An Indian American election

Print edition : July 16, 2004

Increased self-assertion by Indian Americans is evident from the rise in the number candidates from the community for the upcoming elections and the many organisations that exhort community members to participate in politics and to address concerns of wider import.

AT the Republican National Convention in New York City in August, six Indian Americans will take their seats as delegates. They will get an opportunity to meet and greet the top leaders of the dominant party in the United States, offer their votes on behalf of incumbent President George W. Bush, and pledge more of their substantial money to the party's war chest. One of the delegates told the India Abroad newspaper: "I am a Republican because they believe in lower taxes, more personal responsibility, and family values. We are a new minority community and need to be given our place. We have to look out for our children. We are all very successful individuals, but as a community we have more to accomplish."

In early June, meanwhile, the Indian American Leadership Initiative held an event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the congressional campaigns of three Indian Americans Peter Mathews, Ram Uppuluri and Neil Dhillon. All three contested as Democratic Party candidates, and while all three lost, they fought close races that certainly put Indian Americans on the electoral map. In the keynote address, Maryland House of Delegates leader Kumar Barve, who holds the highest elected office for an Indian American, exhorted more Indian Americans to get into politics, to be inspired by the strong attempts of the 1994 triumvirate. A few days later, the Democratic Party announced that Barve would be the Vice-Chairman of the Rules Committee for the Democratic National Convention to be held from July 26 in Boston. He will be the most senior of a "healthy number" of Indian American delegates to the Democratic Party. "A lot of Indian Americans are involved in the Democratic Party," said Barve. "It is no longer a novelty in contrast to the Republican Party."

Since 1990, when Barve won his post to the Maryland House of Delegates, Indian Americans across the country have run for elected office. They are now Water Commissioners, State Representatives, School Board Members, and District Attorneys. There has been a general upsurge of interest in elections. The first generation, the migrants who came to the U.S. from the subcontinent after 1965, have now become naturalised and are generally confident about their place in the country. The children born of these migrants, the second generation, are now coming of political age, and they have also entered politics. These are good times for Indian Americans who are interested in politics, and it is, therefore, only natural that there are now a host of organisations to bring Indian Americans to the polls and to make them run for office.

IN February 2003, two young desis (Indian Americans), Mekhail Anwar and Maya Nambisan, formed an organisation called South Asians for Kerry in 2004 (SAKI2004) and quickly recruited over 200 volunteers from across the country. Some of those who joined have had a long-standing interest in public policy, some have been involved with the Democratic Party already, but many simply believe that Bush's variety of rule is unacceptable for the U.S., and for Indian Americans. Alongside SAKI2004 is another organisation, the South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), an initiative by Tanzila Ahmed, a young woman from Los Angeles. SAAVY is part of a nation-wide effort to get young people to the polls, many of whose voices, including Ahmed's, can be found in a new anthology entitled How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office: The Anti-politics, Un-boring Guide to Power, published by the League of Pissed-Off Voters earlier this year. SAAVY plans to recruit youth to reach out to the South Asian community across the country to get about 300 people trained to draw young desis to the polls. SAKI2004 and SAAVY recognise that only about a third of the desis who are eligible to vote exercise their franchise, and among young desis the percentage is even lower. Since the median age of the Indian American community is 29, the emphasis on youth is significant. There are no available statistics for Indian American youth alone, but for Asian American youth in the 18-24 age group the numbers of those who are registered to vote dropped from 50 per cent in 1990 to 35 per cent in 2000. SAKI2004's Reshma Saujani has also formed South Asians Vote, a "clearing house for South Asian voters" to find out about and register to vote.

IF SAAVY and SAKI2004 want to get desis to the polls, the Indian American Leadership Incubator (IALI) wants to get desis to run for political office. Set up in August 2001, IALI believes that while desis have excelled in many professional fields in the U.S., the one area left open is electoral politics. The "incubator" provides support to and trains prospective candidates regardless of their party affiliation. Started by Varun Nikore, who cut his political teeth in the Al Gore campaign of 2000, IALI has launched a "10 in 10" campaign, which seeks to have 10 desis in the U.S. Congress within 10 years. For a small community that numbers under two million in a country of 270 million, the challenge is bold, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Already a slew of desis have run for office, and some are poised to run competitive races this November.

Nikore's efforts are not unlike those of SAAVY, because both believe that desis should be organised in order to have a greater voice in public policy. The premise that both work on is that if people are organised to vote they can exert political power. Their mission is unlike that of the lobbyist group USINPAC (U.S. India Political Action Committee), based in Washington D.C., which uses its political contacts to push an agenda of items in a manner similar to its closest allies, the main Zionist lobbies. USINPAC, like many of the main desi Republicans, is more interested in the mobilisation of money and influence to push the agenda in Washington than in the organisation of the community to do so. Class divisions within the desi community produce different political strategies to gain sway in society: the wealthy want to buy influence whereas the rest want to win it through political organisation.

