In an effort to build his government that will ‘look like the country’, Biden has given 20 Indian-Americans, including 13 women, hold of key policy positions in his new administration.
Joe Biden’s Vice-President Kamala Harris, 56, whose mother hailed from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and father from the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica, is not only the first woman to occupy that position, but the first woman of color. Harris, through the sheer dint of her hard work, has proven both in her legal career as well as political life, that breaking a glass ceiling may be hard, but by no stretch impossible. Harris, who studied law at the University of California, Hastings, first shot to prominence during her stint as California’s Attorney general between 2011 and 2017. Achieving what may seem impossible to some is certainly not new to the tenacious and gritty Harris. She was the first black woman to serve as California’s Attorney general, first South Asian American ever and the second black woman elected to the US Senate.
In the past other women who ran for high positions include Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who ran for president in 2016, and Geraldine Ferraro (Democrat) and Sarah Palin (Republican), who ran for vice president in 1984 and 2008, respectively. In an interesting reference to the South Asian diaspora, while addressing the Indian-American Community in the midst of the Presidential Campaign, Harris said: ‘The reason there is a kinship between everyone who is a product of the South Asian diaspora, no matter how diverse our backgrounds may be, is because we also share a set of values. Values forged by overcoming colonial pasts, not only in one nation, but in two. Values like tolerance, pluralism and diversity.”
Harris had also spoken about her personal life, referring to her visits to Madras (Chennai), the influence of her mother and conversations with her Indian grandfather about her ancestral homeland.
Indian origin officials holding key policy positions in the Biden Administration
While all attention is understandably on VP Harris, there are 20 individuals of Indian origin in Biden’s team. Some of the important appointments nominations include; Neera Tanden as the Director of White House Office of Management and Budget, Vivek Murthy as the US Surgeon General, Vinay Reddy as his Director of Speech Writing and Sonia Aggarwal as Senior Advisor for Climate Policy and Innovation in the Office of the Domestic Climate Policy at the White House.
Other individuals set to be part of the Biden-Harris Administration include; Vanita Gupta for Associated Attorney General of Justice, Mala Adiga with roots belonging to the Indian state of Karnataka as Policy Director to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Garima Verma as Digital Director of the Office of the First Lady, Bharath Ramamurti as Deputy Director of White House National Economic Council for financial reform and consumer protection, Gautam Raghavan as Appointed Deputy Director in the Office of Presidential Personnel. The Administration has three Indian-Americans of Kashmiri origin in Aisha Shah, Partnerships Manager at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, Uzra Zeya, for Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Right, and Sameera Fazili as the Deputy Director at the White House National Economic Council. The Assistant Press Secretary to the president will be Vedant Patel and Tarun Chhabra will be Senior Director for Technology and National Security. Simona Guha as Senior Director for South Asia, Shanthi Kalathil as Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights, Vidur Sharma as Policy Advisor for Testing for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, Neha Gupta as Associate Counsel to the Office of the White House Counsel and Reema Shah as Deputy Associate Counsel to the Office of the White House Counsel sum up the Indian connection in the Biden-Harris Administration.
Dealing with COVID-19, the economy and climate change are high priority areas for the Biden Administration, and the appointment of Indians to positions dealing with these issues is a clear recognition of the capability of the Indian-American fraternity.
Strong Bi-partisan Rise of Indian Lineage in US Politics
A number of individuals of Indian origin, from both the Republican and the Democrats, have risen to high positions in the past two decades, underlining the growing Indian population and overall clout in the states. Some of the prominent Republicans include; Nikki Haley who was the US Ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump Administration, 2017-2018, and Former Governor of South Carolina, and Bobby Jindal, the Former Governor of Louisiana. Amongst the Democrats, apart from Harris herself being a former Senator, Indian origin individuals who have made it to the House of Representatives are Ro Khanna (California), Ami Bera (California), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois) and Pramila Jaypal who was born in Harris’ maternal hometown of Chennai and became the first Indian American woman to serve in the House of Representatives. Ro Khanna has been particularly vocal in being not just pro-immigration, but also speaking up against hate crimes.You will find more infographics at Statista
Indian Americans are also doing well in state elections and becoming increasingly active in local politics. Furthermore, an increasing number of Indian Americans are also now visible as staffers on Capitol Hill and as District Attorneys. In a remarkable feat, in the state of New Jersey two turbaned Sikhs Gurbir S. Grewal and Mayor Ravinder S. Bhalla have risen to high positions – while Grewal is Attorney General, Bhalla is Mayor of Hoboken. The election of individuals like Grewal and Bhalla to important positions is all the more important in lieu of the well-documented history of hate crimes against Sikhs in the US post 9/11.
