Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to the US succeeded in consolidating recent gains in US-ties. There are many reasons for the sea- change in relations: The end of the Cold War, collapse of the Soviet Union, bombing of American embassies by Osama bin Laden (which made India and the US common victims of outfits like the Harkat-ul Ansar), and the opening of India’s economy to foreign trade and investment. But the most important factor of all has been the meteoric rise of the Indo-American community.
Migrating Indians have, for decades, occupied the lower income and social rungs in the West. Foreign countries have long seen Indians as undesirables trying to sneak in. That has changed dramatically with the rise of Indians in the Silicon Valley. For the first time, Indians in the West are scaling the highest income and social ladders. I heard a delicious story the other day of an Indian who boarded a taxi in San Francisco. Where do you come from, the taxi-driver asked. From India, he replied. Wow, said the taxi-driver, then you must be a millionaire!
That anecdote captures vividly the new image of Indians in Silicon Valley, where information technology breeds millionaires and billionaires by the hour. Indians are now sought internationally as immensely valuable sources of brainpower. The US is expected to expand the number of H1-B visas to 200,000 next year, and Indians are expected to get half of these. Japan, Germany and Britain are all wooing Indian brainpower to try and compete with the US. Suddenly it seems that no country in the world can be truly competitive without an ample supply of Indian brainpower.
This translates into foreign policy clout. For the first time India has something really valuable to contribute to an Indo-US partnership. Earlier, India’s domestic market was touted as a major attraction for the US, but the Indian middle class turned out be much smaller and tight-fisted than marketing spin doctors had predicted. Stronger commercial ties have helped political relations. But this pales in comparison with the Indian American phenomenon.
There are now an estimated 1.5 million Indian Americans. They have risen to the top of the corporate ladder in areas like aviation (Rono Dutta heads United Airlines), finance (Vicor Menezes is a top honcho at Citigroup) and consultancy (Rajat Gupta is managing partner at McKinsey). Above all, they have spearheaded the new knowledge economy in Silicon Valley.
Till in the 1980s, Americans saw themselves as being in steady decline, getting overhauled by the Japanese and Europeans. But suddenly in the 1990s, America has surged forward again as world leader in the new information age. And Indian Americans are at the very forefront of the information age.
Not only are Indian Americans numerous enough to constitute a significant vote bank, they are also major contributors to political parties. That makes a huge difference in a country where money talks. This is an important reason why 118 out of 435 legislators in the US Congress have become members of the India Caucus, which now steers Congress in a pro- Indian direction time and again. The White House and state department have factored this into their calculations too.
Not long ago, India was almost subjected to economic sanctions by US Congress for perceived violations of civil rights in Kashmir and Punjab: At one stage India escaped by just three votes. But now the Congressional majorities in India’s favour are huge. Congress in 1998 passed legislation diluting Clinton’s sanctions imposed after India’s nuclear tests. It passed a strong resolution favouring India’s position in Kargil, encouraging President Clinton to arm-twist Pakistan into withdrawing its troops.
India has long demanded an expansion of H1-B visas for infotech personnel. The number of visas approved by Congress has shot up from 65,000 a few years ago to a projected 200,000 next year, thanks to pressure from infotech companies, many manned by Indian Americans. For the first time, India has a constituency within the US with phenomenal Congressional clout, which Pakistan cannot hope to match.
If 100,000 Indians per year enter henceforth on H1-B visas, I suspect four-fifths will stay on in the US and bring over an additional four relatives each. If so, in 10 years the US will have over 5 million Indian Americans, most in positions of power and influence. They will constitute a stronger foreign policy tool than anything Indian diplomats can devise.
How do we strengthen the Indian American phenomenon? First, by creating more technical institutes. Do not believe that we have a surplus of software engineers. On the contrary, we have a shortage, and need to create lakhs of them every year.
Second, we need to expand the role that Indian Americans can play in India itself. Indian Americans complained to Vajpayee during his recent visit how difficult it was to donate money to worthwhile causes in India. The Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) makes donations a nightmare of paperwork, and is a hotbed of obfuscation and corruption. It is supposed to check infiltration of Indian NGOs by nefarious foreign governments. But not a single spy has ever been caught in the process, while honest donors have been made to run from pillar to post. We must abolish FCRA forthwith, and so enable Indian Americans to contribute without hassles to a myriad worthy causes.
Second, we need very liberal rules on venture capital to make it really attractive for Indian Americans to finance new start-ups in India.Third, we must permit dual
nationality for Indians going abroad. Proposals to do so in the past have foundered for security reasons: Almost any reasonable guidelines would entitle people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries to claim Indian citizenship. The simple solution is to offer dual citizenship only to a selected list of countries, starting with the US. Imagine a future time when 10 million Americans, rich and influential, also have Indian passports. I can think of no stronger way of promoting Indian influence in the US.