Will ‘Indian’ in the PIO ever disappear?
The appointment of four ministers of South Asian descent in the Boris Johnson Cabinet in Great Britain stirred some excitement in India last month, as it usually happens when people of Indian or sub-continental origin do well or make a splash abroad. This has happened all too frequently in recent years, including when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drafted several Indian-origin law makers into his cabinet.
People of “desi” origin or with strong desi connection have also done well and entered the political mainstream in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, leading some to exult over the reach of the Indian diaspora. In some others, this has occasioned exasperated eye-rolls, since from all accounts, these immigrants or descendants of immigrants are fully integrated into their country of birth (or adopted country if they are first gen immigrants) and have little to do with India beyond their origins.
Technically, most people are immigrant descendants from some place else, so what’s the big deal, they ask. Indeed, there comes a point in time in the life of a diaspora when it ceases to be classified or marked as an outsider. This usually happens with the dropping of the hyphen that is a reminder of its foreign origin. After all, no one identifies Donald Trump as a German-American, although he is only a third-generation descendant of a Bavarian immigrant with the last name Drumpf.
As Trump’s one-time advisor Steve Bannon told me recently, he is technically an Irish-American, still observing some of Ireland’s great rituals, but he and his family are fully integrated into the United States and are identified only as Americans. Have people of Indian subcontinent origin reached that stage in America and Great Britain?
One view is that their colour (brown/non-white) might make this process slower and more halting. There may still be lingering suspicious about their fealty and loyalty. Bannon himself is leery of the South Asians in Silicon Valley, where they hold some of the top jobs that involve safeguarding American technological, economic, and strategic primacy. Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella are among the top five tech honchos in the U.S., and in as much as they have done brilliantly for their company, there is still a lurking suspicion – evident as a sub-text during Congressional hearings – about their globalist outlook, if not their commitment to the reigning nativist vision of America.
Indeed, no less a person that President Trump tweeted this following a meeting with Pichai earlier this year: “Just met with @sundarpichai, President of @Google, who is obviously doing quite well. He stated strongly that he is totally committed to the US Military, not the Chinese Military.” But in many countries where race is less salient, or at least the colour difference is less obvious (eg Mauritius, Guyana, Fiji South Africa etc), People of Indian origin (PIOs) are fully integrated to the extent that they are a co-equal if not a dominant political force, although there is still the occasional nativist uptick.
Much of the integration comes when immigrants and their descendants become part of the political process representing the best interests of the country they were born in, not the country their forbears come from. In fact, during my first visit to South Africa in 1992, many South Africans of Indian origin had little connection or awareness of the country their forbears came from because so severe was their isolation during the preceding apartheid years (they are much more connected now with the re-integration via cricket, entertainment and tourism).
One way people of subcontinental origin have speeded up their integration into the mainstream is by entering politics and the policy arena. The striking thing about the four South Asians in Boris Johnson’s cabinet was the high-profile posts they snagged. Home Secretary Priti Patel is a Brexit supporter, and in that sense, a nativist with strong views on immigration (the joke in the US was Donald Trump will ask to borrow her, not just because her name is “pretty” but also because he needs a strong immigration hand to replace his now departed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen).
In Canada, Trudeau appointed a Sikh, Harjit Singh Sajjan, as the defence minister. However, it is in the United States that Indian-origin pols (a catch-all term for politician, political player political appointee, etc) are present in the broadest spectrum – across society and across parties. Nearly 70 years ago, when Dr. Amarjit Singh Marwah was campaigning for Dalip Singh Saund, a first generation clean shaven Sikh who was running for Congress, he recalls having to hide so that he would not be seen in his turban. Saund won, by a mere 300 votes, despite his opponents playing up his foreignness.
Today, in spite of an uptick in bigotry and racism, Sikhs such as Mastercard’s Ajay Banga and PlanetSpace’s Chiranjeev Kathuria wear their turbaned “Sikhness” proudly. Most strikingly though, there are droves of Indian-origin people setting policy agenda in the US. It took nearly half century after Dalip Singh Saund becoming the first Congressman of Indian origin to be elected to the House of Representatives for the next one to arrive (Bobby Jindal in 2004).
But in the 15 years since then, there have been five others, and going by the number of PIO pols, at the state level and in Washington (where many of them are key staff members on the Hill, including chief of staff to lawmakers), there could be more than a dozen over the next decade. Although his links to India was tenuous, it was such a novelty when Jindal became a Congressman and the Governor of Louisiana at the turn of century. Two decades down the line, the prospect of a Kamala Devi Harris vs Nikki Randhawa Haley race for the White House isn’t all that far fetched.
Beyond – and underneath — the political arena itself, PIOs are writing some of the seminal policies in the US. Whether it is Ajit Pai heading the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) making a call on net neutrality, or Rohit Chopra at the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) bearing down on Facebook for privacy violations, or Neal Katyal holding forth during the Mueller probe on Special Counsel rules that he authored, these second and third generation PIOs are demonstrating that they are fully integrated into a society and country they were born into, and the hyphen that marks their ethnic origins will soon disappear, somewhat like the vestigial organs in the human body.