Why getting giddy about big-gun Indian-origin politicians is a wasted effort

When a politician of Indian origin makes it big, sentiment varies from: “I feel represented, my voice will be heard to my country is being t...

When a politician of Indian origin makes it big, sentiment varies from: “I feel represented, my voice will be heard to my country is being taken seriously at the global stage.” All this to the accompaniment of dhols and Indian sweets.

So why do we get so giddy on someone else’s success? Especially considering that Indian-origin politicians have an on-off relationship with their Indian identity. Hype the hardworking immigrant story when convenient but mostly keep the Indian heritage at a distance.

Why do we roll out the welcome wagon and dilate over their attaining a position of power? Is it a colonial hangover? Remnants of a slavish mentality? Or just a misguided love of the land?

These Indian-origin politicians painstakingly mask their identities when it is convenient to get votes. Or help perpetuate the myth that immigrants and people of colour just need to work hard to overcome systemic injustices.

More than 200 people of Indian origin hold top positions in governments of over 15 countries.

In the UK, for example, Rishi Sunak — the poster boy of 'Diversity Built Britain’ — has found a fan following in India.

No matter that neither was the front-runner for the post of Britain’s prime minister born in India nor were his parents. Sunak’s family is of Indian-origin immigrants from East Africa.

Also, he doesn’t have the classic poor, hardworking immigrant backstory as Sunak lettered at Oxford and Stanford and worked as an analyst for Goldman Sachs before working as a partner in two hedge funds.

By the time he became a Conservative MP in 2015, he was already one of the richest MPs in the UK.

And then he married up. To Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Narayana Murthy, the founder of India's IT giant Infosys.

All politicians are trailed by controversies. But Sunak’s notoriety has its roots in India. His wife has a non-domicile status, allowing her to sidestep paying millions of pounds in taxes on dividends accruing from her Infosys shares.

It didn’t help his case that he had imposed several tax hikes during his tenure. His wife has also been accused of collecting 'blood money' as Infosys continued its operations in Russia despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.

All the while, Sunak coerced UK businesses to pull out of Russia to exert 'maximum economic pressure' on the Kremlin.

If a person of Indian origin becomes the Prime Minister of Britain would it be beneficial to India? The answer to that is mostly No.

Fact is these politicians must deal with pressing concerns of their own constituents first. And sometimes, it can mean really pushing the limits of representational politics.

Conservative firebrand Priti Patel, born in London to Gujarati parents, was a visible proponent of the points based immigration system. No one missed the irony there.

Priti Patel also backed the Boris Johnson government's controversial Rwanda Asylum plan. It involved sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. The scheme was seen as anti-refugee, inhuman and racist.

UK home secretary Priti Patel. Image courtesy Hoe Office/Wikimedia Commons

The attention of these Indian-origin politicians can also stem from a sense that the other country isn’t as important — and the potential dilution of American importance in India and Indian importance in the US is a danger.

American Vice-President Kamala Harris must speak up for her voters at home, even if it angers Indians. She has a peculiar problem of too many identities — Black, South Asian, African American, Indian American.

The New York Times once described her as “the daughter of a black economist and an Indian biologist”. Her mother is an Indian from Tamil Nadu. She once said in an interview: "I'm black, and I'm proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris. AP

Then why do Indians back home expect Harris to be sensitive to Indians?

The selective use of racial identity is not restricted to Kamala Harris.

Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and US ambassador to the United Nations, was born Nimrata Randhawa and goes by the nickname “Nikki."

She converted to Christianity and remained evasive about her Sikh background. She listed her race as “white” on a 2001 voter registration card.

File image of Nikki Haley. AP

Bobby Jindal, born Piyush, the former Louisiana governor, hates being referred to as “Indian-American.” It is almost as if this tag is vile and downgrades him.

He has largely disowned his Indian identity. He uses the word “tan” to describe his complexion. But this has never stopped him from approaching wealthy Indian families for political and financial support.

Former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Bobby and Nikki mask their identities when it is convenient to get votes. But flaunt their South Asian roots when it is necessary to relate the successful immigrant story.

In Canada in September 2021, 17 Indo-Canadians, including Jagmeet Singh and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, won the parliamentary elections with Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Indians, comprising 4 percent of the Canadian population, are considered extremely influential. No wonder Trudeau is often called Justin ‘Singh’ Trudeau by the Sikh community.

Harjit Sajjan. Image courtesy Ppereira6/Wikimedia Commons

There were strong rumours of them funding the farm protest in India.

So, in one fell swoop this community was branded as “anti-India.” Not only for supporting an agitation which was seen targeting the ruling dispensation but also for being “pro-Khalistani.”

In this vein, there are voices from a section of NRIs that take a line that doesn’t go down well with Indian diplomats and those in governance. They take an anti-India line on Kashmir, human rights violations, supporting agitations and promoting radical voices within the minority community.

And in the end, it would be good to remember that while Indians back home drum beat, apply tilaks and garland the so-called influential “Indians” overseas; they are not “theirs” by a long shot. Basically, the celebration is wasted on those who either shrug it off or detest being labelled as “Indian.”

The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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