The South Asia Channel

The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

Narendra Modi’s visit last month to the San Francisco area highlighted a signal immigration story: The great prominence of Indian-born entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley and the key role they play in America’s technological dynamism. But an equally important, if under-noticed, tale was also at play: How the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society has changed the way all Americans think about India and the resulting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

According to a Gallup survey conducted earlier this year, more 70 percent of the U.S. public has a positive impression of India, a score on par with Israel’s traditionally-high favorability rating. This is the latest indicator of how decisively American perceptions about the country have shifted in a relatively short period of time. Not too long ago, India was widely regarded as the very epitome of what the term “Third World” meant – decrepit, destitute and pitiable.

For many decades most Americans were inclined to the views of President Harry S. Truman, who dismissed India at its birth as an independent state as “pretty jammed with poor people and cows wandering around streets, witch doctors and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges.” His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had an even more incisive perspective: “by and large [Indians] and their country give me the creeps.”

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the U.S. ambassador to India from 1973-75, he regularly lamented that Washington was utterly indifferent to the country’s fate; writing in his diary, he confided that it “is American practice to pay but little attention to India.” In a cable to the State Department, he complained of dismissive attitudes, “a kind of John Birch Society contempt for the views of raggedly ass people in pajamas on the other side of the world.”

Public opinion kept close track with official attitudes in Washington. Harold Issacs’s classic 1958 survey of U.S. elite opinion on China and India, Scratches on Our Minds, revealed that influential Americans held very negative perceptions of the latter, associating it with “filth, dirt and disease,” along with debased religious beliefs. Influential books in the 1960s, most notably Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, rendered dim portraits of India’s political coherence and economic prospects. The country did not even rate mention in either Paul Kennedy’s much-discussed 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, or John Mearsheimer’s 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. And in the summer of 1991, editorial writers at the New York Times advised readers to “pity India” because the country was in danger of fragmenting along sectarian lines.

A State Department analysis prepared in the early 1970s found that U.S. public opinion identified India more than any other nation with such attributes as disease, death and illiteracy, and school textbooks throughout this period regularly portrayed it in a most negative light. This view was again underscored in a 1983 opinion poll, in which Americans ranked India at the bottom of a list of 22 countries on the basis of perceived importance to U.S. vital interests.

So, what accounts for the fundamental shift in American perceptions? An obvious part of the answer lies in the turnabout in India’s outlook that began with the major economic reforms launched in 1991. According to World Bank data, India has now supplanted Japan as Asia’s second-largest economy as measured on a purchasing power parity basis. Lawrence H. Summers, when he served recently as President Obama’s chief economics adviser, took to touting the virtues of the Indian development model.

And the teeming masses that horrified Paul Ehrlich into apocalyptic prognostications are now viewed as a vast reservoir of highly-trained brainpower threatening to sap the U.S. edge in innovation. A widely-publicized 2005 report issued by an eminent group of U.S. business and scientific leaders warned that America’s competitive position is being eroded by the emergence of skilled labor forces in India and China. This theme was regularly picked up by President Obama in the early years of his term.

But an equally central piece of the explanation lies in the remarkable growth of the Indian-American community. Nearly invisible three decades ago, it is now the third largest immigrant group in the country and occupies leading positions in government, business, academia and the health care professions.

Consider, for example, the election of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley to the governorships of Louisiana and South Carolina (respectively), states in the heart of the Old Confederacy. Or how the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia as well as the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi are persons of Indian origin.

Witness too the recent insider-trading trials involving the Galleon Group hedge fund – in which the key defendants, witnesses and prosecutors traced their roots to India – highlighted the rise of Indian-Americans on Wall Street. Or the recent appointments of Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai as the chief executives of iconic U.S. tech companies Microsoft and Google (respectively).

Consider also the dramatic impact on Silicon Valley, where Indians are involved in more start-ups than any other immigrant group and play high-profile roles in venture capital. According to a 2012 Kauffman Foundation report, Indian immigrants established one-third of Silicon Valley start-ups in 2006-2012, up from about 7 percent in 2005. Indeed, Indians founded a markedly greater number of engineering and technology firms than did immigrants from other countries, including those from China and the United Kingdom.

Although the Indian community remains relatively small – about one percent of the overall U.S. population – its rapid development as one of the nation’s most successful communities gives it an influence wholly disproportionate to its size. A number of studies have found that Indian-Americans rank higher in educational attainment and income levels than the national average and substantially higher than other immigrant groups. As one analyst puts it, “Indians in America are emerging as the new Jews: disproportionately well-educated, well paid, and increasingly well connected politically.”

According to a new Pew Research Center report, 77 percent of Indian immigrants to the United States have at least a college degree, compared to the national average of 27 percent. Another Pew study finds that Indian Americans lead all other Asian sub-groups in income and education levels. And a 2010 RAND Corporation study reports that Indian-American entrepreneurs have business income that is substantially higher than the national average and higher than any other immigrant group.

The evident success and prosperity of the Indian community has had a real impact on U.S. foreign policy. First, it has helped change public opinion on India in relatively short order, since it is difficult to dismiss or disparage a country that has produced immigrants who have so rapidly become respected and prominent in U.S. society.

Second, the community’s growing impact catalyzed stronger interest about India in Washington beginning in the mid-1990s, helping in turn to reverse America’s traditional disregard of the country – recall, for instance, how the U.S. ambassador’s post in New Delhi was vacant for the Clinton administration’s first year. This interest played an important role in the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions levied against India in the wake of its 1998 nuclear tests, and in securing the ratification of the landmark U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement a decade later.

Third, the Indian-American community has been at the forefront in building critical societal linkages between its native and adoptive countries. Consider, for example, the dynamics operating at the turn of the millennium. At the same time as Washington was imposing sanctions in response to the 1998 nuclear tests, concerns about the “Y2K” programming glitch led businesses on both sides to set the foundation for today’s strong technology partnership.

The significant role played by these societal bonds leads Fareed Zakaria to compare U.S.-India ties to the special relationships the United States has with Great Britain and Israel. And Shashi Tharoor, formerly India’s minister of state for external affairs, has likewise remarked that “in 20 years I expect the Indo-U.S. relationship to resemble the Israel-U.S. relationship, and for many of the same reasons.”

Although they are often overlooked by national policymakers, non-governmental ties fostered by the Indian-American community will be one key in securing the long-term growth of the evolving bilateral partnership. As Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar remarked last year when he was serving as Delhi’s ambassador in Washington: “[The] India-U.S. relationship has changed dramatically. When one thinks about the transformation of our ties, it is natural to attribute it to some good diplomacy on both sides…but to me, the basis for transformation of this relationship is the Indian-American community.”

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