The “Desi Power Hour” was a group started by a group of Indian Americans who worked on Capitol Hill. Like The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a mentoring and support organization founded in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs and corporate executives, this group of staffers met to share their experiences and help each other get a leg up in Washington. While they were all desi (children or grandchildren of Indian immigrants), they certainly had no power at the time. Five years after the group’s inception, its humble beginnings are belied by the influential political network they have created.
Today, founding member Anil Mammen is a direct-mail consultant and the go-to guy for those in the community who aspire to political office. Toby Chaudhuri, former director of communications at the Campaign for America’s Future, is a political strategist who helps candidates craft their messages.Gautam Raghavan is deputy White House liaison at the Department of Defense and has helped build a network of young Indian American political donors.
Indians began immigrating to the United States in large numbers about 50 years ago, but just two have been elected to Congress: Dalip Singh Saund in 1954 and Bobby Jindal, who entered Congress in 2004 and became the Governor of Louisiana midway through his second term. In 2008, Ashwin Madia was the only major Indian-American candidate for Congress. Today there are six candidates in the field, not including Nikki Haley, who was recently nominated Governor of South Carolina: Surya Yalamanchili in Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District (CD), Ravi Sangisetty in Louisiana’s 3rd CD, Reshma Saujani in New York’s 14th CD, Raj Goyle in the 4th CD in Kansas, Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania’s 6th CD and Ami Bera in California’s 3rd CD.
“The number of Indian-Americans in areas such as public policy and political science is a good sign that the Indian-Americans are moving beyond being ATMs and power brokers to becoming strong contenders for elected office themselves,” says Anu Natarajan, who is currently in the middle of a competitive race to be elected to the Fremont, CA, city council.
In their paper “Modeling Immigrant Political Incorporation,” authors Hochschild and Mollenkopf demonstrate how immigrant populations become engaged in the politics of their adopted countries.
Individuals willing to invest time, effort and resources start at the grassroots level in Parent Teacher Associations and local city councils. Building on their experiences, and with the support of national organizations like the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI) and the Indian American Conservative Council (IACC), candidates have made inroads into higher political offices.
“The ability to serve, give, and actually shape the way our government works is a huge undertaking. Creating a new generation of engaged, activated, and motivated youth to be part of the process was a humbling and enriching experience,” says Taara Rangarajan, Special Assistant to Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Rice is also member of President Obama’s cabinet and serves a critical role on the National Security Council.
Prior to her current role, Rangarajan served in the White House as Associate Director in the Office of Management and Administration for President Obama.
Before joining the White House, Rangarajan spent 2007-2009 working on the Presidential Campaign as Youth Vote Director and various field and advance roles throughout the country. She also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “These were some life-changing experiences for me and have shaped my belief in the importance of service and giving back to the global community.”
Dev Das, a young grassroots political organizer, adds, “I think Indian-Americans are rising quickly as a political force. What Indians might lack in numbers, they make up for in influence. Indian-Americans have developed a political identity of success and education, and American politics is becoming more and more aware of that identity.”
Das is fascinated by the difference in the way immigrants from India and Indians born and raised on American soil behave as Americans. “I think there is a fundamentally different expectation from life that can be really difficult for Indian-American families to navigate. I think political activism can be a healthy bridge for those two very different experiences to find a space of reconciliation.”
A common thread emerges from the comments of people working in the trenches and running for Congress. They all talk about paving the way for their children and serving as role models for them. These individuals want to create opportunities for the next generation that were provided for them by their immigrant parents.
As the Hochschild and Mollenkopf model explains, we are moving from being activists and representatives to being action-oriented individuals who participate in the political process. Mammen, the political consultant, points out the simple math: Immigrants first came in the 1960s, followed by big spurts in the 70s. Their children, who are now in their 30s and 40s, are finally coming of age to run for office. And those who are born here, Mammen believes, are far more likely to run for political office. “It takes a generation before you develop the economic means and cultural sense of security before you can put yourself in a position where you can make the claim that you can represent these districts,” he says.
Organizations like the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI) and the Indian American Republican Council (IARC), seek to connect, support, and invest in Indian
Americans aspiring to a political career. IALI promotes Indian American Democrats nationally and within the Democratic Party and invests in promising candidates.
Shefali Razdan Duggal is a national Board Member of the Indian American Leadership Initiative and a member of the Democratic National Committee Asian American Leadership Council. She is also a developing member of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “Speaker’s Cabinet,” focusing on Democratic fundraising, and is currently on the Finance Committee for the Kamala Harris for California Attorney General Campaign.
