Sarita Sarvate

India Has Arrived -- Leaving Most Indians Farther Behind



Jubilation in India over the recent visit by Bill Gates contrasted with a singular ho-hum attitude about the Prime Minister's trip to Washington. From the perspective of hundreds of millions of Indians who have never seen the inside of a house, the Gates visit at least holds the promise of trickle-down--more than what they can hope for from Indian Americans' new found clout. PNS commentator Sarita Sarvate, a physicist by training, writes for India Currents.

It was more than sheer coincidence that the day India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpeyi arrived in Washington, D.C., Microsoft CEO Bill Gates arrived in New Delhi. While the fanfare surrounding Vajpeyi's visit was restricted to the Indian American community -- which used it to gain access to Clinton -- the jubilation over the Gates trip extended from the Electronics Minister to the rickshaw wallahs to the poorest beggars on the streets of New Delhi, gathering around his motorcade to see the richest man in the world.

The two visits proved one thing: that India has finally arrived on the American scene. I can recall a time when the only Indian known to an average American was Ravi Shankar. The gala dinner hosted by President Clinton in Vajpeyi's honor, on the other hand, included many well-known Indian American luminaries from Silicon Valley, the arts, literature, and other fields.

At the dinner, President Clinton hailed the political influence that Indian Americans, the richest and the most educated immigrant group, are likely to have on American politics in the future. At the same time, in New Delhi, Bill Gates declared India to be an IT (Information Technology) superpower and asserted that the world could not live without its talent.

So what does all this mean for those teeming masses that surrounded Gates on his arrival in the streets? Precious little, I think.

Indian entrepreneurs and software engineers have always asserted that the electronics industry in India will spread the benefits of globalization not just to the alumni of ivory tower institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology but also to graduates of ordinary universities and the rest of the population. This stance is predictable, given that the Indian American community has a lot to gain from the opening up of Indian markets to the West. Indian politicians, too, have generally supported this "trickle down" theory, if for no other reason than the fact that nothing else has worked so far.

Yet, I can't help thinking of last summer, when I was invited to the first meeting of the Indian American Women's political coalition. A local congresswoman and several Indian American women entrepreneurs were to attend. "So what is the political agenda for the Indian American women?" I inquired. There was a long pause at the other end of the line before the head of the coalition replied, "Well, we are just beginning to raise funds and to reach out; we haven't got specific issues in mind yet."

"But surely," I pressed, "before you begin to raise funds and contact politicians, you have to have some idea as to what you want from them?"

"Indian Americans don't have time to think about politics," she said,

"they are too busy making money.

"They are worried about mainstream resentment towards their huge mansions, custom-built cars, newly acquired dot-com wealth. They want politicians to be on their side."

"Aha," I said. "So the political aspirations of Indian Americans are driven by their desire to protect their millions, not from any altruistic goals?"

It was a rhetorical question to which I expected no reply.

It is obvious that the gap is widening within the Indian community between the haves and the have-nots, between those with stock options and those without; between the dot-com rich and the rest of us. Call it the digital divide if you will, but it is there.

And since we Indians remain as individualist as ever, with our personal Gods and private morality, it is unlikely that any Indian American political coalition will focus on the broad interests of the community at home and abroad.

Instead, our political goals are much more narrowly focused. In fact, they can be summed up in three words: prosperity, prosperity, and more prosperity. For, it is the Indian elite that has "arrived" on the world scene, leaving the populace behind. And it is the same elite that is now donating vast sums of money to political campaigns, with the hope that eventually favors will be returned.

As long as the democrats support us, we will stand behind them, but if they are inclined to block our path, as their recent attempts to link the H-1B visa Bill to Latin immigration amnesty have shown, we will shift our support to the republicans.

And what of those teeming masses on the streets of New Delhi?

I can recall an anecdote from the OPEC heyday, when an Arab gentleman wearing white robes was observed on Bombay's Chawpati Beach, showering rupee bills on a throng of gleeful beggars.

Now, that is Trickle Down Economics at its most demonstrable. So let the trickle begin. After all, for a majority of India's billion, it is the only hope.