The American desi

Today, Americans speak of the IITs with the same reverence they used to accord to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

India has come a long way, in American eyes, from the days when I went there as a graduate student in 1975. I recall watching a three-hour NBC television special that year on “America and the World”: After long sections on the United States and the Soviet Union and the United States and Europe, a series of shorter sections on less important parts of the world followed — the US and Japan, the US and China, and so on.

I kept waiting for “the United States and India”; it never came. India, in those days, did not even figure on the US radar screen, let alone its television screens.
Today, it’s a different story; high-level visits proliferate in each direction, stories from and about India can be found everywhere on the US media and US President Barack Obama cites Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as one of the three world leaders he most respects.
Mr Obama, who as a senator had displayed a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his office, carried a locket of the Hindu god Hanuman in his pocket and spoke often of his desire to build a “close strategic partnership” with the world’s largest democracy, remains well-disposed to India, despite the occasional domestic tirade against outsourcing. His familiarity with India precedes his presidency: When my friend Arun Kumar attended an Obama campaign meeting in 2008 with a small group of South Asian supporters, Mr Obama told them that he “could cook a mean daal, but the naan, I will leave to someone else”. He introduced himself as a “desi”, pronouncing the “s” in just the right way. (The person who taught him to make daal, his roommate at Occidental College, Vinai Thummalapalli, is currently US ambassador to Belize.)
But beyond Mr Obama’s personal inclinations, the fact is that the Indian diaspora in the United States, some three-million strong and thriving, is a huge factor in the relationship. As the well-heeled Indian-American community flexes its political muscles, few US politicians can afford to be indifferent, let alone hostile, to relations with India.
The first Indian to set foot in America was a sailor in the 1770s, whose presence aroused much curiosity, and in the 1890s shiploads of Sikhs settled on the Pacific coast and established thriving farming communities in California, but racist immigration restrictions (prompted by such events as anti-Indian riots in the state of Washington in 1907) kept Indian migration low till the 1960s. A thin trickle of students made their way to the US after the 1920s, but most returned to India; indeed, as late as 1935, signs on the doors of certain California establishments declared, “No Jobs for Japs or Hindus.”
It was only with the opening of the sluice-gates under the liberal Immigration Act of 1965 that a larger number of Indians began to arrive, mainly as students, an increasing proportion of whom stayed on, bringing high levels of academic attainment and valuable scientific and engineering skills to their new country. By the early 1970s the still-small Indian minority had the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US, and even today the median family income of Indian Americans exceeds that of white Americans.
Working-class Indians found their way into the United States for the first time from the end of the 1970s, toiling on construction sites and as farm labour, taking over newspaper kiosks, operating rundown motels, cooking and serving in Indian restaurants, and driving taxicabs. Many arrived (or stayed on) illegally, but as the numbers grew, a pair of “amnesties” in the 1990s gave them the legal status they needed to bring their families over, and today this “third wave” of Indian immigrants accounts for perhaps half the desi diaspora in the United States.
Though the Indian diaspora includes Indian-American doctors and scientists of considerable renown (including three Nobel prize winners born and brought up in India), the newer Indian immigrants are demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit that has created a wider impact on the community’s fortunes. The spirit of enterprise has also affected the professional classes, especially the Indian engineers who brought from India a solid grounding in their field and excelled in the freedom afforded to them in the US. An Indian invented the Pentium chip, another created Hotmail, a third started Sun Microsystems, and Indians have been involved in some 40 per cent of the start-ups in the Silicon Valley.
Over time, the Indianness of engineers and software developers began to be taken as synonymous with mathematical and scientific excellence. Today, Americans speak of the IITs — the Indian Institutes of Technology, the elite engineering schools from which many of these migrants came — with the same reverence they used to accord to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The image of India has changed from that of a backward developing country to a sophisticated land that produces engineers and computer experts.
The prosperity this engendered has also translated into political activism. Indian-Americans are amongst the most prominent fundraisers in both major parties, and their active involvement in politics is now translating into elective office at various levels, including two state governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina. But neither has chosen to identify much with their Indian origins or Indian causes; indeed, their acceptability to their Right-wing political base has hinged on de-emphasising their foreign origins.
Indian-Americans have found greater success in influencing mainstream non-immigrant American politicians by sensitising them to issues of importance to the Indian diaspora. The rising financial clout of the community and its collective willingness to flex its political muscles has seen many non-Indian candidates for political office running targeted campaigns aimed at Indian-American voters and donors. The pole positions held by Indians in the boardrooms of corporate America are also a tangible source of influence at high levels of the country’s decision-making processes.
The result of all this is apparent in the size and strength of the India Caucus on Capitol Hill; the political desiderata for many American Congressmen now includes the need to demonstrate interest in Indian-American issues and goodwill towards India.
Whoever wins the White House in the closely fought election campaign now under way, it’s clear that thanks to the Indian diaspora, no US President will be able to ignore India.

The writer is a member of Parliament from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

Comments

Well wtitten as usual from

Well wtitten as usual from Shashi Tharoor, and certainly the Indian diaspora in the US has played a major role in the recognition accorded to India these days. However, two other very important factors contributes to this increased interest in India. One is economic. With western economies stagnating, the Indian market with 1.2 billion population has become one of the most exciting places to penetrate in search of ever increasing growth. Second reason is political, with the rapid emergence of China, the US sorely needs a counterpoint, and India would be ideal if the US could get India completely on it's side. The US knows very well that both these efforts will take time, so the diplomacy and the visits continue.

"indeed, their acceptability

"indeed, their acceptability to their Right-wing political base has hinged on de-emphasising their foreign origins"
why every time Indian dumb head liberals refer to this country to make a point.

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