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A political wake-up call for Indian-Americans

The outsourcing debate has caught Indian-Americans, one of the country's most successful immigrant groups, slightly off balance. By Nancy Liu.
Indian employees at a call center in Bangalore providing support to international customers earlier this month.Sherwin Crasto / Reuters file

With escalating fears over U.S. job outsourcing, Indian immigrants to the United States, long regarded as a model of adaptability and success in their new land, have found themselves branded guilty by association for the sclerotic performance of the American job market. To combat the backlash, Indian Americans play catch up in the political arena, trying to wield influence in Washington commensurate with their place in the economy.

“I think Indian-Americans have come into the spotlight,” says Christopher Dumm, executive director of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA). “During the Clinton administration there was attention surrounding India becoming the next economic miracle. Now India is just a scapegoat for U.S. economic policy.”  

Indeed, Indian-Americans quickly scaled the heights of society in terms of profession and education. Merrill Lynch’s lastest annual survey of wealth found 200,000 millionaires of Indian origin in the U.S. More likely to hold advanced degrees, they also make more money: Merrill Lynch found Indian-Americans making $60,000 on average, far outstripping the national average of $38,885.

But Indian-Americans may very well find that the honeymoon is over. Portrayed as job snatchers by populist politicians, they are enduring a backlash of sorts rooted in their unique success in the white collar economy.

Of two minds

Typically, when the interests of more established American ethnic or religious groups come under threat, lobbying groups and politicians representing districts heavily populated by the group concerned swing into action. But as economically successful as Indian-Americans may be, experts in immigration and U.S. political culture say they may not have been ready to react in unison to the questions raised by the outsourcing debate. 

“There has not been a single cohesive move by the Indian community on the outsourcing issue,” adds Dumm.

In part, this may reflect a reluctance to be drawn into the issue at all. “We’re integrated into society, we’re Americans first,” says Gail Dave, an Indian-American attorney and executive board member of Project IMPACT, a political awareness group working on behalf of people of South Asian descent. “Like the average American, we, too, are torn between both sides.”

Given their prominence in the high technology sector, perhaps it is not surprising that the most coherent response has come from the business sector. The New Delhi-based National Association of Software and Service Companies or Nasscom, for instance, has hired Hill & Knowlton, a top public relations firm, to calm public fears over job outsourcing. The trade group represents over 800 international companies, many with ties to India.

“They help us reach out to people, anyone who is actively engaged and interested in the whole outsourcing issue,” says Sunil Mehta, vice president of Nasscom. Mehta declined to discuss the specifics of Nasscom’s campaign with Hill & Knowlton. But according to their website, Nasscom is seeking help from Hill & Knowlton to promote the “Made in India” brand in the U.S.

Incentives for mobilization

The political awakening of America’s growing Indian ethnic community is hardly unique, according to Dr. Jack Tchen, a history professor who specializes in cultural studies at New York University.

Tchen draws parallels between the current outsourcing debate and the controversial espionage case against Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear physicist at the U.S. government’s Los Alamos research laboratory in New Mexico who was jailed in 1999 after being accused of spying on behalf of China. The case raised fears among Chinese-Americans that they were being made a scapegoat, and ultimately Lee was released after a federal judge found the evidence against him to be insubstantial.

“Certain sectors mobilized for the Wen Ho Lee case — mainly professionals, science students, and academics who did not really mobilize before because Asian issues did not strike close to home,” says Tchen.

Tchen believes the outsourcing debate may also provide incentives for mobilization among Indian-Americans.

“Those in Silicon Valley and the business sector, I assume, will be more engaged in the issue since they are more directly impacted by it,” adds Tchen.

Welcome to the mainstream

In many ways, Indian-Americans resemble an athlete who develops one part of the body while neglecting the rest: the economic success has not been matched by political influence.

Some hope that will change, at least a bit, this November.  Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American running for Congress this year in Louisiana, is symbolic of those hopes. Jindal first came into the political spotlight last year when he narrowly missed being elected governor of what remains a Democratic stronghold and a region not known for its inclusive racial politics.

“I expect that you are going to see even more activity among second- and third generation Indian-Americans in the political process, not just running for office but being appointed and seeking out other positions,” says Jindal.

Indian-American political activists say that a mainstream political candidate like Jindal may just be what is needed to bring such a diverse group together on issues.

“Bobby Jindal’s stand on issues may invite public scrutiny,” says Kap Shamar, vice president of Madison Governmental Affairs, a political consulting firm. “This will be good because it will force the Indian-American community to take a position. Right now, the community is not very cohesive.”

Up the ladder

Indian-Americans came of age in the 1990s from a societal standpoint, branching out into fields like entertainment, media and politics that eluded their parents generation. The success of films like ‘Bend it like Beckham’ and ‘Monsoon Wedding’ helped Indian Americans raise their profile. At two million-strong, according the 2002 U.S. Census, political influence of some kind is inevitable.

But can Indian-Americans duplicate their economic success in the political realm? Even the activists are skeptical.

“Indians are not necessarily surging ahead,” contends Dumm of the IACPA. “Just because a group possesses high income and is well educated does not necessarily mean they will succeed in politics. Money is a factor, but not the only factor.”

He and other experts also warn against generalizations.

“There is a stereotype of the Indian-American who is a doctor, or Silicon Valley entrepreneur, or an engineer or a scientist or an academic,” says Dr. Jitendra Singh, professor of Management in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Yes there are many who fit this profile. But there are also others who do not fit this profile. For instance, there are many motel owners all along the east coast, or taxi drivers or newspaper kiosk owners who are also Indian- Americans.”

The emotional debate over outsourcing could be a boon to the community, says Shivam Mallick Shah, an Indian-America who co-founded Project IMPACT.

“The discussion provoked by the outsourcing debate can be positive,” says Shah, who also works on education issues for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Every time we debate outsourcing, it creates a dialogue where groups like Project IMPACT can help address stereotypes and educate the broader community about South Asia."

“Obviously, issues like this can provide opportunities to mobilize,” adds Peter Kwong, director of the Asian-American Studies Program and professor of urban affairs at Hunter College. “It serves as an important foundation for some groups to work together, and likely make them work together on future issues.”