EARLIER THIS AUTUMN, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, Indian-American political players hoped it would be an opportunity to assert their ascendant political clout. The guest list for the formal state dinner, the first of Barack Obama’s presidency, was the talk of the town for weeks—how many Hollywood celebrities would attend? Would Oprah come? But nowhere was it more fervently discussed than inside the Indian-American community. In the end, only the highest profile Indian-Americans made the cut—business leaders like PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi and authors Jhumpa Lahiri and Deepak Chopra.
Ramesh Kapur, a Boston-based political donor instrumental in pushing forward the US-India nuclear deal, admits he felt hurt and betrayed when he discovered he hadn’t made the list—after all, he is one of just a handful of first-generation Indian-Americans who consider themselves the vanguard of an immigrant community on the rise in Washington. Highly educated and well-established professionally, he is emblematic of the Indian-Americans he claims to represent. Being overlooked by the White House stung all the more when Kapur discovered one of his arch rivals, Sant Singh Chatwal—a long-time donor to and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton—had received one of the engraved invitations to the black-tie affair. “Obviously Sant used up his chits to get invited,” Kapur told me cattily, a week after the state dinner. “If I had pushed, I could have got in, too.”
Kapur has the dynamic energy and bright smile of someone who has spent a lot of time at political fundraisers. He was born and raised in Mumbai, but after forty years in the US, and almost as many years of marriage to an American woman, he describes himself as “ninety percent American and ten percent Indian,” though his accent is equal parts Massachusetts and Mumbai. His life’s work has been to raise India’s profile in the US, driven partly out of a desire for personal acclaim, and also by a love for the country he left behind. For decades, Kapur has raised money and campaigned for Democratic candidates on behalf of the Indian-American community, trying to bring issues that matter to them, like visas, imports from India, and discrimination, into mainstream political discourse.