Indian-Americans stake their political claim
NEW DELHI - Recently L K Advani, leader of India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, made a near-turnaround in his and the party's virulent criticism of the India-US nuclear deal. Some reports suggested that the US-based non-resident Indians (NRI) lobby, which has been active in pushing for the pact, was instrumental in bringing about the change.
Though the nuclear pact faces a bigger challenge because of the opposition of India's left-wing parties, the recent episode once again brought into focus the persuasive power of India's diaspora, especially in the United States.
As the US is a democracy, has a vibrant political system and promotes individual enterprise, Indians continue to be one population most positively inclined toward that country. This is in contrast to the repeated negative polls of people in other parts of the world who resent the United States' hegemony as a military and economic power.
India, known for overbearing policies toward its immediate neighbors in South Asia, has never found itself closer to the US for strategic and business reasons. Indeed, the economic connection of Indian-Americans to their home country too remains strong.
The 2-million-strong Indian-American community, already known to exercise its economic muscle in US politics, has been known not to forget its roots easily, its members pumping in money to their alma maters or villages or towns of origin.
Remittances from Indians abroad continue to create a big demand pool in the Indian economy. According to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), remittance inflows to India rose 25% to US$25 billion in 2005-06, the highest globally, from $20 billion the previous year.
Of this, $13.5 billion was used by the migrants' families to meet immediate needs of food, education and health, $5 billion was stashed in local bank accounts, and $3.25 billion was invested in shares and property.
About 45% of the inflows came from North America, followed by the Persian Gulf region and East Asia, which contributed more than 30% of the funds received. "The higher share from North America could be attributed to the growing strength of professionals in software and other technology-related areas," said the RBI.
Remittances of $1,100 and above made up more than 52% of the total.
India received close to $16 billion in foreign direct investment in 2006-07. According to the RBI, the figure on acquisition of shares and property by NRIs has risen quickly from $930 million in 2004-05 to $2.2 billion in 2005-06, to $6.3 billion in 2006-07. Almost a quarter of the more than $10 million worth of properties being purchased in India is by NRIs. According to provisional figures released by the RBI, this April alone, acquisition of shares by NRIs was $868 million.
Bank stocks are one favorite; in September-December 2006, NRIs bought $3 billion in bank shares, including hot picks such as private banks ICICI and HDFC. In 2000-01, such investments stood at $362 million.
Indian-Americans, who make up one of the richest ethnic communities in the US, are doling out the money to be counted in the future power stakes of that country. It is estimated that Indian-Americans could raise up to a total of $20 million for both main parties in the current US presidential campaign.
Though Bobby Jindal and Kumar Barve have played a direct role in US politics, Indian-Americans traditionally have exercised the most political influence as campaign managers and contributors. The US Census Bureau has pegged the Indian-American median family annual income in 2005 at $74,000, almost 60% higher than the national average.
Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to win maximum favors from Indian-Americans, though the current Republican president, George W Bush, is perceived in very good light because of his pro-India stance. Indians reached out to Bush as a reaction to the virulent anti-outsourcing campaign by his Democratic opponent John Kerry in the run-up to the previous presidential election in 2004.
Clinton, looking to maintain the momentum built earlier by her husband Bill, would like to arrest any decisive turn by Indian-Americans toward the Republicans. The Indian connection to Bill Clinton goes back a long way.
It was he who, as president, first actively sought to build bridges with and cultivate the Indian community in the US, recognizing their numbers as US citizens as well as their immense money power as global information-technology pioneers and sources for campaign funds.
Thus India's relations with the US were by and large on the ascent under Bill Clinton, who visited India as president in 2000. Such strategic aspects as backing India as a counterweight to China in the region have, however, only been fully formalized under Bush.
Since leaving office, Bill Clinton has been closely associated with the American India Foundation, and he visited the country in 2001 to head a delegation to collect funds for victims of the Gujarat earthquake. He has been to India on various philanthropic trips related to the 2004 tsunami and AIDS. Some say he has kept his Indian network warm all these year for his wife as he makes her own bid for the White House.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton visited India in February 2005, meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the all-powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. New Delhi hosted an official reception in Hillary Clinton's honor.
Hillary Clinton has also been at the forefront in defending free trade and outsourcing, and that goes down well with Indians, though lately she has been tempering her speeches with the need to protect US jobs. This could be just pandering to political exigency, as her real stand is apparent.
During the height of the anti-outsourcing backlash in the US in 2004, she defended Indian software giant Tata Consultancy Services' bid to open a center in Buffalo, New York. "We are not against all outsourcing; we are not in favor of putting up fences," she said firmly, invoking the ire of the anti-free-trade brigade.
She addressed via live video an alumni meet of the vaunted Indian Institutes of Technology, and reiterated her call for more H-1-B visas for highly skilled immigrants. Recently, she told a gathering of Indian-Americans: "We have so many friends here ... It's certainly for me a great honor to be the co-chair of the India Caucus in the Senate and to work with so many of you on matters of mutual interest."
Indian hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal organized a fundraising gala in New York that is reported to have raised $2.5 million for Clinton's campaign. "Deepening and strengthening of US relations with India would be top of the agenda if I am elected," she is quoted as saying in her 15-minute speech.
Business baron S P Hinduja, Jet Airways' Naresh Goyal, new-age guru Deepak Chopra, and interestingly Indian Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel are reported as among the well-heeled people who packed the Sheraton ballroom. Chatwal's Indian-Americans for Hillary 2008 campaign is aiming to raise $5 million.
Telugu Indian-Americans originating from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh are also looking to raise $1 million for Clinton.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.
Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.