Desis in DC
by CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA
There was a remarkable moment during the recent Obama-Singh meeting in Washington that was barely captured by the cameras. As the two leaders met for their one-on-one, Singh’s principal assistant and note-taker was his private secretary Jaideep Sarkar, a young gun of the Indian Foreign Service. No surprise there. And aiding Obama? Anish Goel, a senior staffer of the National Security Council and a rising star of the US foreign service. Similarly, when the US side engaged New Delhi on Af-Pak issues, the Indians found, much to their surprise, that the Senior Defense Advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan was Vikram Singh.
It’s a sight that has become increasingly common in Washington – Indian-Americans and Americans of East Indian origin walking the corridors of power that were once an all-American domain, with an occasional black or latino interlude. It’s a development neither New Delhi nor Washington want to read too much into – other than the fact that the United States, like India, has the rare ability to absorb foreigners, minorities, and immigrants into the mainstream without much effort, an idea that is both foreign and anathema to countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China.
"That’s just the way this country is," an Indian-American who now holds a senior position in the Obama administration said, recoiling at the idea of a story on the new tribe of desi pols. "Just as people of European, East Asian and African ancestry made their mark without a splash, so too will people of Indian origin. To see that as anything else will be a disservice to both India and America."
ARNIE TO ALBRIGHT
Indeed, no one makes much of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Austrian origin or Madeleine Albright’s Czech lineage or Bill Richardson’s Hispanic background. The idea of America as a melting pot has advanced so much that no one even considers the fact that Barack Obama is, strictly speaking, ethnically, half Kenyan. In fact, Albright and Schwarzenegger could never become the US President because they were not born in theUnited States; Obama, who was born in the US, could, and so can Louisiana-born Bobby Jindal, despite their more "foreign" origins and looks.
But try telling all this to the Pakistanis, who are openly agitated at what they see as the "Indian influence" in the US, or the Chinese, who are less demonstrative but are equally leery. Last month, ahead of Manmohan Singh’s US visit, Pakistani ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani produced 26 as the number of Indian-Americans serving in Obama’s administration. "Pakistan is wary of the Indo-US relationship, which is robust and multifaceted," Haqqani told a meeting of US lawmakers and staffers. "Facts like these naturally make Pakistan nervous."
EDGE OVER CHINA
Twenty six might include support staff, interns etc, but it’s a fact that Obama’s has more Indian-Americans in senior positions than any US government – at least a dozen at last count. While there is some talk of Obama’s special regard for Indian-Americans (with overheated tales of his passion for desi cuisine and familiarity with its culture), the fact is there has been an incremental increase in the profile of Indian-Americans in the administration, politics, and public life in successive presidencies from Clinton to Bush to Obama, in keeping with their rising numbers (2.5 million now) and growing success. The Chinese are more numerous (3.2 million), but Indians, with their familiarity with Democratic traditions and better facility with English leading to better assimilation, seem to be doing well in the political sphere.
While young professionals and pols of Indian-origin first began to dot the Hill as interns and staffers to US lawmakers in the 1990s, the otherwise negative noughties have seen them, in large numbers, take giant positive strides into the administration, where many desi uber-whizzes are now making and executing policies while their peer Indian-Americans on the Hill oversee legislative activity. Many Indian-American parents consider it a badge of honour to have kids serving as interns on the Hill or in the White House.
This has India’s adversaries clearly worried. Time and again during the nuclear deal, Pakistanis moaned about the "Indian lobby" on the Hill doing the heavy-lifting and allying with the "Jewish lobby." Now, they fear the influence will extend into the administration. They should not have any reason to, though. Initial accounts of the spread of the "Indian influence" in Washington DC appear misplaced and exaggerated, with no sign that that first and second generation Indians in the administration are in any way favourable to New Delhi. For instance, Anish Goel, who received his PhD in chemical engineering from MIT, has in no way influenced the outcome of the US-India nuclear deal (still in limbo over the reprocessing issue) even though that is his area of expertise and he initially served as the Desk officer dealing with the subject in the State Department. Similarly, Vikram Singh’s influential role in Af-Pak policy making hasn’t exactly endeared his boss Richard Holbrooke to New Delhi, which has balked at efforts to add "In" to Af-Pak. If anything, the fact that they are of Indian origin may have made them even more self-conscious not to be seen as favouring India. While many of the nearly one dozen Indian-Americans currently in the senior and mid-levels of the administration will go in and out of the government and the academic/thinktank spheres in a revolving door system that is typically American, a few will doubtless go on to occupy higher office. Some may even choose to run for high office, as did Bobby Jindal, who was a policy wonk in the healthcare area before running for Congress and then for governor of Louisiana. In fact, standing outside the White House on a bleak, grey morning in November when Singh arrived for his ceremonial state visit, some scribes wondered how long it would be before a person of Indian-origin occupied the Oval Office.
