How Indian Americans Got the President’s Ear

“I can’t think of a single example where we had this kind of access,” Narasimhan said earlier. A few moments earlier, he had to pause our interview to take a call from the White House.

After years of trying to build its influence – raising money, supporting candidates, building a base game – the Indian-American political world is feeling a sense of real power and influence in the Biden-Harris administration – one it hopefully does marks a new era for US politics.

“Now we have come to a point where we know that the highest levels of government listen when Indian Americans call,” said Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora, a non-partisan network of Indian-American leaders.

The Indo-American population was grow steadily over the past few decades – it is among the fastest growing and wealthiest minority groups in the country, a trend that has also helped increase its political influence. It was a symbolic victory when Kamala Harris, whose late mother was from India, took the oath of office as Vice President. Joshipura estimates that members of the Indian-American community raised $ 20 to 30 million for political candidates from both parties in the 2020 presidential election alone – a record.

In the past few weeks, the government has heard growing anger and despair from these voters. After taking office, President Joe Biden put an export ban in place on the manufacture of Trump-era Covid-19 vaccines, a move the government deemed necessary to ensure enough vaccinations for Americans. However, pressure to change course increased as the severity of the crisis in India began to crystallize. (A U.S. ambassador to India has still to be nominated;; The portfolio is currently managed by a chargé d’affaires (of lower diplomatic rank).

“I don’t think they understood the widespread panic,” said Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Things got out of hand.”

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, appealed directly to the president on Twitter: “Respect @POTUS if we really want to unite to defeat this virus on behalf of In the vaccine industry Outside the US, I humbly urge you to lift the embargo on US raw material exports to allow vaccine production to increase. Your administration has the details. ”

Although it’s unclear what role America’s export ban played in India’s vaccination problems – domestic factors, including a fire in the Serum Institute and India’s own export of more than 60 million doses of vaccine as part of a global charm offensivealso played a role – the plea set Indian-American Twitter on fire. In the weeks that followed, prominent members of the community, many at the end of a steady stream of anxious news from friends and family in India, urged Biden to do more help India cope with the crisis.

Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University tweeted that the US is “sitting on 35-40 million doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine that Americans will never use. Can we give or lend it to India, please? How can it be now It will help. Much.”

Neal Katyal, attorney and former US attorney general, tweeted: “We have just produced oxygen on Mars. In my opinion there has to be some way for America to bring more O2 to India. “Salman Rushdie urged Biden to lift the export ban as well.

Even Meena Harris, the vice president’s niece, weighed in Retweeting A message that was simply: “Get more vaccines to India. Get More Vaccines to India. Get More Vaccines to India. “The whole time Kamala Harris himself was silent on this matter, speak publicly For the first time on the day the government announced its support and said, “We pray for the people of India.”

Behind the scenes, Joshipura said the members of the Indiaspora had close contact with administrative officials. “We have been very active at the highest levels of government, starting with the president down,” he said.

This back-channel offensive was aimed at the entire management level, Narasimhan said. “There isn’t a single elderly person in the White House who hasn’t heard from someone who said, ‘Hey, we have a problem. “

On Friday April 23, the US Chamber of Commerce, whose members, including many with operations in India, had sounded the alarm, issued a statement calling on the White House to “release the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses in the warehouse . ”

“We kept talking to the administration on the phone and saying, ‘Guys, this is bad,” said Nisha Biswal, senior vice president for South Asia at the chamber and head of the US-India Business Council. “Within 48 hours, the administration started taking action “After we mobilized, they moved quickly.”

While it is possible that Biden would have taken the steps he would have taken without the chorus of Indo-American voices calling for action – India is widely viewed as a key strategic partner in Asia – the fundamental wave undoubtedly accelerated the pace of response the government. “I’m not saying that we necessarily changed her decision,” said Joshipura. “But we definitely played a role in speeding it up. And the commitment of the highest levels of government to the decision was definitely influenced by what we did. “

What he and other Indian-American civil society groups did was build a real political juggernaut. Voter turnout among Indian Americans has skyrocketed in the past few years. New polls by Narasimhan’s AAPI Victory Fund found that 48 countries with voting history increased the number of votes cast by Asian Americans, including Indian Americans, by a staggering 46 percent in 2020, compared with just 12 percent for all other voters – a Trend from which Democrats in particular benefited. 65 to 70 percent of Indian Americans voted for Biden in 2020, which is roughly the percentage who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Georgia, a state that voted blue for the first time in nearly 30 years, is seeing the surge in the Asian-American voter turnout well above profit margins. And of the record amounts of cash Indian-American voters poured into the last electoral cycle, Most of them went to Democrats.

This explains the quick response of the administration. “Within 48 hours you saw the US government go from 0 to 60,” Vaishnav said, recalling the days just before the government announced that it would send raw materials and other relief supplies to India. “That’s because Indian Americans mobilized. They went on social media, they called everyone they knew in the government, they called everyone they had contributed money to.”

Nor is it just the firepower of Indian Americans as voters and donors that may have spurred the Biden government into action. There are enough Indian Americans in Congress now – Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Kamala Harris before she was called to serve as Vice President – to justify a name: the “Samosa” caucus, whose members are all public advocate for measures to support India.

Some of them want the president to go further and require US vaccine makers to license the manufacturing expertise to drug makers in India and elsewhere. “They don’t allow manufacturers to use the vaccine, even manufacturers willing to pay for it,” said Khanna, vice chairman of the House Caucus for India and Indian Americans, in an interview with progressive news organization Truthout. “And we say,” No, they have to be licensed. ”

One hundred and ten members of Congress have signed a letter to the President asking him to support a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily waive some patent provisions under the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, a position the government has so far rejected to take and that pharmaceutical industry groups and Some lawmakers are against it.

There are some who say the Indian-American community needs to use its newfound power to go beyond humanitarian action and push the US to take a tougher political line against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This is a man-made crisis,” said Prerna Singh, associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University. “And that man is Modi.”

Modi’s missteps during the pandemic received much criticism, but he remains hugely popular with Indian Americans regardless of their political affiliation. Modi, who is known to be friends with former President Donald Trump, has increasingly used authoritarian tactics to suppress dissent, such as: Order from social media company Remove posts critical of the government’s pandemic response. “What Modi is doing is anti-democratic,” said Singh, who wants the diaspora and the Biden government to speak out against what it believes is Modi’s fault for the disaster in India. Narasimhan, on the other hand, said it would “politicize a humanitarian crisis when people die” and “it is not our job to decide who is to blame but to do what we can to help.”

While the crisis in India is far from over and the efforts of Indian Americans to support the country are still ongoing, what the government has done so far represents perhaps the most significant political victory for the community in recent times. But it is not her first.

In the early 2000s, Indian Americans mobilized to urge the government to lift economic and military sanctions imposed on India after it tested a nuclear weapon in 1998. President George W. Bush made a commitment and urged the US into a closer relationship with India that continues today.

A senior senator was particularly receptive to this move at the time, writing in a letter to Bush that “the economic sanctions against India are intended to stigmatize rather than stabilize” and that if sanctions are lifted, India will respond with mutual acts of goodwill to non-proliferation and other areas. “

That senator’s name was Joe Biden.

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