There is indeed a very deep class fissure that runs through the Indian American community, and it seems that most of the well-off desis tend to go Republican, whereas the rest either vote Democrat or Green or nothing at all. Kumar Barve noted: "At the Democratic Convention we do have high-dollar donors, but we also have those that work in the trenches." The six desis who will be Republican delegates have never sunk into the trenches, because their political clout comes from their money. Zach Zacharaiah is not only one of the Republican Party's biggest fund-raisers, but he and the three other delegates from Florida are close friends of Governor Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush nominated Zacharaiah to the Florida Board of Governors, a body that oversees the State's institutions of higher education, while two other delegates run the Florida Board of Medicine and the Florida Council of Education Policy. Some of these Republican delegates are Pioneers, a designation used by the Bush campaign for those who raise more than $100,000. People with such clout are far from the American desi community: a full quarter of Indian Americans live in households with incomes below $25,000 - even though Indian Americans reported the highest median household income ($49,696). This means that the rate of inequality in the community is very high, with a few millionaires and a considerable number who live in the basement of U.S. society. You cannot go into an urban hospital in the U.S. without being treated by either an Indian doctor or an Indian nurse. Yet, a fifth of Indian Americans have no health insurance, a higher percentage than the national average.

Not only do the wealthy have a different political strategy in the electoral arena, but they also have different issues to put on the table. Groups like SAAVY know that if the field of politics is left to the wealthy, then they will dictate the issues of the community. In this case, the issues of the community will be the class-driven issues of the rich. For instance, the Republican delegates' chosen issues were "lower taxes, more personal responsibility and family values", whereas Tanzila Ahmed notes that among her constituency the issues are "affirmative action, increasing cost of education and hate crimes". My own research shows that Indian Americans are generally against immigration controls, against the death penalty, for the right of a woman to have access to reproductive technologies, for better wages for working people, for better care for the elderly, for health insurance coverage for all, and generally, for peaceful negotiated solutions to conflict rather than a rush to war. Among the second-generation, the liberal trend is even deeper, a fact well-illustrated in the many second-generation political organisations that dot the U.S. landscape, as well as the many second-generation desis who work in the non-profit or progressive organisations that fight for social justice. At least for domestic U.S. matters, American desis are generally liberal, not allied with the kind of fanatical extremism promoted by the Bush Republicans.

For this reason, when desi Democrats come before a desi audience, they generally lead with their issues. High on the current agenda is the opposition to the war in Iraq, as evidenced by the strong but failed primary run of Rohit Khanna from Silicon Valley and of Peter Mathews' statement to define his candidacy for Congress: "The main reason I am running is that America is at a crossroads. The U.S. is involved in an expensive quagmire in Iraq. Some $150 billion has already been spent. I want us to have a more multilateral, new and responsible foreign policy. I also want to bring funds back into my district, which is heavily minority."

Upendra Chivukula's successful run for the New Jersey State Assembly was on a platform to rethink how public education is funded so as to make schools more equitable in different class neighbourhoods, to defend and extend open, green spaces in cities, and to make sure that children of immigrants get tuition breaks for college. Swati Dandekar, who runs John Kerry's presidential campaign in Iowa, successfully campaigned for the State House on a platform that included urban renewal by job creation and by an end to the death penalty. Finally, Kamala Harris, who recently won the election to become San Francisco's District Attorney, is a strong advocate of civil rights and civil liberties. This list is abbreviated, but as veteran Democratic Party organiser Toby Chaudhari says of such people, they are "progressive democrats".

Not the same with Republicans, who want to stress their ethnic ties as they remain silent about their links to the Bush party. Nikki Randhawa Haley, who is running for the South Carolina Assembly on the Republican ticket, told the Indian-American press: "Does it matter for the Indian community whether a candidate is Republican or Democrat? What we need are more people in political office. The candidate's party affiliation is irrelevant for us as a community at this time." But at this time one's party affiliation might be more than relevant - it is crucial. The re-election of George W. Bush and the growth of Bush Republicans in the U.S. Congress would only embolden the right-wing to move ahead with its policies to adjust democracy further structurally and to export its militarism from Iraq to elsewhere.

In a new book, veteran journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber call the Bush party Banana Republicans because they are entirely motivated by corporate-military interests, because their intolerance for dissent has made their right-wing media outlets ridicule the Democratic Party's platform, and because they have been able to ensnare a range of politicians and intellectuals to serve their "war on terror" rather than the public interest.

In 1980, Bertram Gross prophesised that the type of political extremism possible in the U.S. is "friendly fascism", and in the guise of the Bush Banana Republicans, that seems to have come to pass. For desi Republicans, ethnicity is a useful cover against their intolerant bag of political goods.

A defeat of the Bush team will not necessarily change anything in the overall structure of U.S. power, but it will make the Kerry camp less able to be so brash in the use of military power in the world, and of police power at home. Whatever the result, this is the election of Indian Americans - not simply because so many will run in races across the country, but also because political activists in the community have moved into the electoral field like never before. Indian Americans no longer support candidates based on their views of the subcontinent's problems, but they now see that the wider issues are of import. For that itself, one could say that the Indian Americans have put themselves firmly on the electoral map.

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