BY VEENA RAO*
Cover photo: Rajat Sudan
Washington DC, June 28, 2023: It was a mini-India at the historic ceremonial welcome for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the south lawns of the White House on June 22. For the first time ever, the White House opened its gates to close to 7000 Indian Americans from around the country.
As Penn Masala, a South Asian a cappella group sang Bollywood hits on the White House steps, the invited guests waited in celebratory spirit for history to unfold. Chants of “Vande Mataram,” and “Modi, Modi” rent the air. Photos were taken with the soldiers, Marines, and the members of the Coast Guard in uniform.
Even the dreary weather and light drizzle did not dampen people’s spirits.
The guests had spent a considerable amount of money on airfare and hotel accommodation. They had made it to the White House gates by 6.45 am, where a long line snaked down Constitution Avenue for the 10 am event. Some who stayed in the suburbs had to wake up in the early hours of the morning to catch the shuttles organized by community organizations, to the venue.
Monica Deshpande from the University of Maryland, DC said she did not mind waking up at 3 am to take the bus that brought her to the White House at 5.45 am.
“We will wait as long as it takes,” she said, cheerfully waving the US and India flags that were distributed to the guests at the entrance, by the White House staff.
Before flying to the US for his historic visit, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Modi said India is in the process of gaining its rightful position in the world.
“We do not see India as supplanting any country. We see this process as India gaining its rightful position in the world,” he said.
That pride was visible at the White House where the Indian American community was asserting its position in the national fabric of the country while displaying love for its birth country.
As Raj Razdan, president of the National Federation of American Associations (NFIA) and the Atlanta-based Senior Citizens Program (SCP) asserted, “India is going to get back its natural glory.”
The Indian American community, which is close to 5 million strong, constitutes 1% of the American population but pays 6% of the taxes. Indians are growing increasingly important as a voter bloc in the US, including in swing states like Georgia. Indian Americans vote in large numbers. They are getting politically aware and active. Five members of Congress are Indian Americans. Vice President Kamala Harris is part Indian American. The next Presidential election which will take place in 2024 has two Indian American hopefuls—Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy (both Republicans). In several states, Indian Americans have at least one representative in the legislature from their community.
That perhaps explains why so many politicians from across the political divide, were eager to tweet their welcome for PM Modi.
Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff held a reception for Indian Americans from Georgia who were in DC for Modi’s visit.
“I think for too long Indian-Americans have been neglected and ignored by American political leaders. I am working to change that. My goal is to be the most present, visible, and responsive representative of Georgia’s Indian-American community,” Ossoff told NRI Pulse.
Srikanth Gundavarapu, president of the Atlanta chapter of Sewa International, told NRI Pulse that it was a proud moment for 1.4 billion Indians as well as the 4 plus million people of Indian origin in the US. “Every one of us here is a role model. We are just 1% of the population, but we are a strong 1%. That is why all the politicians and entrepreneurs are looking up to India,” he said.
As India takes center stage as one of the fastest-growing economies and a hub for tech and innovation, the Biden Administration is seeing India as an ally to counter China’s growing threat in the Indo-Pacific region. Defense cooperation was one of the key components of the Biden-Modi discussions; the others being trade and investments, and technology.
“Current geo-political scenarios like the war in Ukraine, China’s growing military might, the rapid advent of technologies like Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), climate change, critical material supply chain risks, and the nuclear arms race warrants that these two democracies are involved in an international forum and dialogue,” Ani Agnihotri, founder of the Atlanta-based US India Business Summit told NRI Pulse.
“PM Modi’s visit has a huge significance as India and the US agreed to end their bilateral trade disputes at the WTO, among other far-reaching agreements. This relationship is truly at an inflection point and has a scope to grow bilateral trade from $192 Billion (in 2022) to $500 Billion in five years or so,” Agnihotri added.