When asked why she is engaged in the political process in so many different ways, she says, “For me the single most important reward is the feeling that my efforts are in some indirect way having a tangible, positive impact. Being able to focus my efforts around causes and people whom I feel passionate about is extremely fulfilling. I also hope that my involvement will help encourage my children to see the value of becoming involved with the political process, irrespective of their ultimate political beliefs.”
While Indian American candidacies are on the rise, desi engagement with the grassroots political process is still in its nascent stages. Say Shobana Ramamurthi, community organizer for Organizing For America, President Obama’s grassroots organization, “People do not make the connection between electing members of congress and getting the laws they want passed. They don’t understand the legislative process—laws have to pass the House and the Senate and only then does it get to the President. And it is so hard to get Indian Americans involved. They are busy with their lives and their children’s education. We are not just a minority population anymore; we are in the mainstream, and we need to have a voice.” Her volunteer pool is largely non-Indian.
Pragati Grover, candidate for the Saratoga City Council and currently a member of the Saratoga School Board, echoes these sentiments. “The biggest challenge is getting people to go out and vote in a mid-term. Only 20% of Indian American eligible voters actually vote. We need to emulate the model of Chinese Americans, who have been very successful in recent years in mobilizing their community to be engaged in the process.”
Grover also finds that Indians are just too caught up with their daily lives to actively engage in the process.
“But the silver lining is the next generation,” says Ramamurthi. “At a voter registration event at the Fremont temple one weekend in October, Indian American high school students connected with desi visitors and persuaded them to sign up.”
One of the volunteers was Rishabh Wason, a freshman at American High School in Fremont, CA. Rishabh spent six hours one weekend signing up new voters. Neither Rishabh nor his parents are U.S. citizens, but they follow politics. “Apart from the fun of meeting new people, it was a good experience in the political process,” says Rishabh. He is keen to become a citizen in the next four years so he can vote as soon as he comes of age.
Strength in Numbers
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there were around 600,000 foreign-born Indian-Americans, of whom 34.3% had been naturalized. These numbers increased substantially in the past two decades, as more Indian-Americans immigrated during the technology boom and chose to undergo the naturalization process.
Today, it is believed that there are over two million Indian Americans in the United States, making them a formidable voting force, thanks to their higher than average level of education and income. Indian Americans have traditionally exercised political influence through their campaign contributions, and some are actively involved in fundraising efforts for political candidates on the federal, state, and local levels. But that is slowly changing as desis have begun taking a more direct role in politics in recent years. Says Natarajan, “I have several Indian Americans working on the campaign, including several friends who are working on a campaign for the very first time. This includes high school students, first and second generation Indian-Americans and senior citizens.”
Says Ash Kalra, San Jose City Council member, “It is important for us both in terms of empowerment as well as a responsibility to our new home to contribute our talents to community service. Public service, whether it be as someone who works for a government agency and helps to craft policy or via elected office, is an area where we should feel an obligation to participate. After all, the greatest source of wealth our parents and grandparents have given many of us is the ability to choose a career we are passionate about rather than being confined by fiscal or other considerations.”
Puneet Ahluwalia, the Republican Indian Committee’s Political Director, adds, “While Indian Americans are putting in the time and making their mark in a variety of fields, they are just beginning to spread their wings in politics. The legacy one should leave for future generations can be learned from the Jewish community. We need to shoulder the responsibility of the fact that we are role models and leaders in the making. The current world situation and political climate in our country make it imperative for Indian Americans and other minority communities to play an important role in mainstream politics.”
“I want future generations to understand the importance of staying involved and informed. Whether you go into politics or not, the way our government works depends on participation from citizens voting, serving, and engaging with their elected officials,” says Rangarajan.
Indian Americans need to continue to vote, to speak up on issues that matter not just to our ethnic community, but the larger communities in which we live. We also need to be participating at a grassroots level—knocking on doors, writing letters, and activating our community to stay in involved in both local and national elections. Working on a grassroots level is a vital part of understanding how any movement gets started. It can be challenging, but is probably most rewarding way to organically bring about change.
Are you engaged?
Sujatha Suresh believes in the political process and has co-chaired fundraisers for candidates like Kamala Harris in the Bay Area. She is involved in fundraising for the American India Foundation and the South Asian Heart Center.
Indian Americans in the White House
Preeta D. Bansal is member and past chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Rachana Bhowmick is the Director of Special Projects.
