“I can’t think of a single example where we’ve had this kind of access,” Narasimhan said. Moments earlier, he had had to interrupt our interview to take a call from the White House.
After years of trying to build its influence – raising funds, supporting candidates, building a ground game – Native American politicians are beginning to feel a sense of real power and influence in the Biden-Harris administration – one that , he hopes, marks a new era for American politics.
“We are now at a point where we know that when Native Americans call, the highest levels of the administration are listening,” said Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora, a non-partisan network of Indian-American leaders. .
The Native American population has grown steadily over the past decades–it is one of the most prosperous and fastest growing minority groups in the country, a trend which has also helped to increase its political influence. He won a symbolic victory when Kamala Harris, whose mother is from India, was sworn in as vice president; Joshipura estimates that members of the Native American community raised $ 20-30 million for political candidates from both parties in the 2020 presidential election alone – a record.
Over the past few weeks, the administration has heard the growing anger and desperation of these voters. After taking office, Biden left in place a Trump-era ban on exports of raw materials needed to produce Covid-19 vaccines, a move the administration deemed necessary to ensure enough vaccinations for Americans. But the pressure to change course began to build as the severity of the crisis in India began to crystallize. (A US ambassador to India has yet to be appointed; the portfolio is currently managed by a charge d’affaires, a lower diplomatic rank).
“I don’t think they understood the widespread panic,” said Milan Vaishnav, senior researcher and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Things were getting out of hand.”
On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, made a direct appeal to the President on Twitter: “Respected @POTUS, if we are serious about coming together to defeat this virus, in the name of vaccine industry outside the United States, I humbly ask you to lift the embargo on raw material exports outside the United States so that vaccine production can increase. Your administration has the details. ”
Although it is unclear how much the US export ban played into India’s vaccine problems – domestic factors including a fire at the Serum Institute and the own export of over 60 million doses India’s vaccine release as part of a global charm offensive, also played a role – advocacy set Amerindian Twitter on fire. In the weeks that followed, prominent members of the community, many of whom received a constant stream of anguished messages from friends and families in India, began demanding that Biden do more to help India manage the crisis.
Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University tweeted that the United States “is relying on 35 to 40 million doses of Astra Zeneca vaccine that Americans will never use.” Can we please donate or lend them to India? Like maybe now? It will help. A lot.”
Neal Katyal, Lawyer and Former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, tweeted: “We have just created oxygen on Mars. I think there must be a way for America to get more O2 to India. »Salman Rushdie urged Biden to also revoke the export ban.
Even Meena Harris, niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, whose late mother was Indian, weighed in: retweet a message that simply read, “Get more vaccines in India.” Get more vaccines in India. Get more vaccines in India. All the while, Vice President Kamala Harris herself was silent on the issue, speak publicly about it for the first time on the day the administration announced its aid, saying, “We pray for the Indian people.”
Behind the scenes, Joshipura said members of the Indiaspora were in close contact with administration officials. “We have been very active at the very, very high levels of administration, starting with the grassroots president,” he said.
This rear channel offensive has targeted all of the top officials in the administration, Narasimhan said. “There’s not a single senior in the White House who hasn’t heard someone say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem.'”
On Friday, April 23, the American Chamber of Commerce – whose members, many of whom had operations in India, had sounded the alarm – issued a statement calling on the White House to “release the millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccines by stock. ”
“We were constantly on the phone with the administration saying, ‘Guys, this is bad,’ said Nisha Biswal, senior vice president for South Asia in the House and head of the US-India Business Council. Within 48 hours, the administration began to act. “Once we mobilized, they moved in no time.”
While it is possible that Biden took the steps he took even without the chorus of US-Indian voices demanding action – India is widely seen as an important strategic partner in Asia – the tidal wave has gone without no doubt accelerated the pace of the administration’s response. “I’m not saying we necessarily changed their decision,” Joshipura said. “But we certainly played a role in accelerating it. And the commitment of the highest levels of administration to the decision was definitely influenced by what we did.
What he and other Native American civil society groups have done is build a real political juggernaut. The participation rate of American Indians has skyrocketed in recent years. A new poll from the Narasimhan AAPI Victory Fund found that in 48 states with voting histories, the number of votes cast by Asian Americans, including Indian Americans, increased by 46 % in 2020, compared to just 12% among all other voters. trend that mainly benefited Democrats. Sixty-five to 70 percent of Indian Americans voted for Joe Biden in 2020, roughly similar to the percentage who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Georgia, a state that voted blue in 2020 for the first time in nearly 30 years, soaring participation of Asian Americans has far exceeded the margin of victory. And of the record amounts of money Indo-American voters poured in the last election cycle, most went to Democrats.
This explains the rapidity of the administration’s response. “In a 48 hour period, you saw the US government go from 0 to 60,” Vaishnav said, recalling the days just before the administration announced that it would send raw materials and other aid to India. “It’s because the Indian Americans mobilized. They went on social media, they called everyone they knew in government, they called everyone they contributed to. ”
It was not just the firepower of Indian Americans as voters and donors that may have prompted the Biden administration to act. There are now enough Indian Americans in Congress – Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and, before she was appointed vice president, Kamala Harris – to warrant a name: the “samosa” caucus , whose members are all publicly advocating for action on behalf of India.
Several of them want the president to go even further and demand that US vaccine makers license production know-how to drug makers in India and elsewhere. “They don’t allow manufacturers to use the vaccine, even manufacturers willing to pay for it,” said Khanna, vice chair of the House Caucus on India and Native Americans in an interview with the Progressive News Organization. Truthout. “And what we’re saying is, ‘No, they have to have to get a license. ”
110 members of Congress signed a letter to the president asking him to support a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily waive certain patent provisions under trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS), a position the administration has so far refused to take and which pharmaceutical industry groups and some lawmakers are opposed.
Some say the Native American community must use its newfound power to move beyond humanitarian measures and pressure the United States to take a tougher political line against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This is a man-made crisis,” said Prerna Singh, associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University. “And that man is Modi.”
Modi’s missteps during the pandemic have been widely criticized, but he remains extremely popular among Indian Americans, regardless of their political affiliation. Modi, who was renowned for his friendship with former President Donald Trump, used increasingly authoritarian tactics to quell dissent, such as ordering social media companies to remove posts critical of the government’s response to the pandemic. “What Modi is doing is undemocratic,” said Singh, who wants the diaspora and the Biden administration to speak out against what she believes is Modi’s guilt in the disaster unfolding in India. Narasimhan, on the other hand, said it would “politicize a humanitarian crisis when people die” and that “it is not for us to decide who is at fault, but to do what we can to help”.
While the crisis in India is far from over, and Indian-American efforts to help the country continue, the administration’s actions to date represent perhaps the most important political victory for the community in recent memory. But this is not their first.
In the early 2000s, Americans of Indian origin mobilized to push the government to lift the economic and military sanctions that were imposed on India after testing a nuclear weapon in 1998. President George W. Bush has obliged, pushing the United States to forge closer relations with India. persists today.
A senator at the time was particularly receptive to the move, writing in a letter to Bush that “economic sanctions against India serve to stigmatize rather than stabilize” and that if the sanctions are lifted, “India will respond. through reciprocal acts of goodwill in non-proliferation and other arenas. “
This senator’s name was Joe Biden.