With Arati Prabhakar, strength of Indian-Americans in White House is on the rise
Arati Prabhakar earlier served as the director of the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a key innovative hub of new technologies in the US
When President Joe Biden nominated Arati Prabhakar as the director of Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the President on science and technology — which will make her Biden’s top advisor in the domain and a cabinet member — on Tuesday, it was yet another sign of the role, influence and dominance of Indian-Americans in the White House.
It is not just the presence of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American to hold the office, which makes the Biden White House unique. The US President’s staff secretary, chief speech writer, top Covid-19 coordinator, head of personnel appointments are all Indian-Americans. And this is just a sample of the representation of the community in the highest executive office of the land.
Prabhakar has earlier served as the director of the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), a key innovative hub of new technologies, and led the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
A White House press release, announcing her nomination, said that at DARPA, Prabhakar oversaw teams “that prototyped a system for detecting nuclear and radiological materials before a terrorist can build a bomb, that developed tools to find human trafficking networks in the deep and dark web, and that enabled complex military systems to work together even when they were not originally designed to do so”.
It was also under her leadership that DARPA kick-started the development of a rapid-response mRNA vaccine platform. Biden called Prabhakar “a brilliant and highly-respected engineer and applied physicist” with whom he shared the belief that America had the most powerful innovation machine the world had ever seen.
She will join a list of other distinguished Indian-Americans to wield tremendous power in the Biden administration.
Here are four other examples:
As the White House staff secretary, Neera Tanden — who also doubles up as a senior advisor to the President — decides what paperwork gets to Biden’s table. Tanden has been a Democratic Party veteran, a close Hillary Clinton aide and a top official in the Barack Obama administration, and is considered as one of the architects of his signature healthcare legislation. She was Biden’s first choice to lead the office of Management and Budget, but in the face of fierce opposition in the Senate due to her politically controversial and aggressive tweets against Republicans, Tanden withdrew her nomination. Biden then appointed her as senior advisor and staff secretary — which makes her among the President’s closest aides and gives her access to information and decision-making processes at the highest levels. Tanden’s parents had immigrated from India and she was born in the US.
As the White House Covid-19 coordinator, Ashish K Jha shapes the Biden administration’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. Jha, who was born in India, and later studied and taught at Harvard and Brown universities, is a physician and academic who shot to prominence with his science-based, but accessible public communication across the American media when the pandemic struck. When nominating him in March, Biden said, “Dr Jha is one of the leading public health experts in America, and a well-known figure to many Americans from his wise and calming public presence. And as we enter a new moment in the pandemic — executing on my national Covid-19 preparedness plan and managing the ongoing risk from Covid-19 — Dr Jha is the perfect person for the job.”
As the White House director of speech writing, Vinay Reddy has, arguably, the most influence on Biden’s messaging and communication with his different audiences — the American citizens at large, specific identity-based groups, businesses and labour, fellow politicians, international community — weaving in inputs from a range of sources. Reddy had served as Biden’s chief speech writer during his second term as Vice President between 2012 and 2016, and then moved on to shape strategic communications for the National Basketball Association. Reddy then returned to politics as Biden’s key speech writer during his presidential campaign. He was born to Indian immigrant parents in the US.
As the director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, Gautam Raghavan is responsible for vetting all the 4,000 political appointment positions in the administration — from search to screening recommendations, from candidate evaluations to interviews, from security to conflict of interest clearance. Raghavan served in the Obama administration as the key liaison to the LGBTQ+ community, and the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, and also as the chief of staff to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. He has also worked with Impact — a Democratic-leaning organisation which helps create the infrastructure to support the political rise of Indian-Americans. He was born in India.
And then there are the Indian-Americans in the National Security Council. If Daleep Singh (who has since left the administration) designed the administration’s sanctions regime against Russia as the deputy national security advisor for international economics, Amit Mital serves as the President’s special assistant and senior director for cybersecurity strategy and policy. If Sumona Guha serves as the senior director for South Asia in the NSC, Tarun Chhabra is the senior director for technology and national security.
This is not an exhaustive list. It neither covers all Indian-Americans in the White House, nor anyone from the community — and there are dozens — in other leadership positions across the administration, including in the US State Department. It also does not include the four Indian-American Congressional representatives in the House (Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi), or the Congressional staffers who are from the community.
But just the fact that the US President today relies on Indian-Americans for advice on his paperwork and personnel appointments — two critical roles in statecraft; for advice on science and Covid-19 policy — two of the most pressing challenges facing the administration; and for how to communicate with the world — the most important task for any politician — gives a glimpse into the rise of Indian-Americans, all Democrats, in the Biden administration.
An influential Indian-American political figure with close links to the White House, who wished to speak on conditions of anonymity, said, “This reflects the true commitment of the administration to the cause of diversity. It reflects the competence and political skills of members of the Indian-American community, who are comfortable with democracy and its workings, and feel at home with it.”
The person also stressed on the important trend lines reflected in the political rise of community. “Many of those who have risen up are second generation Indian-Americans — they are proud of their Indian heritage, but are Americans and invested in issues and battles here. Also, they are committed liberals, democrats and progressives. And this shows that despite some shifts, the community’s natural affiliation is with the Democratic Party.”