Indian-Americans are “taking over the country”, US President Joe Biden said with a curious choice of words during a congratulatory call with Nasa’s aerospace engineer Swati Mohan on 4 March. While the pattern in the president’s appointments suggest he feels comfortable in the company of people of Indian origin, the phrase “taking over” has led to a condemnation of xenophobia in India, which the Democrats could have done without.
The Indian-American Swati Mohan was the guidance and controls operations lead for the 2020 Mars mission and her voice was heard around the world from mission control at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California in the final minutes as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on 18 February.
“Are you kidding me? What an honour this is,” Biden said when Mohan thanked him for the call.
The US president said about the people who constitute hardly 1% of the American population, “This is an incredible honour. And it’s amazing. Indian(s), of descent, Americans are taking over the country. You, my vice-president, my speechwriter, Vinay. I tell you what.”
In less than 50 days of his presidency, Biden has appointed at least 55 Indian-Americans to key leadership positions in his administration ranging from his speech writer to the NASA, to almost every wing of the government.
Academic and activist Madhu Kishwar was not impressed even by the kind of Indians who were making it to Biden’s list.
“Indian-of-descent Americans (sic) are taking over the country. You (Swati Mohan), my Vice President (Kamala Harris), my speech writer (Vinay Reddy),” Biden said in a virtual interaction with NASA scientists who were involved in the historic landing of Perseverance landing at Mars.
This past week, Dr. Vivek Murthy testified before a Senate Committee for US Surgeon General and Vanita Gupta is all set to appear for her confirmation hearing for Associate Attorney General Department of Justice.
“It is impressive to see how many Indian-Americans were ready to go into public service. There have been so many additions since we launched our government leaders list last month on Presidents’ Day. I am so proud to see our community is going from strength to strength!,” eminent Indian-American philanthropist and Indiaspora founder M Rangaswami said.
Gautam Raghavan, Deputy Director in Office of Presidential Personnel; Bharat Ramamurti, Deputy Director of National Economic Council; Tarun Chhabra, Senior Director for Technology and National Security at National Security Council White House; Vedant Patel, Assistant Press Secretary President at the White House are among several other Indian-Americans who got key posts in the Biden administration.
There are Indians in India, however, who find this a sad commentary on India’s ability to absorb talent.
As for the gender demographics, while nearly half of Biden appointees are women and a sizable number of them are working in the White House, the previous Donald Trump administration was not lagging far behind as it had appointed the first ever Indian-American with a cabinet rank and inside the National Security Council.
Indian-American women appointed by Biden include Uzra Zeya, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, State Department; Mala Adiga: Policy Director to Dr Jill Biden; Aisha Shah: Partnership Manager, White House Office of Digital Strategy; Sameera Fazili, Deputy Director, US National Economic Council (NEC); Sumona Guha: Senior Director for South Asia at the National Security Council, White House; and Sabrina Singh: Deputy Press Secretary, Vice President White House.
Shanthi Kalathil has been appointed as Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights, National Security Council, White House; Garima Verma has been named as Digital Director of the Office of the First Lady; Sonia Aggarwal as Senior Advisor for Climate Policy and Innovation; Office of Domestic Climate Policy, White House; Neha Gupta: Associate Counsel, Office of White House Counsel; and Reema Shah as Deputy Associate Counsel, Office of White House Counsel.
Tanya Das has been appointed as Chief of Staff, Office of Science, Department of Energy; Shuchi Talati: Chief of Staff, Office of Fossil Energy, Department of Energy; Mini Timmaraju: Senior adviser to the director, Office of Personnel Management ; Sohini Chatterjee: Senior Policy Advisor US Mission to the United Nations, Aditi Gorur: Policy Advisor, US Mission to the United Nations; and Bhavya Lal is the Acting Chief of Staff, NASA.
Dimple Chaudhary has been appointed as Deputy General Counsel for Nationwide Resource Protection Programs, Environmental Protection Agency; Sharmistha Das is the Deputy General Counsel, Department of Homeland Security; Ruchi Jain is the Deputy Solicitor for General Law, Department of Interior; Meera Joshi is the Acting Administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Administration, Department of Transportation; Aruna Kalyanam is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax and Budget, Department of the Treasury.