“I was aware of people like Dalip Singh” says Satveer Chaudhary, “I didn’t know much about him and still don’t. But I am aware.” Satveer Chaudhary is 31 years old. Saund would have been over 100 if he were alive today. But across that generation gap, Chaudhary is clearly aware that he is following in Saund’s footsteps. To this date, there have only been four Indian-Americans elected to legislative office in the United States. The first was Congressman Saund. Chaudhary is another—the Minnesota state representative has now become Minnesota’s youngest and first Asian-American state senator.
Kumar Barve has been in Maryland’s House of Delegates for over a decade now and is now setting a record as the longest-serving Indian-American in elected office.
The other Indian-American elected to office is Nimi McConigley. She grew up in Madras and was setting up All India Radio’s youth division Yuvavani in Delhi when she met her geologist husband-to-be. His posting to Wyoming led to her moving there. In 1994 she ran for the Wyoming legislature on a Republican ticket and became the first Asian-Indian woman elected to public office. Since then she has also made a run for a Senate seat and an open house seat.
There are a lot of milestones to share between the four of them. As the Indian-American community becomes more visible in the U.S., its financial clout openly courted by both parties, the stories of these legislators and what drove them to stray from the path of doctor-lawyer-engineer becomes more and more compelling. Ironically they all found success not in Artesia or Queens with their rows of Indian restaurants and saree shops but in areas where the Indian population is fairly insignificant.
Nimi McConigley is not too surprised. To win in American elections, she feels you “need to run as an American serving the interests of all Americans, not just as a narrow ethnic candidate.” Satish Korpe, executive director of IAPFPE-VA (Indian American Forum for Political Education) says we just don’t have the numbers like the Jewish population or the Italian Americans to be a very significant voting bloc. So the ones who did run “did it on their own leadership qualities by convincing their party leaderships.” It had little to do with delivering the Indian vote.
In the 1940s Dalip Singh Saund formed the Indian Association of America to make Indians eligible for citizenship. His American wife had lost her citizenship by marrying him. Though he had a doctorate he could not get teaching positions because school principals were afraid that white students would not sit in his class. He ended up as a lettuce farmer and then a distributor of chemical fertilizers in California’s Imperial Valley. Eventually President Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, which permitted citizenship to Asian Indians. After becoming a citizen in 1949, Saund became very active with the Democratic Party.
Satveer Chaudhary started to run for student government and later on for party offices because he liked “the deliberative process, the debate, and most importantly the impact that we were having on other people’s lives.” But he knew that he did not look like the people he was seeking to represent. He says that probably accounted for his “extra involvement and extra preparation in terms of community involvement with groups like the Lions Club, volunteering, serving on commissions, writing letters to the editor and working on campaigns.”
Kumar Barve’s path to electoral office was similar. The first office he ever ran for was home room representative in Junior High School, which he won. “In fact,” he laughs, “I have lost very few elections. The only one I can think of was when I ran for Senior Class president in High School. We had six people competing one of whom was my best friend—the idiot probably bled some votes off of me.”
Both Chaudhary and Barve were born and raised in the U.S. Yet their last names point to the foreignness of their origins. Chaudhary can be quite a political mouthful for whitebread middle America. But he says, “Even though they may not have been able to pronounce Chaudhary, my God they sure as hell remembered it. And that type of attention to one’s name in a local race is absolutely invaluable.” However Satish Korpe feels that as a melting pot of the world, Americans are not so much bothered by your last name as they are by your accent. “People have the bias that with the accent you bring your preconceived notions and are not a real American. The second generation like Kumar Barve have a big advantage in that sense.”
Nimi McConigley did not have that accent advantage. She says after 25 years with an American husband she is still the most desi looking woman you could meet with her long hair in a braid, dark skin, going to church in her Kanjeevaram sari. Her husband’s U.S. posting was meant to be a short stopover en route to Europe. She chose Wyoming because she had seen a picture of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “It looked like Switzerland,” she laughs. “I thought it would be like having a vacation in Switzerland.” But Casper was not Jackson Hole. It was a cowboy town in an oil boom. A dismayed McConigley refused to unpack her boxes or even find an apartment for the longest time in case they got stuck in Casper.
