Last June, Bobby Jindal, then Louisiana governor, announced his run for presidency as a Republican candidate. However, before the Indian diaspora could even sit up and take notice, Jindal made it clear that when his parents migrated to the country, it was not to become “hyphenated” Americans. Even before his campaign could take steam, he alienated a community that more than made up in affluence and education what it lacked in numbers. After polling at the bottom for some weeks, Jindal withdrew from the race, famously noting that this was not his time.
Jindal’s run notwithstanding, election year 2016 might just be a watershed in the history of the Indian diaspora in US politics, with at least seven candidates of Indian origin making a bid for Congress and one even running for Senate. This, apart from several others running for state-level positions.
“During every election, you see an assortment of Indian-origin people in the race, but most fizzle out,” notes Ronak D. Desai, affiliate of the India and South Asia Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “This time, it is different. There are so many credible candidates across the country, with good chances.” Says Jay Bhandari, vice chair of Democratic Party at Fairfax County, Virginia: “For the first time, we should have at least three or four of our people in Congress at the same time. And there are already 17 people of Indian origin in important positions at the White House. The diaspora is gaining momentum and critical mass.”
Leading the race is physician Ami Bera, at present the only Indian-origin sitting Congressman. He is making a bid for a third term from his home state of California. Raja Krishnamoorthi, also running for Congress, has already won the Democratic primaries in Illinois. A businessman, he was earlier policy director for President Barack Obama when he ran for the Senate. Then there is Kumar Barve from Maryland, yet another Democrat. He has been in public life for 25 years and proudly asserts that “I’ve never lost an election.” He was first elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates (where he is still serving) in 1991, making him the first Indian American to be elected to a state legislature in the US.
Pramila Jayapal is a first-generation American who went to the US to study, when she was 16, and stayed on. A published author and financial analyst, she helped found Hate Free Zone, an advocacy group for Arab, Muslim and South Asian Americans being targeted post 9/11. In 2012, the White House recognised her as a 'champion of change' for her work. Last year, she was elected to the Washington state senate and she is now aspiring to be a Congresswoman.
For most of these seasoned politicians, the move from state level to federal politics is a natural career progression. They are careful about striking a balance between their Indian roots and American identities. With Indians comprising only 1 per cent of the US population, wooing just them is not going to win any election. “Also, when we stand for a post, we strive to represent the electorate, not just one community,” says Barve.
Yet, making a Jindal-style faux pas is admittedly suicidal. “He irked us all,” says Bhandari. “When an Indian person stands for election, the diaspora supports him irrespective of parties. There are official and unofficial ways of supporting. But he chose to discard his roots. We had even pitched in for Tulsi Gabbard [Congresswoman from Hawaii], as she was the first Hindu to be elected to the Congress, even though she is not of Indian origin.” Gabbard’s parents were attracted to the Hindu philosophy; she is a practising Hindu.
The Indian diaspora is the type of immigration Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump should approve of. Most of them have come legally and comprise the cream of American society. US census data says the Indian diaspora is the most affluent minority in the US, with a median income of $1,00,547 in 2013 as against $51,939, the median income for all Americans. About 33 per cent of doctors in the US are of Indian origin. Around 70 per cent Indian-origin adults have a college degree, making them among the most educated minorities in the US. “We could soon reach the kind of position that the Jewish minority commands,” says G. Buchanna of the Asia North America Business Council. “The US government listens to the Jews.”
Among the younger lot are Ro (originally Rohit) Khanna, 39, from California and Peter Jacob, 30, a social worker from New Jersey, both Democrats running for Congress. Then there is Lathika Mary Thomas, a 37-year-old attorney, contesting on a Republican ticket from Florida. She believes the great American Dream is being tarnished and a dose of Republican rule under a “strong constitutional conservative” is the cure.
California’s attorney general Kamala Harris, Indian from her mother’s side and Jamaican from her father’s, is making a bid for the Senate. Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina and the first Indian American woman to be governor of a US state, is being tipped in some circles as a potential vice presidential candidate for the Republicans.
“As an ethnic group, we have done well in the US. It is now time to make our stamp in the political arena, too,” says Bera. “Having good ties with India is more than an emotional issue. The Indian economy is vibrant right now and, under Obama, we are becoming strategic partners. People like us form the natural bridge.” Bera accompanied Obama to India during his Republic Day visit last year. Barve says he would like to see Indo-US relations be the kind the US has with the UK, and that people of Indian ethnicity were the natural facilitators.
Indian Americans are largely Democrat sympathisers, but there is healthy diversity, too. “From Tea Party-endorsed Republican candidate like Thomas to a [Bernie] Sanders supporter like Jayapal, the field of current candidates spans a wide ideological spectrum,” says Desai.
There is the invisible Indian hand, too, which funds and helps manage campaigns. At last count, there were eight Indian-origin Hillblazers (individuals who have helped raise $1,00,000 or more for the campaign). There are several Indians rooting for Sanders, including Jayapal and Jacob, while a clutch have registered with an organisation called Indian Americans for Trump 2016. Its president, A.D. Amar, insists that they are not into fund-raising, but into awareness building (about Trump’s messages). “I ran for Congress [and lost] in 2008,” says Amar. “I knew Trump as a businessman, but when I saw his electoral agenda, I was pleasantly surprised, they were the same points I had been talking about, too.” He says Trump isn’t anti-immigration, but for quality immigration. The organisation does regular surveys, which say support for Trump is increasing among the Indian community at the cost of Hillary Clinton and Sanders.
Whichever way the tide may turn in the tumultuous months to follow, one thing is certain. The Indian accent in American politics is only going to get more pronounced, Trump’s jibes notwithstanding.