Participation in Politics and Public Life Sets Indian Diaspora Apart

As December dawns on the world and dovetails into a new year, a look back at 2022 shows it has been a momentous one for the Indian diaspora, with new landmarks along the way. In October, Rishi Sunak became the first person of Indian-origin to be elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The milestone followed Kamala Harris’ becoming the first person of Indian-origin — albeit only half Indian — to be sworn in as the vice-president of the United States in 2021. For a brief 90 minutes in November, Kamala Harris even officiated as the US President when Joe Biden was undergoing a colonoscopy — the first woman to do so.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Specious arguments about how Indian they are or whether they are Indian at all, what is striking is the participatory nature of people of Indian-extract in politics and public life in the country they or their forebears emigrate to. The story goes back more than 100 years when Indian workers, indentured or otherwise, fought for their rights in places as far apart as South China Sea, South Africa, and South America. Long before Rishi Sunak and Kamala Harris, political activists of Indian-origin ascended leadership positions in countries such as Fiji, Guyana, and Trinidad & Tobago.

But while the Indian diaspora constitute between 35 to 40 percent of the population of these “southern” countries, giving rise to a minority-majority situation, they form only about 3 percent of the population in England and little more than one percent in the United States. In both countries they are a certifiable minority. Yet they have risen to prominence in politics and public life in numbers disproportionate to their population share, mainstreaming themselves rapidly and effortlessly down generations.

Some of the credit for this should go to the open and expansive nature of the system in these countries that allow immigrants and their descendants to assimilate and participate in the political process. You cannot imagine the same thing happening in China or the Gulf countries. The Indian diaspora has the twin advantages of familiarity with both the English language and the idioms of democracy, both of which are strangers to totalitarian countries.

As a result, people of Indian-origin in democratic, Anglophone countries are able to work their way from the ground up, with grassroots activism, before they lay claim to higher office. One notable aspect of Indian diaspora participation in politics in US is not just it resulting in the expansion of the so-called “Samosa Caucus” from four to give lawmakers in the House of Representatives, but also in the scores of the PIOs who run for down ballot offices – to city councils, to school boards, to attorney- and judgeships among others – that in the long run lead to higher offices.

The Samosa Caucus consists of Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-MI), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). Photo Credit:
Another striking feature is they span the political spectrum. Though a majority in the US and UK tend to be Democratic and pro-Labor respectively – and generally left-liberal in most places – a significant and growing section is starting to lean right- Republican in US and Conservative in UK, a roughly 75:25 divide. Today, Indian diaspora members are spread across administrations – in the executive, in Congress, in the judiciary and legal fraternity, in State Houses and Governor’s mansions, and their equivalent in UK, Canada, and every place political processes are open.

For many years, the presence of the Indian diaspora in business, industry, academia, technology and other areas has been a subject of adulation. But it is the coming of age in politics and public life, one that will secure the future, that deserves to be celebrated even more.

Chidanand Rajghatta