There I was, doing a precinct walk in a small suburban town in Northern California, armed with campaign flyers, a badge, and lawn signs sitting in the trunk of my car. My mind flashed back to a nostalgic moment in Bombay when a bunch of us 6th graders watched an election jeep go by, interrupting our cricket match, and raising a flurry of dust on a humid summer day.
There were election signs all over our town—slogans imprinted on boundary walls and light poles. The wannabe politician went by, waving and signing “Namaste.” The intention was to display humility, an effect somewhat marred by the “campaign team” standing by menacingly. It was an impressive spectacle, but politics could get ugly and even outright dangerous in those days. It was not surprising that politics and I were poles apart.
Since then I have been a city commissioner, campaign manager, and consider myself completely entrenched in local city issues in my city of Saratoga. What led to this transition?
Why did I get involved in local politics?
The contrast between Indian and American politics is glaring, in spite of both being large democracies. I have discovered that politics is palatable in the United States and getting involved to make a difference is not that difficult.
Following the American dream was the mantra for many of us who came to this country after engineering school. The American political system was far from my mind as I focused on acing my grades, maintaining my research assistantship, winning season tickets to watch UCONN basketball, and listening to Aerosmith.
I had just defended my Masters thesis in 1992 and was floundering around as I worked on my Ph.D. when I bumped into a presidential campaign stop in Storrs, CT. Jerry Brown, the current Governor of California, was then running in the Democratic primaries. It was my first introduction to a political rally, and I noted the interest his arrival had raised on my college campus. The auditorium was packed with students. In those days I was the epitome of apathy for all things political, but I was intrigued.
In 1993, when I interned at a local company, I helped an Indian American friend lobby his state and local representatives to get his wife permission to immigrate to the United States a tad faster than the process mandated. I learned a very important lesson; our locally elected representatives are accessible and will listen.
Fast forward a few years to my move to the Silicon Valley. As a newly anointed U.S. citizen, I wanted to get “involved” and understand the process. I heard about an Indian American candidate who was running for city council in my town. In a small town like Saratoga, being part of the election campaign seemed very feasible and I felt that the proceedings would be run with decorum. I rolled up my sleeves and joined the campaign team. Over the next few weeks, we strategized and brain-stormed ways to get our candidate elected. It was a little bit like the one-eyed dude leading the blind, but we leveraged our contacts. After all, it takes a village to win an election. The process was very energizing, and I had tasted blood. As a result I developed an interest in Saratoga’s local issues. Every week, I opened up the local Saratoga News, poring over happenings, issues, and letters. I found that I truly cared for my adopted town.
That experience eventually stoked an interest to apply for a city commission position. I was probably more surprised than anyone else when I was appointed Saratoga’s Planning Commissioner. I learned about Saratoga’s land use issues along with the complexity of local politics. I met a fellow commissioner, Susie Nagpal, who had decided to make a run for city council. Susie and I crafted a road-map for her campaign together. I ran a lot of the rudimentary behind-the-scenes, day-to-day campaign tasks. I helped organize the precinct walk, the campaign retail presence, and campaign sign placements. Our inevitable victory turned out to be a bitter-sweet memory as Susie slowly succumbed to lung cancer. But Susie was a trail-blazer, and her run has opened doors for many Indian Americans in subsequent years. In the next election, Pragati Grover decided to run for the city council spot. As her campaign manager I worked across many teams and groups to run a clean and, I believe, exemplary campaign. Recently, I have been also involved with Kathleen King’s Santa Clara County County Supervisor run, and am supporting Ro Khanna in his endeavors.
As I juggle a tech job in the valley with a young family’s daily run-around, my hands are full. People wonder why I do it. My friends ask me, “What’s your agenda? I insist that Indians need to be politically involved. I point to the Jewish community which is much more established in this country politically. Their involvement has not only built political clout, but is also creating synergy between the homeland and the motherland. I can understand why a political agenda does not sound attractive to many of us caught in the rat race. But that attitude eventually leads to apathy!
Take the example of Measure Q that was a hot button for the 2010 Saratoga elections. In a nutshell, Measure Q aimed to restrict commercial buildings to two stories in Saratoga. There was a lot of posturing from both sides, but I was dismayed to see my friends pick one side of the argument or another without taking the time to truly understand. Are we any different than the illiterate segment of the voters in India who cast their vote blindly? When an Indian American runs for elections, we often hear him/her declare “I am not banking on the Indian vote,” as only a small percentage of Indian Americans vote. Is that something we should be proud of? If your excuses is, “I just don’t know where to vote,” or “I don’t have the time to vote,” have you considered registering as an absentee voter? Makes the voting process a breeze.
So here is food for thought: If we all pass on this political apathy to future generations, how do we see our Indian community evolving, integrating into America? What is the long term impact of making the wrong election choices by not being informed, or by not voting at all? For us to truly leave our mark, encourage the next generation to embark on careers in public service, help them make the most of the opportunities available to them, get our voices heard, and position Indians well for the future, we need to shirk our political apathy and get involved. The time is now!
Rishi Kumar lives in Saratoga, California with his wife and two boys. Rishi works in the tech industry in software sales. In his spare time, he loves being involved in city issues and local politics. He also produces a TV show called “Saratoga’s Got Talent.”