Back in 1998, when India and then Pakistan tested nuclear warheads in rapid succession, one of the many stories I assigned to my staff (I was international editor of MSNBC.com at the time) was a look at the political activism of Indian-American groups. The reporter in question – a good, solid journalist – came back virtually empty handed. So it goes in journalism: Sometimes, you go looking for something only to discover that its absence is the real story.
Times certainly have changed, as Sen. Barack Obama discovered this week when India’s partisans mobilized against a snarky campaign memo from his staff derided rival Democrat Hillary Clinton for her courting of Indian-Americans. The memo, reproduced by the Chicago Tribune, is a product of the Obama campaign’s “opposition research unit.” It alleged, in a sarcastic tone Obama later apologized for (Des Moines Register), that the Clintons had cynically reaped a small fortune from investments in India. It says, in part:
Hillary Clinton has taken tens of thousands from companies that outsource jobs to India. Workers who have been laid off in upstate New York might not think that her recent joke that she could be elected to the Senate seat in Punjab is that funny.
Apparently, Americans of Asian descent did not find the Obama memo that funny, either. The U.S.-India Political Action Committee denounced “the worst kind of Indian-American stereotyping” and demanded Obama respond. So concerned was the candidate that he granted an exclusive interview with the Indian emigre website Rediff.com, telling them “I was furious when I heard about it.”
Institutionally, of course, India’s Washington lobby, which has harnessed such luminaries as former Sen. Robert Dole, former Rep. Stephen Solarz, and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, has been around for a while, as this useful (though dated) Asia Times history of its growth explains. In New York and elsewhere, too, Bloomberg notes, India’s influence has grown quickly in recent years, extending to publishing, media, investment banking, and all manner of corporate interests.
But Obama’s real concern, and the concern of every candidate who hopes to use “outsourcing” scares as a lure in 2008, is not India’s lobby, but the growing presence of South Asians among the U.S. electorate. As this useful profile of the demographic from the South Asian Journalists Assocation notes, at least 2.5 million South Asians now live in the United States, and they tend to be on the higher end of both income and educational scales. As visiting CFR Fellow Manjeet Kripalani recently noted in the Los Angeles Times, Indian Americans, in particular, have emerged as a powerful voice in national politics. ASB Communications, in fact, a consultancy, rates them the most wealthy of all new immigrant groups, with an average household income of some $65,000 annually. In case you miss the point, Mr. Campaign Chairman, ASB offers this useful fact: “One out of every 10 Asian-Indians is a millionaire.”