MUMBAI – As the US prepares to inaugurate its 46th president on Wednesday, India is poised to share a slice of American history in the making.
Kamala Harris will be the first woman vice president after a run of men since John Adams was sworn in as number two to George Washington in April 1789.
Born in Oakland, California, 56 years ago and raised almost singly by her mother of Indian origin, Harris carries with her bits of Indian values and culture assimilated during trips to her grandfather’s house in Chennai as a child.
“As I reflect on those moments in my life that have had the most impact on who I am today – I wasn’t conscious of it at that time – but it was those walks on the beach with my grandfather in Besant Nagar (in Chennai) that had a profound impact on who I am today,’’ Harris told an Indian-American group in 2018.
Yet she is not the only one with roots going back to India. The Biden administration will have as many as 20 who trace their roots to the subcontinent. About 17 of the 20 will work out of the White House and 13 will be women.
Reports suggest the Biden administration may end up having more Indian-Americans than the Obama government, which had more than earlier administrations. People of Indian origin number about 4 million, or 1.2% of the US population, the third-largest expat community after Chinese and Filipino Americans.
Leading the bunch is Neera Tanden, nominated as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and Vivek Murthy, nominated as US Surgeon General, a critical position as the US battles a raging pandemic with 24.5 million Covid-19 cases and which has left 407,000 dead.
The 50-year Tanden is seen by foreign policy experts as part of President-Elect Joe Biden’s efforts to build a team of liberal and centrist economic advisers to work along with Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen, who as the 15th chairperson of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018 was also the first woman to hold the job.
Tanden was born to Indian immigrant parents who divorced when she was five, and was brought up by her mother, like Harris. Now president of the Centre of American Progress, Tanden has been part of several democratic presidential campaigns since Michael Dukakis in 1988 and later with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Murthy will co-chair Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board along with two others, along with being Surgeon General, a position he held from 2014 to 2017. Murthy’s parents migrated to the US in 1978 a year after he was born in India.
Any government would dream of having officials with family or emotional bonds to top White House staff, but it will be hard to estimate the advantage for countries like India, as much as it was for Kenya, the motherland of Obama’s father.
Indeed, Kamala Harris did not take kindly to months of Internet shut down and curfews in Jammu & Kashmir after the Indian government withdrew Article 370 that gave the state special status in August 2019.
Likewise, Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was denied a meeting by Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar after she moved a resolution calling the Indian government to uphold human rights in Kashmir.
Jayapal’s resolution focused on lifting the communications blackout that was imposed on Kashmir, ending detentions without charges and respecting religious freedom. The 55-year old Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman to serve in the US House of Representatives, and spent her first 35 years as an Indian citizen.
Two women with roots in Jammu & Kashmir are also to be part of Biden’s team. Aisha Shah has been nominated as partnership manager at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, and Sameera Fazili as deputy director at the US National Economic Council in the White House.
Those nominated also include Tarun Chhabra, senior director for technology and national security, Sumona Guha senior director for South Asia and Shanthi Kalathil as co-ordinator for democracy and human rights.
Sonia Aggarwal has been nominated as senior advisor for climate policy and innovation in the office of domestic climate policy in the White House and Vidur Sharma, a policy advisor for testing for the White House Covid-19 response team.
Indians have ascended to top levels in multinational companies, global banks, private equity firms and in Silicon Valley. Across the US, they have scaled the heights as economists and scientists, including a few Nobel Prize winners as US citizens. Kalpana Chawla was an astronaut on the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
The UK has three key ministers of Indian origin: Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Priti Patel as Home Secretary. Canada has two Sikhs as ministers, from four earlier.
An estimated 32 million people of Indian origin live overseas, mainly in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, the UK, Canada, and Saudi Arabia. In November, Priyanca Radhakrishnan became New Zealand’s first Indian-born minister. Newly-elected New Zealand MP Gaurav Sharma, 33, took the oath in Sanskrit.