling China will all rely on 20 ‘desis’. Who are they?
  • People like Vivek Murthy and Vidur Sharma will be key to the covid plan that is expected to be rolled out within days. There are also several Indian-origin names in the national security team

Shortly after winning the November 2020 US presidential polls, then president-elect Joseph Biden promised to pick a cabinet that will be “more representative of the American people than any other cabinet in history". True to his word, Biden’s staffing decisions—both within and beyond the cabinet—reveal many firsts, such as the first Native American interior secretary and the first Black secretary of defence.

But it is perhaps the desis in Biden’s team who’ve stirred up the most attention outside the US. Indian Americans are among the wealthiest and most educated of all ethnic groups in the country. A large number of second-generation Indian Americans are starting to mainstream themselves in US politics. No surprise then that a sizeable bunch of Indian Americans ended up in the Barack Obama administration. Many of them have now found their way back into the corridors of power as the Biden administration takes office. Almost all of Biden’s Indian American picks are professionals—doctors, lawyers and economic experts.

Here’s a look at the Indian Americans who will be directing US policy over the next four years, in no particular order.

Vinay Reddy

Biden’s director of Speechwriting

If Biden’s inaugural speech won applause for its message of hope and unity, some credit should go to long-time associate, Vinay Reddy. He is the first Indian American to hold the post. His role will be crucial in the coming days. Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Reddy was Biden’s chief speechwriter when he was Vice President. Reddy’s family has its roots in a remote village in Telangana. Multiple media reports say Reddy’s father, Narayana Reddy, was a doctor who moved to the US in 1970. Reddy, the second of three sons, attended the Ohio State University College of Law.

Vivek Murthy

Surgeon General

The 43-year-old physician by training is set to return to the role he held in the administration of former President Barack Obama and is expected to play a key role in drawing up the strategy to fight the covid-19 pandemic—a major priority for the new administration. In 2008, Murthy reportedly founded “Doctors for Obama" (later rechristened Doctors for America) to support Obama in his presidential bid against Senator John McCain. In December 2020, Murthy was named co-chair of Biden’s newly-formed coronavirus task force. Brought up in Miami where his parents moved when he was three years old, Murthy attended Harvard for his bachelor’s degree and later completed his MD and MBA degrees from Yale.

Rohit Chopra

Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The agency regulates consumer financial products and services. The 38-year-old is a former close aide of Senator Elizabeth Warren and helped launch the agency in 2011. He has pushed for aggressive remedies against law-breaking companies and advocated for fair, competitive markets that will protect families and honest businesses from abuses. He has been in the news recently for voting to sue Facebook for illegal monopoly behaviour as a Federal Trade Commissioner. He also advocated for a breakup of the company. Definitely, someone to keep an eye out for in the coming days.

Vanita Gupta

Associate Attorney General at the Department of Justice

Gupta, 46, is a civil rights lawyer. She has been president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on civil and human rights and has focused on advancing democracy and civil rights, especially that of immigrants and people of colour. She will also be the first woman of colour to serve as the US Associate Attorney General. “Born in Philadelphia, a proud daughter of immigrants from India. Does that sound familiar?" Biden was quoted as saying about her, drawing a line of similarity between her and Vice President Kamala Harris. In the Obama administration, Gupta investigated abuse of power in police departments in communities riven by violence and racial injustice. Given that uniting a polarized US is a key Biden priority, Gupta is expected to play a prominent role in the Department of Justice.

Indian Americans who will be directing US policy over the next four years
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Indian Americans who will be directing US policy over the next four years

Uzra Zeya

Under Secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights

Zeya is one of several Indian Americans who trace their roots to Kashmir in the Biden administration. She headed the Alliance for Peacebuilding after quitting the State Department in 2018, said Indiawest.com. An expert on the Near East, South Asian, Europe, human rights and multilateral affairs, she is a Georgetown University School of Foreign Service graduate and has been posted in Paris, New Delhi, Damascus etc. Her familiarity with New Delhi and the interlocutors here could come in handy for both sides, given the emphasis the Biden administration is expected to place on human rights.

Bharat Ramamurti

Deputy National Economic Council Director for financial reform and consumer protection

Ramamurti, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, is the managing director of the corporate power programme at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think-tank. As aide for seven years to Senator Elizabeth Warren, he served as an economic adviser during Warren’s 2020 presidential election campaign. As Warren’s aide, he also led the investigation of Wells Fargo. In April 2020, Ramamurti was appointed member of the Congressional Oversight Commission for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) to oversee spending. In many ways, the American NEC mirrors India’s NITI Aayog.

Sameera Fazili

Deputy Director at the US National Economic Council in the White House

Another Indian-American team member with roots in Kashmir, Fazili was earlier posted at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Fazili is a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard College. “It is a proud moment for entire Kashmir," PTI quoted her uncle, Rouf Fazili, as saying. “She was not born here. Her parents left the Valley in 1970-71, but she has a strong affinity with Kashmir," he said. Along with people like Ramamurti, her task will be to focus on setting the US back on the growth path.