The idea is not all that far-fetched. Jindal himself came pretty close to an office that is considered a heartbeat away from the Presidency when John McCain shortlisted him as a Republican vice-presidential running mate. Eventually, he decided to go with Sarah Palin, but many American pundits think Jindal has a bright future in the Republican Party, particularly if he delivers in Katrina-struck Louisiana State. But while Jindal is one of few Indian-Americans in a Grand Old Party that is generally seen as anti-immigrant, the Democratic Party is teeming with them. Within months of coming to White House, Obama chose a slew of Indian-Americans, many of them from his campaign, for important jobs in his administration.
Two of his most significant choices were Aneesh Chopra to be the First Chief Technology Officer and Vivek Kundra as the Federal Chief Information Officer, appointments which endorsed the Indian presence in the technology sector. But there were also appointments in Obama’s own specialty, law, a discipline where Indian-Americans are seen in high numbers now. Among Obama’s choices – Preet Bharara as the US Attorney for New York, a job previously held by Rudy Giuliani and seen as a stepping stone to a political career; Preeta Bansal, general counsel and senior policy advisor in the Office of Management and Budget; and Georgetown University Don Neal Katyal as principal deputy solicitor general.
By far the most high-profile Indian-American appointment came just ahead of Singh’s visit when Obama named Rajiv Shah to head USAID, a job that will include disbursing massive foreign aid to Pakistan, which is already worried that the "Hinjews" are starting to control the US purse-string. A whiz-kid who served as undersecretary for research, education and economics and chief scientist in the Agriculture Department before he was bumped up to the sub-cabinet level appointment, Shah is among several desi science brains in the government, a list that includes Arun Majumdar, Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy in the US Department of Energy.
While many of Obama’s political appointees are from the academia, there is a separate stream of Indian-Americans which is coming up from the grassroots in the Democratic Party. Since Obama himself was a state legislator (from Illinois) before getting elected to the US Senate and then making the presidential bid after only four years there, he serves as an inspiration to lawmakers such as Satvir Choudhury (Minnesota Senate), and Swati Dandekar, Jay Goyal and Raj Goyle, all of whom are state level lawmakers and invitees to Obama’s state dinner banquet for Manmohan Singh.
RUNNING FOR CONGRESS
In fact, at least half dozen Indian-Americans are running for Congress in the 2010 elections to the US House of Representatives, among them Raj Goyle (D-Kansas), Manan Trivedi, (D- Pennsylvania) , Ami Bera (D-California) , Ravi Sangisetty (DLousiana ), Reshma Sejauni (D-New York) and Surya Yalamanchili (I-Ohio ). Only Goyle among them is said to have a realistic chance to become the third US lawmaker of Indian origin after Dalip Singh Saund and Bobby Jindal, but the fact that most aspirants are in the 27-40 age group augurs well for the Indian-American political future. Then there are others running for offices ranging from Governor (Nikki Haley Randhawa in South Carolina) to Attorney General (Kamala Harris in California) to State Comptroller (Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois). Anyone could turn out to be a future desi Obama.
There are Indian-Americans who are widely tipped as lateral entrants at a future date – among them Fareed Zakaria, who has been spoken of as a putative Secretary of State, and Indra Nooyi, whose experience as CEO of Pepsi marks out her as a future appointee in the Department of Commerce. So, to the question of a person of Indian-origin sitting behind the "Resolute Desk" in the Oval Office of the White Houseâ€¦it would appear the answer is not if, but when. And when it happens, the Obama success in the US will be seen as the turning point in the political history of the country.
TOP INDIANS IN THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
Assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the state department
Deputy assistant secretary for domestic operations of the US and Foreign Commercial Service, International Trade Administration
Federal chief information officer
First chief technology officer
Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy in the US department of energy
US attorney for Southern District of New York
Principal deputy solicitor general
Deputy assistant attorney general, US department of justice
Deputy assistant to the President, director, Office of SICP, Domestic Policy Council
US special representative to Muslim communities
Member, faith-based advisory council
Executive director, policy, USDA Center for Nutrition and Promotion
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District attorney, San Francisco
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Editor of Newsweek International and host, CNN’s GPS