Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton is wooing wealthy entrepreneurs with ties to India, seeking to tap the growing political clout of Indian Americans in Silicon Valley.
Clinton spoke Friday by live video feed from New Orleans to nearly 4,000 businesspeople attending the annual alumni conference of the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the world's most elite university systems. Clinton was the only presidential candidate (Republican or Democratic) to accept an invitation from the IIT -- reiterated her call for more H-1B visas for highly educated immigrants, an issue of deep concern to the Indian and Indian-American executives and engineers in the audience.
But she didn't shy from a frank characterization of the pain of offshore outsourcing. The United States has sent tens of thousands of high-paying computer programming and engineering jobs to developing countries in recent years. "Workers in the United States are concerned about outsourcing, and I think they're right to be -- but so should all of us who value the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and India," Clinton said. "If the U.S. continues to outsource jobs to India in increasingly large numbers, people will increasingly feel insecure and increasingly seek protection."
Many attendants said the senator's talk seemed like a delicate political balancing act, an attempt to stand up for middle-class constituents but acknowledge the reality of the global economy. "I think she was trying to strike a balance," said Ankush Koratkar, 37, a 1993 graduate of IIT's Bombay campus. "She does understand globalization and the shift in economic power . . . but she's a politician running for the presidency and wants to make sure she's speaking for America."
Clinton's appearance comes less than a month after rival Barack Obama's campaign sent a sarcastic memo to reporters criticizing Clinton's ties to India. The memo characterized Clinton as the "Democrat from Punjab" -- a reference to a joking introduction of Clinton by Rajwant Singh, national chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education. Prominent Indian-Americans immediately demanded an apology from Obama. Within days, the Illinois senator conceded that their concerns over the campaign memo were "entirely justified."
Clinton's courting of Indian-American voters comes as the 2.3 million-member community exerts more influence in the 2008 presidential election. Although they make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, Indians living in the United States have the highest average income of any racial group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their 2005 median household income was nearly $74,000, 59% higher than the general population average.
Although Indian Americans back numerous Republican and Democratic candidates, many first-generation immigrants express a warmth for the former first lady that dates back to a state visit to India by Bill Clinton in 2000. It was the fourth time a U.S. president had visited India. In 2005, the senator from New York visited India and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.
Photojournalists chronicled the former first lady's visit as if she were a British royal, and she received flattering coverage in magazines and on television.
"India is an emotional country -- things like that have a huge emotional impact," said Arjun Malhotra, chairman and CEO of Sunnyvale-based consulting firm Headstrong Inc.