Neera Tanden

Nominated as the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget

Currently, she heads the Centre for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think-tank. “A brilliant policy mind with critical, practical experience across government, she was raised by a single mom on food stamps, an immigrant from India who struggled, worked hard and did everything she could for her daughter to live out the American dream," was how Biden described her. Tanden, 50, has served in the Clinton administration and has worked with Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.

Tarun Chhabra

Senior director for technology and national security in Biden’s National Security Council

He was a non-resident fellow with the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. His research focused on US grand strategy, US-China relations and US alliances. Previously, Chhabra served on the White House National Security Council staff as director and at the Pentagon as a speechwriter to Secretaries of Defence Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter. Chhabra has worked with the UN too, with then Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office. He has a law degree from Harvard and a degree in international relations from Oxford University.

Sumona Guha

Senior director for South Asia at the National Security Council

A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities, Guha was a vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group. She has previously worked at the State Department as a foreign service officer and on the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff. During the Obama-Biden administration, she was a special advisor for national security affairs to the then-Vice-president Biden. Guha will be an important interlocutor for India handling as she looks after South Asia in the NSC.

Shanthi Kalathil

Coordinator for democracy and human rights in the National Security Council

She was the senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Prior to that, she served as a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Hong Kong-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She reportedly traces her roots to Alappuzha in Kerala. Being a member of the NSC, she is expected to be another important interlocutor for New Delhi.

Sonia Aggarwal

Adviser for climate policy and innovation in the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy

She was the co-founder and vice president of Energy Innovation, which led America’s Power Plan, and brought together 200 electricity policy experts. Aggarwal also led a team that developed the Energy Policy Simulator, which analyses the environmental, economic, and public health impacts of climate and energy policies. Born and raised in Ohio, Aggarwal has a Masters degree from Stanford University in civil engineering.

Sabrina Singh

Deputy press secretary to Vice President Kamala Harris

Singh, 32, is reportedly related to Sardar Jag Jit Singh, believed to be behind the establishment of an immigrant quota under former US President Harry Truman. Singh previously headed the press team for two Democratic presidential candidates who were in the fray in the primary campaign, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Mike Bloomberg. She has served as deputy communications director for the Democratic National Committee and as regional communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She is key part of the team that will project an active and much-watched vice-president’s views on important matters.

Aisha Shah

Partnerships manager, White House Office of Digital Strategy

Another Kashmiri-origin Indian American in the Biden administration, Shah was raised in Louisiana and has previously been digital partnerships manager in the Biden-Harris Campaign. She was an advancement specialist for the Smithsonian Institution.

Vedant Patel

White House Assistant Press Secretary

Previously, Patel worked as communications director to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, western regional press secretary at the Democratic National Committee, and communications director to Congressman Mike Honda. One of the team entrusted with the job of setting on track the Biden administration’s communications strategy.

Vidur Sharma

Testing adviser on Biden’s covid-19 response team

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Minnesota, Sharma is a graduate of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Saint Louis University. In the Obama administration, he was a health policy adviser working on implementing Obamacare. Among his appointments, he has served as deputy research director with “Protect Our Care", a coalition of advocacy organisations campaigning against the repeal of Obamacare. Bringing the pandemic under control is among the immediate tasks outlined by Biden and Sharma will play a key role here.

Neha Gupta

Associate Counsel in the Office of White House Counsel

It’s a job that could assume importance if any cases surface against Biden for allegedly withholding loan guarantees to pressure Ukraine in order to protect his son back when he was Vice President. Former President Trump did try to sully Biden’s campaign with allegations and could revive the charges if his impeachment goes through the Senate in the coming days. A graduate of Harvard College and Stanford Law School, Gupta has previously served as a deputy city attorney in the San Francisco City Attorney’s office.

Reema Shah

Deputy Associate Counsel in the Office of White House Counsel

Prior to this, she was a member of the debate preparation team for the Biden-Harris campaign. She was previously an associate at Latham and Watkins and also worked in the office of the solicitor general at the Department of Justice. She served as a law clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Judge Sri Srinivasan on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Along with Gupta, Shah’s expertise would come in useful for legal battles on behalf of the White House, should any crisis develop.

Gautam Raghavan

Deputy director in the Office of Presidential Personnel

A first-generation immigrant, Raghavan has been long associated with policy for the Gill Foundation, one of the oldest and largest private foundations dedicated to the cause of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality. “Appa, husband, gay, immigrant, proud naturalized citizen" reads his profile on Twitter. Raghavan has worked as chief of staff to Indian American Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Mala Adiga

Policy director to First Lady Jill Biden

Previously, she has served as the director for human rights on the national security staff during the Obama-Biden administration. A lawyer by training, Adiga worked for a Chicago law firm before joining Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.

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