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Team Obama has record desi membership

world Updated: Nov 18, 2009 01:10 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Washington on Sunday, he may well be pleasantly surprised to find that Indians figure not just in his delegation but also across the aisle. American President Barack Obama’s Administration has a record number of Indian-Americans.

While there is no exact count of the number, there are at least 30 Indian American appointees at various levels in the Administration, though that number could well be closer to three dozen.

According to estimates, there were about 25 Indian-Americans in the George W. Bush Administration, a high at that time.

Preeta Bansal, General Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Management and Budget, said, “There's certainly a great number. In many ways, it's a natural progression — the growth of the second generation and maturation of the community."

The appointees credit the President for the numbers. Vivek Kundra, the Federal Chief Information Officer, who was born in Delhi and spent his early years in Kirti Nagar, said, “The President is committed to building a diverse team.”

It also reflects that President’s disposition towards the Indian-American community, they felt.

As Neal Katyal, Principal Deputy Solicitor General at the US Department of Justice, said, “President Obama has always had deep respect for people from India. I remember, during the campaign, he repeatedly reached out to me and others on issues of concern to the Indian-American community. I think it was quite significant that he celebrated Diwali personally at the White House. As someone who heard these prayers each year growing up, I never really thought I would be hearing them from the East Room of the White House, with the President nearby.”

Many of these appointees, including Bansal and Kundra, will have the opportunity to formally interact with the Prime Minister when he visits the White House.

And they are happy that President Obama’s first state dinner is for the Indian Prime Minister.

Katyal said, “I think it is wonderful. Our two nations, as the world’s largest democracies, have much to celebrate and learn from each other.” Bansal had the same view: “It's a huge honor. It shows how much we recognize the role of India in the world and our shared democratic values.”

Part of the reason for the large presence of Indian Americans in the administration is a growing acceptance of political engagement within the community.

As Kundra said, “The Indian American community is actively engaging in politics and serving in greater capacities.”

Of course, the increase in numbers is also part of the process of the mainstreaming of the community.

Since Indian immigration to the US really revved up only in the late 1960s, the children of that generation were born or raised in the US and have come of age in the last decade.

It is this second generation of Indian Americans that is now most visible in public office. “For them, it is their country. Their sense of an American identity is qualitatively different from that of immigrants,” said Madhulika Khandelwal, Director of the Asian American Center at New York’s Queens College.

So, what emerged as a trend in the 1990s has turned into the “first wave” of engagement across professions, including politics, in this decade.

Prominent Appointees