“This is definitely a large concentration of people who are ineligible to vote,” says Bruno who is making his first run for public office as the Republican challenger to Congressman Pete Stark for California’s 13th Congressional District. But Bruno thinks it’s important to show up because “they may know people who can vote.” Republicans and Democrats are taking the Indian-American voter more seriously. Is it because of the deep pockets of community bigwigs like Sabeer Bhatia and Zach Zachariah? Or is it the lesson of Florida 2000 that every voter really counts?
“The voter registration drive at India Day is our concerted effort of going out to the mainstream community,” says Yogi Chugh of the Federation of India Associations. He wants to make sure that the Festival of India is not just about food, dances, and booths from banks and telecommunication giants. “It needs to be also about being a good neighbor,” says Chugh. And good neighbors vote. Or do they?
“Indians become American citizens for all kinds of pragmatic reasons like supporting other family members,” says Vijay Prashad, assistant professor of international studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., and author of The Karma of Brown Folk. “For most of us the passport does not mean participation in the political system.” As evidence he points to the fact that many Indians and Indian civic organizations are more interested in the candidates’ position on South Asian issues like India-Pakistan relations instead of healthcare for immigrants or social security for non-citizens. “People could tell you who the chief minister of Bihar is more easily than their own congressperson,” says Prashad.
This is exactly what Taz Ahmed and Reshma Saujani want to change. Ahmed created SAAVY: South Asian American Voting Youth. Ahmed worked on environmental campaigns and helped organize young people in Washington D.C. “But none of these young people were South Asians,” says Ahmed. So she helped created SAAVY and for 2004, SAAVY aims to target campuses with large South Asian populations like Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, Gainesville. The goal is to register at least 1,000 South Asian voters on campus or the surrounding city. Ahmed admits it’s easier said than done. “They don’t feel it matters if they vote. Voting is uncool,” says Ahmed who says she herself had no real interest in political organizing. For her environmental engineering was the gateway to organizing because the issues were ones she cared passionately about. She is trying to use the same model for SAAVY. “We are trying to find what motivates people to vote, whether it’s affirmative action at University of Michigan, or racial profiling, or hate crimes,” says Ahmed.
Reshma Saujani worked on the Asian-American outreach for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. Now she’s the driving force behind SAKI: South Asians for Kerry. “Our primary objectives are: to mobilize the South Asian-American community behind John Kerry; and to bring the views of South Asians to the forefront,” says Saujani, whose organization helped raise a million dollars at a South Asians for Kerry breakfast in July, boasting names like Vikram Chatwal and Ismail Merchant. Kerry implored the community to encourage other South Asians to vote in November, noting that with a population of over 2.5 million, South Asian-Americans stand to play a crucial role in the 2004 presidential election. SAKI is coordinating a Battleground State Voter Registration Project for the 2004 election. They even have a “Just Vote, Yaar” t-shirt.
Though the community is largely perceived as Democrat-leaning, some of the frontrunners for Congress are Republican. But Democrat or Republican, most of the Indian-American candidates running for office are in areas that have few Indian-American voters. Nikki Randhawa-Haley, a businesswoman, is considered a shoo-in for a heavily Republican state legislature seat in South Carolina, which would make her the only female Indian-American Republican legislator in the nation. Haley says she had no idea that would be the case till Indian papers started calling. But she is thrilled, especially since she didn’t have an easy time growing up Sikh in the South. When her parents moved to Bamberg, South Carolina in 1969 the town had one stoplight. “There were no other Indians in town,” remembers Haley. “You were different whether you were in your class or just in your car.”
On the Democratic side, Swati Dandekar is running a spirited campaign for re-election in Iowa, where she has lived for 32 years. She is not just the first Indian-American in the state house, she is the only Asian-American there. Dandekar is proud she’s been able to set up an Asian-American commission in Iowa, something the community had been pushing for for the past 12 years. She remembers the excitement that was generated as Laotians and Vietnamese came to the state house to watch her debate that bill. But she says she cannot run as the Indian candidate or the Asian candidate. “Ninety-eight percent of the time you have to do what is right for the state of Iowa,” says Dandekar. “Then, when you want one thing for your community, people have a hard time saying no.”
What has been interesting is that for both Dandekar and Haley, it’s their opponents who have played up their Indian heritage. “A lot of (my primary opponent’s) campaign material says I was Indian, born and raised in India, which was not true,” says Haley. “But people are smarter than that. They know it’s not about where you came from but what you bring to the table.” Haley says what she is promising is to bring a business approach to the state house. What she is not promising is to suddenly become an advocate for Indian issues. Given that her district has very few Indian-Americans, Haley says, “The best way to honor Indian-Americans is to be good at my job. I don’t want to have labels, I don’t want people in my district to feel I will be fighting for Indian-Americans and not for them.”
