Diaspora Behind the Growing India-US Ties

by Jun 26, 2023Diaspora0 comments

The growing clout of the Indian Diaspora in the United States and the seemingly fear of China as a threat to the global peace and stability explain like nothing else why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just concluded visit to the United States – marked by the conclusion of many important agreements, including the one on defense – is being described in both Indian and American strategic circles as a defining moment in Indo-US relations


In fact, President Joe Biden pointed out during the visit that America’s relations with India cannot be compared between his country’s ties with China. America values its relations with India higher today, because both countries happen to be democracies, according to him.

“[There’s] a common democratic character in both our countries — our people, our diversity, our cultures are open, tolerant, [there’s] robust debate,” Biden said. “We believe in the dignity of every citizen.” He then added that the whole world “has a stake” in the success of American and Indian democracies, which makes both nations “appealing partners and enables us to expand democratic institutions … around the world.”

Relations between India and the United States seem to have transformed considerably since the time ( 1993) when the US diplomat and author Dennis Kux wrote a book titled “India and the United States: Estranged Democracies”, chronicling the history of bilateral relationship that was marked by more downs than ups. And now, if there are more ups than downs, that is in a large measure due to the increasing profiles of Indian Diaspora in America.

It is for nothing that during his address to the joint session of the US Congress, Prime Minister Modi said: “ The foundation of America was inspired by the vision of a nation of equal people. Throughout your history, you have embraced people from around the world. And, you have made them equal partners in the American dream. There are millions here, who have roots in India. Some of them sit proudly in this chamber. There is one behind me (Vice President Kamala Harris), who has made history! “

While welcoming Modi to the White House, President Biden too highlighted the contributions of Americans of Indian heritage in his administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris. “I see it in the Indian-American Diaspora that reflects every part of American life and remains a bridge between our nations and only grows stronger with each generation,” he said.

“We see it with record numbers of Indian Americans serving in the United States Congress. We see it here at the White House where proud Americans of Indian heritage serve our country every day, including our vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris,” Biden added.

Notably, a record 150-plus Indian-Americans serve in key positions in the Biden administration.

Some relevant facts regarding the Indian Diaspora in the United States are in order. According to the latest available data, today, Indians represent the second largest U.S. immigrant group, after Mexicans and ahead of Chinese and Filipinos. There are 4.9 million U.S. residents (Non Resident Indians and those who are already US citizens).

India is the source of the second largest number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education.

The share with advanced degrees stands out: 49 percent of Indian immigrant adults held a graduate or professional degree in 2021, compared to 15 percent of foreign-born and 13 percent of U.S.-born adults.

In fact, in the US, almost 80% of the Indian-born population over school age has at least an undergraduate degree, compared to just 50% of the Chinese-born population and 30% of the total population.

Indian nationals are the main beneficiaries of H-1B temporary visas for highly skilled foreign workers, accounting for 74 percent of all H-1Bs approved in fiscal year (FY) 2021, followed by Chinese with 12 percent.

Indians participate in the labor force at higher rates than all immigrants and the U.S. born. About 72 percent of Indian immigrants aged 16 and older were in the civilian labor force in 2021, compared to 66 percent and 62 percent for the foreign- and U.S.-born populations, respectively. Compared to those two groups, Indians are employed in the management, business, science, and arts occupations.

It has been reported that 25 chief executives at top 500 companies of the United States are now of Indian descent, up from 11 a decade ago. And these include Adobe, Alphabet, Google, IBM and Microsoft. The deans at three of the five leading business schools, including Harvard Business School, are of Indian origin too. The new head of the World Bank Ajay Banga, who had run MasterCard for more than a decade, was born and educated in India.

It is no wonder that Indians are the highest-earning migrant group in America, with a median household income of almost $150,000 per year. That is double the national average and well ahead of Chinese migrants, with a median household income of over $95,000.

Importantly, it has been found out that most of the Indian immigrants who have done extremely well as highly paid professionals in the United States happen to be the cream of the students who studied science, engineering, medical and business management before immigrating to America. And this trend has been most noticeable since the late 1990s.

In other words, the majority of Indians who come to the United States today are relatively from well-to-do families and well educated, not poor, which is the case with the majority of other immigrants.

As the Economist magazine has noted, if one looks at the top 20% of researchers in artificial intelligence (defined as those who had papers accepted for a competitive conference in 2019), 8% of them did their first degree in India.

What all this means is that these Indian-Americans, having the best professional jobs, form a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. It is all the more so when Modi, notwithstanding what his critics may say, has nurtured this constituency in every important country, particularly in the US, in terms of what he says 3 C’s—‘connect’ with India, ‘celebrate’ their cultural heritage, and ‘contribute’ to the development of the homeland.

The Modi government has considered the Diaspora as its strategic asset, be it in terms of exercising their influence with the governments in their respective countries for better ties with India or becoming investors in India’s developmental activities.

It is true that Diaspora is not monolithic and of late strident voices from a section of it against the Modi government have emerged. But overall, they seem to be in a minority. A survey not long ago showed that the majority in the Diaspora loved Modi and was deeply committed to India and its causes.

However, it is worth pondering over why in the US, essentially a nation of immigrants, some Diasporas succeed better than others in successfully influencing American foreign policy. According to John Newhouse, who specializes in foreign lobbies in the United States, Indian-Americans are as effective as American-Jews in lobbying for their mother country. “India’s US-based lobby is the only lobby in Washington that is likely to acquire the strength of the Israel lobby”, he argues as both rely on a strong network of law and public relations firms and are supported by a large ethnic population group in the United States, many of whose members are well educated and financially successful.

One important feature of the growing clout of the Indian-Americans is because of their proximity with people who matter in Washington. Many of their children work with Senators and Congresspersons in Capitol Hill as interns and Staff Members. As Professor Devesh Kapur of Johns Hopkins University says, “Capitol Hill is crammed with staff and interns of Indian-American heritage. They also appear to be over-represented in academia, the media, and other influential posts.”

Besides, like the American Jews, Indian-Americans are now active participants in American politics as donors, voters, or candidates. Their high levels of education, English-language proficiency, and roots in India, a country with its own long democratic tradition, all help their ever-increasing political participation.

In fact, a study by Cambridge University argues that two factors increase the likelihood of Diaspora mobilization: “a community’s experience with democratic governance and conflict in its country of origin”. These conditions, it says, make it more likely that political entrepreneurs emerge to serve as catalysts for top-down mobilization.

Viewed thus, Indian-Americans have a strong advantage over other immigrants like Chinese-Americans because of their democratic roots in India. Indians’ mastery of English, a British colonial legacy they share with Americans, also helps, it is said.

Last but not the least, Indian Diaspora’s influence on Washington drawing closer to Delhi than Beijing is also facilitated by the fact that there is an increasing realization both in India and the United States that China is their common adversary. A recent Gallup survey says that a record-low 15% of Americans view China favorably. In contrast, 77 percent of them rate India positively.

This perhaps explains why there is a strong bipartisan support of India in the US, the rationale being that though India is strictly not an ally, it will play a better role in containing China’s rising power than say a France or a Germany or even a Japan, given the intensity and range of their respective economic links with Beijing.

(This piece appeared first in the EurAasian Times)

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