Aneesh Chopra is the Federal Chief Technology Officer
Neel Kashkari is interim Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
Vivek Kundra is the Chief Information Officer
Pradeep Ramamurthy is the Director of Response Policy.
Rajiv Shah is current Administrator of United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Sonal Shah is the Director at the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation
The President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders includes three Indian Americans: Farooq Kathwari, Amardeep Singh and Sunil Puri.
Indian American Republicans
An exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2004 found that 74% percent of South Asians (predominantly Indian Americans)identified themselves as Democratic, the highest of any Asian group. Just 9 percent were registered Republicans and another 16 percent listed themselves as Independent. But Indian American Republicans are, nevertheless, a rising force.
The Indian American Republican Council, IARC, was founded by Dr Raghavendra Vijayanagar. After a decade in that position, he handed over the reins to Dino Teppara, former chief of staff to Congressman Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican. Teppara had support from other second-generation Indian-American Republicans such as Suhail Khan and Ajay Kuntamukkala, who both served in the George W. Bush administration. Current Indian American Republicans in active politics include Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana, Nikki Haley, Candidate for Governor of South Carolina, Jody Venkatesan, Candidate for State Senate in Maryland and Harry Walia who is running for office in Florida.
Indian American Republicans have now established a political action committee, the Republican Indian Committee. Their rationale for forming the RIC is to coordinate the fundraising efforts of Indian-American Republicans and to elect Republicans who believe in limited government and recognize that businesses create jobs. One of RIC’s priorities is to support Indian-American Republican candidates who run for political office and unite Indian American business leaders as one voice in support of lower taxes, streamlined regulation, and accelerated exports.
Puneet Ahluwalia, a decade old Republican, got involved in politics because of the events of September 11th. The fear factor from the repercussions to Indian Americans who were mistaken for Taliban spurred him to join the political process and make a difference. Puneet is the Republican Indian Committee’s (RIC) National Political Director.
The “soft touch” aspect of the Republican party’s reach into the Indian American community frustrates Ahluwalia, who works as an ambassador of the Indian American community to ensure that young Republicans are empowered to serve in positions in the Government. “I want to work with elected and political leaders and fight for the right to sit on the kitchen table and not stand in the foyer looking in.”
Up-and-Coming Desi Politicos
For over 15 years, Ami Bera has served the Sacramen
to region as a physician and educator. When asked where his political aspirations stemmed from, Dr. Bera says, “I am proud to be amongst the number of Indian Americans getting involved in politics because the values of our community—opportunity, service, and dedication to community—are American values as well, and I think we can play an important role in moving our country forward. Bera is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in California’s 3rd District.
Reshma Saujani is a dedicated Democrat, a community activist, a Yale University legal scholar, and an attorney in New York City. But first and foremost, she is the daughter of political refugees whose story embodies the promise of life in America. “My parents, originally of Indian origin, barely escaped the brutal regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Forced to flee during the government’s violent persecution of foreigners, my family lost everything. But amnesty in America gave them a chance to rebuild.” Reshma Saujani failed in her bid to challenge veteran Democrat Carolyn Maloney in a New York party primary. But as a first-time candidate Saujani, 34, a former hedge fund lawyer, posed a serious challenge to Maloney.
Jody Venkatesan is the State Senate candidate for District 13 in Maryland. “I’ve been a lifelong Republican,” says Jody, who started working on campaigns in upstate New York at a young age. Recruited to be the President of his local Home Owner’s Association (HOA) by his Indian American neighbors, Jody got tax assessments on their homes reduced by over 20%. His success with the HOA convinced him to make a run for State Senate.
To Jody, it is an exciting time to be an Indian-American. “Who would have thought? Outside of India, where else could I go and have a chance with a name like Venkatesan?” he muses. “We have to look around and see all of the Indian-American doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, scientists, financiers, mathematicians, and now political leaders. I believe Indian-Americans are a natural fit in assimilating into the American culture because of their love of democracy, familiarity with Western contract law, English language skills, and the ability to represent a growing global middle class.”
Ways to Get Involved
To get started, check out the following organizations or contact your local candidates’ campaign offices.
Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI): http://18.104.22.168/~ialeade/
Indian American Republican Council: http://iarcnational.org/
Indo-American Democratic Organization: http://www.iado.org/
Democratic clubs: http://sccdp.org/clubs.php
Organizing For America: http://barackobama.com