Narendra Modi’s US visit underplayed issues of diaspora; tiptoeing Donald Trump could push away Indian caucus

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just returned from the US where he held bilateral deliberations with the new US president Donald Trump for the first time. There have been mixed reactions with some analysts describing the trip as very fruitful to reaffirm the faith in strategic ties including defence collaborations between the two countries and the resolve to fight terrorism arising out of radical Islam jointly. But there are others who say, and rightly, perhaps, that the trip was devoid of both hype and substance.

As Indian-American Professor Amit Gupta reminds this author, always, there are five India-US relationships: the government to government relationship; the military to military relationship, the one between Bengaluru and Silicon Valley; the one between Indian students and American universities; and finally, the one between Indian Diaspora and India.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US president Donald Trump and the first lady of USA, Melania Trump. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US president Donald Trump and the first lady of USA, Melania Trump. PTI

Of these, the first two are the ones on which the Indian government pins the most hopes, but these are also the most problematic. In fact, relationships at the political and military level — having grown considerably over the recent years — seem to have plateaued somewhat. For instance, the much-talked-about cooperation in the purchase and investment of defence material has its obvious limitations, given the fact that India is in the minor leagues for American manufacturers compared to Saudi Arabia which has inked a deal for $110 billion in arms. Besides, when one talks of US investment in Indian defence sector, it should be realised that the investible resources are in the US private sectors, which, in turn, make their own judgments of where to invest, depending on the recipient country’s infrastructure, legal regime, administrative machinery, and above all, broad political consensus on liberalisation of the economy. And here, India is not up to the mark. There is another limiting factor: the present inabilities of India’s arms industries to absorb the technologies that foreign companies are prepared to transfer.

However, the other three parameters of the India-US relationship are extremely important and have tremendous potential to bring the countries closer since they are less complicated. Unfortunately, under the Trump presidency, there are serious question marks over them, but the Trump-Modi parleys don't seem to have taken care of them properly.


Broadly speaking, the relation between Bengaluru and Silicon Valley, the one between Indian students and American universities and the one between Indian Diaspora and India imply that there are free interflows of finance, technology and people between India and the United States. But that is precisely in jeopardy today with the Trump Administration imposing restrictions on issuing H1B visas for the high-skilled Indians, discouraging American companies from investing abroad under the plea of generating jobs for Americans in America, and finally, not doing enough to prevent racial attacks on the lives and properties of Indians or those of Indian origin living in the United States. Trump’s immigration policies and the spate of attacks on Indians in the recent months are undoubtedly making things complicated.

It may be noted that the nearly 2.5 million-strong Indian diaspora in the US — consisting of people of Indian origin (PIO) and non-resident Indians including students, professors, scientists, technologists — may comprise about one percent of the total American population, but it is one of the richest and highly skilled population in that country.

The PIOs and NRIs in the US stand for more than five percent of America’s scientists, engineers, and software specialists; they also account for 10% of the doctors. They are successful in the fields of engineering and law as well. As high as 35% of Boeing’s technical work force is said to be of Indian origin. In the Silicon Valley, 15 percent of the start-ups are held by Indian-Americans, who, between them, produce IT assets of around $300 billion per year.

A study in the year 2010 showed the average per capita income of an Indian-American to be around $88,000, much higher than that of all Asian Americans ($66,000) and all US households ($49,800). This figure, which might have gone up in the last seven years, is not surprising, given the high education levels of the Indian diaspora. According to Pew Research Centre (PRC), 40.6% of Indian Americans aged 25 and above have graduate or professional degrees, 32.3% have bachelor’s degrees; and an additional 10.4% have some college education. The corresponding figures among the overall US population are much lower.

One likely factor for the above is the fact that most of the Indians migrating to the United States are already well educated. Many of them enter the country under the H1-B visa programme that allows highly skilled foreign workers in designated "specialty occupations" to work in the US.

In fact, some estimates suggest that 70% of the 85,000 H-1B visas awarded annually go to Indians. Even otherwise, according to the US State Department, as of November 2016, more than 3.3 lakh of the 40 lakh applications on the waiting list for permanent residency were Indians. Trump has vowed to rein in this trend.


It is true that Modi’s latest trip to the US resulted in India’s formal entry into the International Expedited Traveler Initiative (Global Entry programme) in order to facilitate closer business and educational ties between the citizens of India and the United States, something that has been mentioned in the "Joint Statement — United States and India: Prosperity Through Partnership" issued on 27 June. But that should not detract us from the fact that this will facilitate expedited clearance only for pre-approved and low-risk travellers upon arrival in the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports. The issue involved here is the increasing restrictions on getting visa, not hassle-free entry into the US after getting visa.

It may be noted that it is in the Indian diaspora in the United States that India has a powerful constituency to influence American decision makers for strengthening the ties between New Delhi and Washington. And when this "constituency" of India is not given its due importance by the Trump administration, it is a matter of concern.

Why is it so?

If PRC is to be believed, 65% of Indian Americans are Democrats or leaned toward the Democrats, making them an Asian-American subgroup most likely to identify with the Democratic Party or traditionally voting for the Democrats. It is not that there are no Indian American Republicans; there are the likes of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and governor-turned-ambassador to the United Nations (a cabinet-rank post in the American system) Nikki Haley. In fact, some reports suggest that as Indian Americans have become wealthier, they are becoming more conservative and are leaning towards the Republican Party, evident from their increasing financial contribution to the Republican Party in recent years. But overall, more Indian-Americans are Democrats, possibly to the disliking of Trump.

Secondly, it is also a fact that only about half (51%) of Indian Americans are Hindu, according to a 2012 survey by PRC. In this study, 18% of Indian Americans identified themselves as Christians and 10% said they were Muslim. This religious denomination could be important as non-Hindus in the Indian diaspora may not like the frequent reports of discrimination and harassment of minorities in India under Modi. And that being the case, the Indian diaspora may not work that sincerely and powerfully to generate a favourable climate of opinion in the US Congress, approve pro-India legislations and defeat anti-India measures through “India caucus” there, as was the case in the past (for example, Kargil War and India-US nuclear deal).

All this is not to suggest that things are going downhill as far as the overall India-US relations are concerned. The relationship does enjoy ample bipartisan support in Washington. Yet, the fact remains that not everything is smooth sailing in this supposedly safe relationship at the moment.


Published Date: Jun 28, 2017 06:11 pm | Updated Date: Jun 28, 2017 06:11 pm


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