Some have even accused her or downplaying her Indian heritage, preferring to go by her more generic married name, Nikki Haley than the ethnic sounding Nikki Randhawa-Haley. “I use Nikki Randhawa-Haley for everything,” protests the candidate. “The only reason I don’t use it on yard signs because it just doesn’t fit. We needed to keep it short.”
Dandekar, an immigrant, says many of the 11,000 households she canvassed asked when she came to Iowa. What helped her was her work ethic and years on the school board. “I am very proud that I am a minority representing the majority,” says Dandekar. The key, she says, is she regards Iowa as home. “India is Mummy-Daddy’s ghar but Iowa is where I put down my roots. So I must nurture the soil.” It doesn’t mean she is any less Indian. As we speak she is recovering from her son’s wedding where she had American food catered and then cooked Indian food for another 150 people.
Vijay Prashad is not surprised that the candidates often appear to shadow dance around their ethnic backgrounds. “Bobby Jindal never runs as an Indian-American,” he points out. “He is only Indian-American in an Indian setting when he is being feted.”
But in an age where all politicians from Schwarzenegger to Obama want to trumpet their immigrant story, Prashad says it’s realtors and small business owners, rather than politicians, who seem to be running away from their ethnicity and turning Jagdeeshes to Jack. “Otherwise Kumar Barve in Maryland would have changed his name a long time ago,” says Prashad.
Kumar Barve is not up for re-election this year. But the state congressman from Maryland has been waiting for the right opportunity to aim for the House of Representatives. This year, at the Democratic convention, he had a high profile role as one of the vice chairs of the Rules Committee. He is watching the growth of the Indian-American community with interest. “Indian-Americans are registering and voting in larger numbers than ever and contributing more money, too,” says Barve.
The money trail is evident in 2004 as never before. Rohit Khanna, who ran a spirited primary campaign against entrenched Democrat Tom Lantos in San Mateo on the basis of the latter’s support for the war on Iraq, is now executive director of Indo-American Leadership Council formed by the Democratic party with trustees like Talat Hasan and Sabeer Bhatia. Khanna’s charge is to raise $2.5 million before November. On the Republican side, heavy-hitters like Zach Zachariah and R. Vijaynagar, chairman of Indian American Republican Council, are helping raise money for President Bush in the millions. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the addition of trial lawyer John Edwards to the Democratic ticket has galvanized opposition from the influential Indian-American physician community.
But some Indian-American candidates complain they see little of the money, especially if they are non-incumbents running against a well-entrenched opponent. “People feel like they are throwing their money away,” says Ayesha Nariman who, after one bid for office for the 26th congressional district in New York in 2002, abandoned her 2004 bid when the party leadership asked her to step aside for a multimillionaire. But Nariman says she hopes the Indian-American community will realize that their initial support can help a candidate then go to other sources of funding like Emily’s List. “It’s all about that first dollar. Otherwise you might be great on the issues but you remain a lonely fish in the pond,” says Nariman.
“I am not sure it’s the winners we back or the best prepared and the most serious,” says Meera Srinivasan-Schaeffer, board member of the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI), citing IALI’s support for both Republican Jindal, during his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, and Dandekar. “When you are a small organization and finances are sparse you have to pick and choose carefully. It is not the winning as much as the seriousness of the race and, of course, the person’s resilience. Really resilient people do not give up after one or two defeats.”
Prashad sees the power of money as a double-edged sword. “It’s terrible for a community as small as ours to use money to leverage power,” he says. “We are two million people with a fantasy of being as influential as American Jews.” Instead, he fears that if some scandals erupt around one top Indian-American donor, the entire Indian-American community will get tainted, as happened with the Chinese during the Clinton years.
But money certainly makes the powers-that-be sit up and notice and that in its own way can help push Indian-American candidates forward. “The number of people running at local levels is already increasing,” says Sriniviasan-Schaeffer. But she stresses that Indian-Americans need to realize that running for political office is not just about races for Senate, Congress, or the governor’s mansion. “There are other ways to get involved—city hall, various local and state committees, giving money, whether it’s $20 or $100 to Indian political organizations like IALIPAC.” But the main thing she says is to realize that who gets into power is going to affect everything from tuition fees at universities to health coverage.
Deepka Lalwani realized that lesson early on in Milpitas. As a good citizen, she had spent a lot of time volunteering. “You get a pat on the back but you are not in decision-making position,” says Lalwani. While working with the local Jain community who were trying to build a Jain center, she realized how ill-informed city officials were as they questioned community members about the center. “I realized, if you want to make decisions you have to be on the other side,” says Lalwani. Lalwani decided to run for city council.
