By Uma Purushothaman*
As the US election campaign gathers steam, India is watching it with great interest not only because of the importance of the India-US relationship, but also because of the sizeable Indian Diaspora in the US.
The Indian American Diaspora has undoubtedly traversed a long distance from the pioneering, uneducated and low-skilled Punjabi farmers of the late 19th and early 20th century to what is now a highly skilled over three million-strong community. The Indian American population is the second-largest immigrant group in the country after Mexicans. The US is also home to the second largest Indian Diaspora globally. Indian Americans are the wealthiest (with household incomes almost double of the American average), most educated and law-abiding ethnic community in the US, a “model minority”. Though it constitutes less than one percent of the total American population, it accounts for about ten percent of all doctors and more than five percent of scientists, engineers and IT professionals in the country.
Indian Americans are also a relatively young population. The community is evenly distributed across the country though there are more Indians in places like New York, New Jersey, Texas, California, and Chicago. The community is also highly organised. It is important to remember that most of the community is deeply engaged with India. A good proportion makes regular visits to India and many send remittances to India. In fact, the US is the second largest source of remittances to India behind West Asia.
While their ancestors were busier in building livelihoods and rarely showed inclination in getting involved in politics, today’s Diaspora is playing an increasingly pivotal role in American politics, from community organisers to local politics, state politics to politics of Capitol Hill. The number of Indian Americans in high political offices has been steadily increasing, whether it is in President Obama’s administration or in administrations across the country, including governorships. Indian Americans have established several advocacy organisations and political action committees on a wide range of issues of importance to India. For instance, the US-India Political Affairs Committee and the Indian American Forum for Political Education have done seminal work in advocating India’s cause. India has bipartisan caucuses in both houses of Congress-the Senate India Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. The community’s political influence has grown over the years and it has played a key role in lobbying for Indian causes on Capitol Hill. In recent years, Indians have demonstrated their increasing political influence with the election of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
By and large, Indian Americans, like most minorities in the US have traditionally voted for the Democrats. But there are influential Indian American Republicans as well. The most notable is of course Louisiana Governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, the first Indian American contender for a party’s presidential nomination. But Jindal has slipped out of the top ten contenders and may be forced to suspend his campaign soon.
Another Indian American in these elections is Mary Thomas who is running to become the Republican nominee for Congress from Florida. In fact, some reports suggest that as Indian Americans have become wealthier, they are becoming more conservative and are leaning towards the Republican Party. This is evident from the fact that their financial contribution to the Republican Party has been increasing recently. Parties are also beginning to appeal to Indian Americans. For instance, George W Bush successfully reached out to the community in the 2004 elections, talking to community leaders and inviting them to fundraising dinners.
The Indian government woke up to the emergence of its Diaspora as an influential political force much before Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over. A High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora said in 2001 that “for the first time, India has a constituency in the US with real status and influence…an invaluable asset in strengthening India’s relationship with the world’s only superpower… They have effectively mobilized on issues ranging from the nuclear tests in 1998 to Kargil, played a crucial role in generating a favourable climate of opinion in Congress and defeating anti-India legislation there, and lobbied effectively on other issues of concern to the Indian community”. But it is a fact that Modi’s emphasis on the Indian Diaspora and his advice to them to become an extension of India’s foreign policy has had deep resonance with the community. It feels a deeper sense of being connected to India today and is proud of the country as is evident from the enthusiasm of the thousands who thronged to listen to the Prime Minister during his public speeches last year and this year.
While India certainly recognises the importance of the Diaspora in contributing to stronger ties with the US, interestingly, so does the US. In January this year, President Obama announced a new public private partnership to encourage Indian Americans to directly invest in India, thus enhancing economic relations between the two countries.
Given the small size of their population, the Indian American community will not be a kingmaker in the American elections. However, their influence is disproportionate to the size of the population as members of the community have become major financial contributors to both parties.
Despite the US economy doing slightly better than during the last elections, outsourcing will be an issue during the elections. Another issue of interest for India is immigration because of the link to H1B visas. What different candidates say on these issues will be closely followed by Indian businesses and high skilled workers. For instance, surprise Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposal to make H1B visas more difficult to acquire has received enough bad press in India. On the other hand, another Republican presidential contender, Marco Rubio, wants to increase the number of H1B visas. Interestingly, on foreign policy, the same Donald Trump has nice words for India, saying the US has to engage closely with India as it is the only country which can “check” Pakistan, the world’s “most dangerous country”. The leading Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, is a known Indophile who sees India as a critical part of US grand strategy.
While India watches the elections with interest, whether it is a Republican or a Democrat who comes to power, US-India ties are set to improve because of bipartisan consensus in the US that the relationship has to grow stronger in view of shared concerns and interests in the Indo Pacific. There has long been a myth among the Indian strategic community that Republican Presidents have been better for India. But it is just that—a myth. Remember, it was the Republican Richard Nixon who led the rapprochement with China and it was the Democrat John F Kennedy who helped India during the Sino-Indian conflict.
*The writer is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
Courtesy: The Diplomatist