The Indian Diaspora

October 1, 2008 |
From Silicon Valley to Citigroup, the new face of success is increasingly of a rich caramel-brown color.
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In case you're wondering who the beautiful new woman on CNN who knows so much about gastrointestinal viruses is, her name is Roshini Rajapaksa. It's difficult to pronounce but, like that of her ubiquitous colleague Sanjay Gupta, unmistakably of the Indian subcontinent. From Silicon Valley to Citigroup, the new face of success is increasingly of a rich caramel-brown color. Vikram Pandit has led the charge to rescue banking behemoth Citi, and Bobby Jindal, the whiz-kid Indian-American governor of Louisiana, could find himself with a new job in a McCain administration . In Washington lobbying circles, Indians are sometimes referred to--not least boastfully by themselves--as the "new Jews." Today the three million Indian Americans have a higher median income than Jews. What Jews and Indians have in common is that their diasporas are force multipliers, inflating their national image and strategic footprint worldwide. Knowledge, money, networks, and trust--flung ever faster by globalization--have meant that even India, the country with the largest number of destitute people in the world, is considered a global economic powerhouse, even if it isn't one yet.

Almost every ethnic or national diaspora in the world has some presence in America, but few achieve the scale of social, economic, political, and cultural influence that Jews and Indians have achieved. Chinese have climbed to great success since their post--World War II waves arrived on our shores, and their next generation packs the Ivy League today, but they are less visible in the upper echelons of American power. As they do in dozens of other countries, particularly around the Pacific Rim, Chinese peoples cluster and stick to themselves, forming protective Chinatowns.

By contrast, Jews and Indians are assimilators, maintaining traditional values but adapting to any national context. The British Empire planted Indian migrants around the planet, particularly in the West Indies and Africa--now there are twenty-five million Indians in the diaspora spread across more than one hundred countries. But wherever they are, Indians blend into the mainstream: You won't find many "Indiatowns" in America. Instead, there are several British lords of Indian origin, Indian justices are in high courts across postcolonial Africa, and the presidents of Singapore and Guyana are ethnic Indians, as are about a dozen members of the Canadian parliament and an increasing number of high-profile federal appointees in the U. S.

In America today, both Jews and Indians make up about 3 percent of the population, but Jews--particularly those lobbying for Israel--have a big head start over their Indian pupils in the world of Washington influence peddling. Unlike Israel, India's future existence isn't at stake: H1B visas and civil rights don't grab headlines like wars in the Middle East. As a result, Indians don't have a unified agenda: Some are for the nuclear deal the Pentagon is pushing and others aren't. From Vancouver on Canada's Pacific coast to Jackson Heights, Queens, Indian gangs fight out their internal politics according to caste, sectarian division within Hinduism, and even the party politics of small Indian states. What they could all agree on was to log in en masse to the BBC Web site for its Actor of the Millennium poll and vote for Amitabh Bachchan, probably with enough surplus votes to make him actor of the next millennium as well.

A certain symmetry is emerging in Indo-American relations, and the diaspora has been a vital conduit to communicate this synergy. Both countries fear China and Islamic terrorism but cherish democracy and free markets. More deeply, the same clichés apply to India as to America: It contains within it all contradictions; it represents simultaneously one virtue and also its opposite vice; it's a land of extremes--just picture billionaire Mukesh Ambani's new sixty-story apartment tower (complete with plans for three helipads) smack in the middle of Asia's largest slum. Both societies are of course deeply religious: Already there are more Hindu temples in America than in any country outside India--in just about all fifty states and sometimes multiple ones in a single neighborhood, especially in Queens.

Would India even be where it is today without America? It was tech wizards like Sam Pitroda who helped launch Bangalore as India's own Silicon Valley. Today Bangalore is teeming with entrepreneurial ambition--as are other high-tech centers like Hyderabad and Chennai--and boasts leafy corporate campuses of IT giants like Infosys and Wipro. Two thirds of Fortune 500 companies source their technology products from India.

But it was India's cultural muscles--its soft power--that began flexing first. The 1990s through today have featured one long stretch of ethnic Indian talent: Salman Rushdie, director Mira Nair, Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, M. Night Shyamalan, actor Kal Penn, and let's throw in Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, too. Madonna couldn't help but feel the vibe, sporting body henna in her "Frozen" video in 1997. A decade later, the Indian spirit was summoned to bless Heidi Klum and Seal when they renewed their vows at an exclusive Bollywood-themed ceremony in Mexico, with Seal donning an Indian sherwani and all the ladies getting their hands painted.

Indian culture has become mega-business. Warner Bros. is buying into Bollywood studios both to get in on the massive Indian market--hundreds more movies are released there each year than in the American market--and to reimport crossover Indian cinema to American theaters. Within a year, most American moviegoers will be conversant in the curves of truly the world's most beautiful woman, Aishwarya Rai.

Arguably the rest of the world is feeling the Indian diaspora's rise more than India itself. Lakshmi Mittal bought Luxembourg steel giant Arcelor, Tata bought Jaguar, and Reliance Petroleum is building what will become the world's largest refinery. But these family-run conglomerates, like Greek shipping magnates or modern multinationals, are enriching themselves far more than their home countries. Powerful Indians connect in stateless nodes, virtually and in airport lounges, building networks of technology and finance with no need for India itself as the middleman. As the Indian diaspora globalizes itself further, seven hundred million Indians remain distantly marginalized from the globalization equation. Meanwhile, Satyam, a leading Indian outsourcing vendor, is building goodwill in America by setting up training centers and hiring tech workers in Ohio.

All of this may have happened by chance: the combination of American openness to industrious immigrants, Indians' preference for social integration, globalization and outsourcing to a nerdy English-speaking country, and America's search for new strategic allies to keep China in check. However it came to be, Indians continue to migrate and maneuver with ever more sophistication and savvy, creating win-win situations for themselves and their hosts. Yet the battle for global talent that is the main feature of international business today will play itself out on the diasporic plane more than ever. China and India are waking up to the loss of their best minds and are lobbying to turn the brain drain into a brain exchange, with India luring back several thousand Indian-American professionals a year into tidy gated communities outside Bangalore. India is also fumbling toward some form of dual citizenship, providing tax incentives and other carrots to bring in more diaspora dollars.

But most Indians overseas are disillusioned with India's political stasis--it's even worse than America's, as the founding Nehru-Gandhi dynasty flounders and is replaced by bitter regional upstarts. Only a handful of NRIs (nonresident Indians) have bothered to go back to India to run for any kind of public office. What the deepening diaspora allows is for Indians worldwide to feel desi without having to go to India at all.

I once described this virtual Indian universe as Bollystan, an import-export marketplace of literary genius, spiritual essence, cinematographic border-crossing, and, increasingly, political savvy, together doing for India what nuclear weapons have not: making it a great power. India itself remains hemmed in by the Himalayas and ringed by failed and dangerous neighbors like Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and it lacks China's strategic appetite and cunning. As a foreign-policy strategist, I needed to make India sexy for myself even if it didn't have the geopolitical muscle of Russia or China. Now globalization is proving me right: It's not about tanks and nukes but brains and bytes. I've been a big skeptic about India's uneven rise, stagnant government, and unparalleled corruption. But I know Bollystan won't let me down.

Bollystan: The Map