Lalwani had always been involved in trying to get Indian-Americans politically involved after Congressman Pete Stark told her he never saw Indians at his town hall meetings. Lalwani started organizing events at the homes of Indian-American movers and shakers where she would invite local politicians. “I invited the women because if she comes, she’ll tell her husband and children to come. If you ask just the men, they’ll tell their wives, ‘Oh, honey, I’m going to a meeting,’ and come alone,” laughs Lalwani.
She says the strategy worked. Industry titans like Kanwal Rekhi showed up at events saying, “Deepka, I got tired of saying no to you.” Congressman Mike Honda attended events at Indian restaurants and tucked into the shrimp curry. But despite her extensive connections and solid groundwork, Lalwani lost her 2002 bid for Milpitas City Council. “I realized, being popular doesn’t mean people will cast votes,” says Lalwani. “In 2000, Asian voting rates were about 70 percent. In 2002 they had dropped to 35-39 percent. People said, ‘Achha, achha,’ but didn’t go.”
In 2004 Lalwani is making a determined effort to get out the vote, going house to house, dropping off campaign literature, encouraging people to vote even if it’s by absentee ballot. When people ask her for what difference it will make for them, she says, “Do it for your kid.” She admits it’s sometimes harder asking the same people for money the second time around, but she says one thing the campaign has taught her is to reach out not just to Indian-Americans but also Vietnamese and Filipinos and other minorities through their leaders. “They identify with me better,” says Lalwani. “I have an accent and came in the last 20-30 years like them. Like them we like our parents to live with us and make sure our kids get a top-notch education even if we don’t own a home.”
Like Lalwani, Anjali Lathi also decided to run for local office to work on issues that affected people in her community after years of volunteering for different political campaigns. In her case it was sanitation. She was appointed to the Union Sanitary District board that serves the Tri-City area and decided to run for that office when her term was up. Though the office is officially non-partisan, Lathi, a registered Republican, found to her surprise, Democrats had put up another South Asian-American candidate. “It was sad because it meant we were using up our resources which could be used to elect another Indian-American to office,” says Lathi. The campaigns, which typically should not have been very expensive, ended up costing about $25-30,000. The race caused quite a stir in the Indian-American community. “I was quite overwhelmed by the support of the entire community though there was not as strong an involvement as I might have hoped with things like precinct walking,” says Lathi. “But we are getting there. Perhaps it was easier to not have an interest till now because there weren’t any South Asians running.”
Back at the Fremont India Day Parade, a stone’s throw away from the Republican booth and George Bruno, Mike Carey with the San Mateo Democratic Party is helping register Democrats. Moorthy Krishnan, an Indian silicon chip fabrication engineer who was between jobs approached Carey as he was helping register students at Foothill College and asked how he might help. Then Krishnan suggested the Democrats have a booth at the Festival of India. Carey is thrilled that he took him up on the idea. “I personally helped a young woman who said she did not know why she had waited so long to change her Republican registration. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” says Carey. Some 170 people registered over the weekend and many others asked how they could help in swing states. But for Carey the best part was handing out thousands of Kerry-Edwards campaign stickers. “It was very gratifying to see that so many of them had worn them during their stay at the festival because we were able to see them all again on their way out waving and smiling back at us,” says Carey.
In the end that’s what it’s all about—participating—whether it’s Rahul Mahajan running for governor in Texas on the Green Party ticket, or Swati Dandekar for the Democrats in Iowa or Nikki Randhawa-Haley for the Republicans in Louisiana. But more important for the future of Indian-American political participation are people like Taz Ahmed and Reshma Saujani. Bobby Jindal running in Louisiana might make front-page news in Indian-American publications but is not going to get out the Indian-American vote in Florida. But seeing people like Ahmed and Saujani involved as political organizers might just motivate Indian-Americans to get involved in races to come.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.
Tuesday, Nov. 2. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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South Asian Americans Currently in Elected Office:
Union Sanitary District (Fremont, Calif.) Board of Directors
Harvinder S. Anand
Trustee, Village of Laurel Hollow, NY
El Paso County Water Improvement Dist. 1
District Attorney, San Francisco
Democratic, Maryland House of Delegates Dist. 17
Green, Fresno County Green Party County Council
Democratic, Minnesota State Senate Dist. 52
Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education Dist. 3
Democratic, Iowa State Assembly Dist. 36
Sugar Land (Texas) Councilmember At-Large Position One
Democratic, New Jersey State Assembly Dist. 17
South Asian Americans in the Electoral Fray on Nov. 2, 2004:
Republican, Louisiana Congressional Dist. 1, www.bobbyjindal.com
Milpitas (Calif.), City Council, www.lalwaniforcouncil.org
Eduardo Bhatia Gautier
Pop. Democratic, Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico
Republican, South Carolina House Dist. 8, www.nikkihaley.com
Democratic, Iowa State Assembly Dist. 36, www.swatidandekar.com
Sources: www.ialipac.org, www.iacfpa.org, and the candidates’ websites