Emerging Significance of South Asians and Growing Impact in Swing States
Apart from the Indian connection in particular, there are some other South Asians also part of the Biden-Harris Administration including; Ali Zaidi, a Pakistani-American, as Deputy National Climate Advisor White House, Sri Lankan American Rohini Kosoglu as Domestic Policy Advisor to VP Harris and Zayn Siddique, a Bangladeshi-American, as Senior Advisor to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff.
Watch: The Rise of Kamala Harris and Indian Americans in US Politics
In recent years the population of South Asians in general and Indians in particular has grown significantly. There are 4 million Americans of Indian descent in the mainland today. The growth is significant in certain battle ground states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin which account for nearly one-fourth or 24 percent of the total electoral college votes and can have an impact on the final outcome. Interestingly, while the vast majority of Indians tend to vote Democrat, a significant number also voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Neha Dewan, the National Director of South Asians for Biden while commenting on the verdict and role played by South Asians had said: “Early indications are that our diverse South Asian community played a pivotal role in this victory by not only voting in unprecedented numbers, but also by undertaking the work of organizing the community to make this outcome more likely.”
Historic Indian Lineage in American Politics, and part of Biden’s White House Complex
Indians and South Asians have certainly come a long way since 1957 when Dalip Singh Saund, a clean-shaven Sikh, was elected to the House of Representatives from the 29th California district. Saund who served in the House of Representatives from 1957-1963 hailed from a village called Chajjalwadi in Amritsar, a Sikh holy city in the Indian state of Punjab. Saund is the only Sikh member of the US Congress till date. Along with many other Asians Saund lobbied with the US Congress for the passing of the Luce Celler Act, in 1946, which extended naturalization rights and immigration quotas to Filipinos and Indians as wartime allies. A letter from 14 Congressmen in California to the Governor of the state, in 2013, which sought the inclusion of Saund into the California Hall of Fame recognized his stellar role in pushing for immigration reform. Said the letter: “Saund’s political career began in 1942 when he was elected President of the Indian Association of America. In this role, Saund raised funds to lobby for Congresswoman Claire Booth Luce’s bill for citizenship rights and to allow individuals of South Asian descent to become naturalized citizens”.
Watch: The Place of Dalip Singh Saund in American Political History
Another important Indian connection in the Biden Administration is Sabrina Singh who has been appointed as Deputy Press Secretary in the White House and was Press Secretary to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the Biden-Harris campaign and was also Regional Communications Director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Sabrina’s grandfather Jag Jit Singh was born in Rawalpindi (now Pakistan) in 1897, then undivided India. He was the President of the Indian League of America, and pro-actively lobbied alongside Saund for immigration reform, which ultimately happened through the Luce-Celler act). Similarly, Kesha Ram made history by becoming the first woman of color to be elected to the Vermont Senate where she served in the US House of Representatives from 2009 to 2016 and was given her first break into politics by senior Democrat leader Bernie Sanders. Kesha’s grandfather Sir Ganga Ram was a famous engineer, architect and philanthropist of Lahore (then undivided India). Her father was born in pre-partition era, and after partition grew up in Punjab (India) but later moved to the US.
Views of Indian American Politicians
Haley, who had an important speaking spot at the convention for re-nominating Trump as the Republican candidate for the 2020 election, while addressing a trade body called US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, in September 2020, had said that more Indians should join political life, ‘…. get involved by running, get involved within government offices, in public sectors.”
This is not to say that the views of Americans of Indian origin will be identical to those living in India, for them US interests would be paramount, but they can play an important role in raising the voices of immigrants in the US, and also raising important issues relating to immigration (especially issues like H1B visa), economic issues (trade and commerce) and also building even more robust relations with India to counter security challenges (pertaining to the Indo-Pacific). It is also important for American Indians to work for greater linkages between the US States and Indian states so that the economic and people to people linkages relationship are further deepened.