The view from California of the Indian elections has been interesting, to say the least. After all, this is the state that just swept the first immigrant into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. But the first immigrant poised to become prime minister of India stepped aside and anointed Manmohan Singh instead—the first minority to occupy the post, but an undisputed Indian. While Arnold Schwarzenegger touted his “immigrant roots” in his first campaign speech, Sonia Gandhi had been downplaying hers. In media coverage she is never an “immigrant”—she is always “foreign-born” or “Italian-born.”
It’s a distinction with a difference. One is an asset—an American Dream story. The other is a liability to be masked with Hindi lessons and cotton saris. Even those desis who had voted for Arnold in California drew the line at Sonia. Even those happy to see the BJP go seemed squeamish about an Italian-born prime minister.
True, the experiences of California and India are very different when it comes to immigrants. One out of four Californians is foreign-born. In India immigrants didn’t build railroads or Silicon Valley. In India immigrants have meant invaders and proselytizers. In California the immigrants are us; in India they are the other. The diversity of California forces us to deal with immigration—whether mowing our lawns or cooking our Thai food—every day, unlike in India.
Is it hypocrisy that would allow Indian-Americans to be all for an inexperienced immigrant governor but not an Indian prime minister? Is it living abroad that makes us hyper-conscious about what makes an “authentic” Indian? Does it embarrass us that 50 years after Independence we almost ended up with a European prime minister? There were many reasons to wonder if Sonia Gandhi could really run India, deal with Pakistan and Ayodhya. But should her place of birth be the biggest concern?
As immigrants fly (and die) in the space shuttle and run giant corporations, they are increasingly proving their hyphenated identities are not the markers of divided loyalties. The U.S. Presidency is still out of reach for immigrants. Perhaps now, but hopefully not forever. And as their numbers increase, especially in politics, one day some young immigrant will ask that all-important question: “Why can’t I be President?” Perhaps that’s what we should be working towards instead of using our birthplace to draw a Lakshmanrekha around our ambitions.