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The rise of the Indian American

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : If Indian Americans had helped transform India-US ties into a “strategic relationship” in the Bush era, 2009 was a year of consolidation as Barack Obama set out to build bridges around the world.

Wary at first about the new president’s perceived leanings towards Pakistan, Indian Americans soon found him warming up to their native country with an invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the first state visit of his administration – considered a plum presidential nod of recognition for an “indispensable” India.

On the night of the much-awaited state dinner to celebrate a commitment to turn their relationship into a “defining partnership of the 21st century”, more than a third of the invitees were Indian Americans, reflecting their growing presence on the nation’s political, economic and social scene.

And to bring the promised change at home, Obama turned to a long list of Indians to give “Americans a government that is effective, efficient and transparent”.

Aneesh Chopra became Obama’s chief technology officer and joined chief performance officer Vivek Kundra Chopra to help break Washington’s “bad habits” of wasteful spending and move recession-hit America from recovery to prosperity.

Economist Sonal Shah, a key member of his transition team, took charge of a new office of social innovation.

After searching far and wide for months, Obama zeroed in on Rajiv Shah to head USAID to spur development around the world with a $20 billion budget.

Kal Penn, star of Mira Nair’s “The Namesake”, went to the White House as Kalpen Modi to serve as Obama’s liaison with Asian communities. And the list of Indian Americans in key positions keeps growing.

Across the political divide, Louisiana Governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal emerged as the new face of the vanquished Republican Party as he delivered its official response to Obama’s speech to Congress.

In the corporate world, Vikram Pandit worked on an annual salary of $1 to bring the ailing Citigroup around and by the end of the year not only turned it profitable but was even ready to pay back Uncle Sam $20 billion in bailout funds.

Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi was listed fourth among “15 women (who) show what it takes to lead” some of America’s biggest companies on the Fortune 500 list.

Four Indians found themselves among America’s super-rich with a fortune of $50 billion. Rubbing shoulders with Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates at the top were Bharat Desai (212), Kavitark Ram Shriram (272), Romesh Wadhwani (277) and Vinod Khosla (347).

In a new trend, Indian investments into the US exceeded US foreign direct investment into India in recent years and were helping turn around local economies and creating jobs in the US.

Kavya Shivashankar made history as she gave Indian origin kids a third back-to-back victory in the prestigious Scripps National Spelling Bee championship.

The amazing success of over 2.5 million Indian Americans in general was also reflected in their topping US Census charts again as the best-educated, highest-paid and top-placed community among America’s 38.1 million foreign-born.

But quite a few of them were in the news for wrong reasons too. Among them two executives of top US companies who were charged along with Tamil Sri Lankan billionaire, hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam, in the largest ever insider trading in the US.

And prosecuting them as US attorney in Manhattan was another Indian American handpicked by Obama. Firozpur-born Preet Bharara would also be the lead prosecutor of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])