Agnihotri, who had the opportunity to witness Modi’s address at the Joint Session of the Congress said he liked what the prime minister said about the US-India partnership: “In the past few years, there have been many advances in AI – Artificial Intelligence. At the same time, there have been even more momentous developments in another AI – America and India.”
“I am very enthused that Biden reiterated last week US support for India’s permanent membership in the reformed United Nations Security Council. The US also reaffirmed its support for India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and committed to continue engagement with like-minded partners to advance this goal,” Agnihotri said.
Georgia resident Nitin Shah, former president of AAHOA saw Modi’s visit as a great chance not only to make the Pacific region safe but also to collaborate with America to replace Chinese manufacturing facilities. “India can take it—whether it is Tesla or iPhone or anything else. Modi came at the absolute right time. It was a very important visit,” he said.
Ajay Houde, president of the Georgia chapter of HSS stressed the fact that India is a young country where the average age is 27-28. “We have the people, the technology, and the science. The world needs us,” he said.
“The US needs India because we are the largest democracy and the (fastest growing) economy. We can outsource and keep everything cheap. Since India is a democracy and works on democratic norms, we are easy to work with.”
Srikanth Gundavarapu elucidated the point further. “I have been to China twice. There it is just money and no freedom. In India, anybody can talk about anybody. They can talk about Modi even though he is so popular. That is the beauty of India. Natural talent comes up because there is natural competition. In China, talent is fostered. America has started to respect that, and so has Europe.”
Brothers Ravi and Srikanth Kari, who both represented the Hindu Temple of Atlanta at the White House said they would like to see the two democracies work more closely, especially in the IT sector. “In the light of tech layoffs, easing visa regulations will help H1B and Green Card holders,” they said.
The Biden administration has adopted a more welcoming posture toward foreign-born high-skilled workers than the previous government.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently issued a new policy alert that could help laid-off H-1B visa holders and others waiting for employment-based green cards.
The agency may provide employment authorization to beneficiaries of approved employment-based immigrant visa petitions who face delays due to backlogs in immigrant visa availability. Beneficiaries who face adverse circumstances resulting from termination from employment and loss of nonimmigrant status, may qualify for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) if they face compelling circumstances beyond the usual hardship associated with job loss.
Atlanta-based cardiologist Dr. Sreeni Gangasani said, as a physician, he has seen the impact of the Indian government’s policies on the health and well-being of people. “The government’s efforts to improve healthcare infrastructure, promote healthy lifestyles, and provide affordable medicines have been truly remarkable,” he said, adding that the PM has “inspired us to work harder towards building a better future for people of India, the US and elsewhere in the world.”
Prime Minister Modi ended his 4-day state visit to the US by addressing a packed auditorium of Indian Americans at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington DC where he credited President Biden for taking the US-India partnership to new heights.
“Over the last three days, we have been working together continuously. We have had frank discussions over a whole host of issues, and I say from experience that he is a wise and experienced leader. Biden has personally worked hard at taking the India-US partnership to new heights and I commend him for his partnership,” he said.
He added that the partnership is a joint step towards a better, stronger world.
Modi’s state visit ended in at least 25 defense and technology deals and initiatives that will give India the ability to co-produce jet engines, armed SeaGuardian drones, a semiconductor assembly and testing facility, and a shot at the Moon.
The partnerships will include an $825 million investment by Micron Technology, Inc to build a new semiconductor assembly and test facility in India; Lam Research proposing to train 60,000 Indian engineers; Applied Materials, Inc. to invest $400 million to establish a collaborative engineering center in India. (Read the full report here.)
Biden later categorized the New Delhi-Washington friendship among the “most consequential” in the world.
“The friendship between the United States and India is among the most consequential in the world. And it is stronger, closer, and more dynamic than ever,” he tweeted, a day after his meetings with Modi.
The Indian American community has certainly had and will continue to have a big role in this friendship.
*(With inputs by Jyothsna Hegde and Namita Dogra Sudan)