In the end, when opportunity for a transfer came, it was she who did not want to leave. In those six months she had found a community where she felt needed. She started volunteering with the local church. She helped start a hospice and a film society that brought Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray to starved audiences. She became the news director of the local CBS affiliate. When she eventually decided to run for office, she had almost two decades of community involvement behind her and a familiar face from both her news shows as well as her weekly garden show—Nimi’s Garden. “I went to every house in my district. I’d knock on the door to talk politics,” she remembers, “and people would say oh, I have this plant, can you tell me what’s wrong with it. I literally could lay hands on a plant and get a vote.”
However ethnicity was not entirely a non-issue. Satveer Chaudhary remembers his opponent kept saying, “he wanted to represent the common man, that Joe American is sick and tired of college educated aristocrats.” But he points out that for the Republican party, already perceived as being unfriendly to minorities, it would be a “serious calculated risk” to use his ethnicity as a campaign issue.
The only time Nimi McConigley was directly confronted with her ethnicity was when she wore her sari to work one day. A reporter commented that some members were uncomfortable. She confronted the speaker who admitted that some members thought it was unAmerican. McConigley calmly asked “If someone can wear a cowboy shirt or a Swiss blouse why is my dress not American?” The speaker then said some people thought it was not Christian. McConigley, a Christian by upbringing, said, “I don’t know what Christianity has to do with my dress. And in my opinion Christ was an Asian man who wore a long robe and my sari is closer to that than your three piece suit and tie.” Realizing how embarrassing the story could be for Wyoming’s image, the governor soon had his picture taken with McConigley in a sari. “The difference is if an Indian woman is proud of her heritage and does not feel apologetic because she looks different,” she stresses “then that comes through very quickly and people respect that.”
When in 1950, Dalip Singh Saund ran for judgeship in Westmoreland, a man taunted him publicly
“Doc, tell us, if you are elected, will you furnish us turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?”
Saund won but was disqualified from serving because he had not been a citizen long enough. He won again in 1952 and served as a judge till 1957. He then ran for Congress exhorting the people to prove that prejudice and discrimination did not exist in America. His opponent Jacqueline Odlum was the wife of a multi-millionaire, a celebrity aviator, had vice President Nixon campaigning for her. But through grass roots campaigning with homemade billboards, Saund won by a 3% margin. The first Asian-American in congress, he represented Imperial Valley for three terms.
Yet despite people like Saund and Barve, the popular image of Indian-Americans as apolitical persists. Satish Korpe says, “It took us a long time to think of ourselves as Americans. We first had the need to find a job, establish ourselves then the car, house, and children came along. We never thought we needed to get involved in local politics.” Perhaps because most Indian-mericans immigrated after the Civil Rights struggle they do not have a fire in their belly like African-Americans did. The racial exclusion acts that confronted Saund are a distant memory. Korpe adds, “We always assume that when we come to a new country things will be harder. And we tend to accommodate rather than fight. But then you find things are not so bad. And in this country, it’s never bad for an average person—especially when you make a direct prosperity comparison to what you could afford in India. When you reach above average you start feeling the pressure of the glass ceiling.”
Kamala Edwards, president of the Indian American Leadership Council says, “I think we thought we did not need to be represented. But look at what happened to the Indians in East Africa where Indians had lived for years and were suddenly thrown out. What opened the eyes of some Indian-Americans here is how some of our H1 visa people in Texas were handcuffed. Now many more young people in the 25-35 age bracket come and say we are feeling the pressure of discrimination at work and don’t know where to go. There is no organization like NAACP to stand up for us and to go to bat for us.”
The organizations that do exist have their own problems. Satish Korpe says a problem is that the 50-plus age group in charge of many organizations “treat them like a club and once a person gets a position they tend to stay there as long as they can which turns off younger people. Unlike the Chinese or the Jewish people we have over a half a dozen national organizations fighting with each other rather than creating a foundation for our children to build on.” Kamala Edwards points out that often the main office bearers spend a lot more time getting favors for their children. She points out that IALC tries to make opportunities like internships in Washington more available to all Indians and organizes town hall meetings like the recent White House initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. “Most importantly,” she adds, “we need to celebrate our own and recognize people in our community who have achieved.”
Nimi McConigley could not agree more when she remembers how disappointed she felt that as a viable senate candidate she did not even get a chance to address the AAPI (American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin) convention. “Even worse,” she recalls, “they had a panel on emerging role of Asian women in politics with some American academics, Germaine Greer, police office Kiran Bedi and some others. And here I was—the first Indian woman elected to a legislature in the U.S. and running for the Senate and I was not part of it.” What shocked her more was that the presidential elections for the AAPI seemed to hinge on a single issue—one candidate was Punjabi and the other was Telegu.
But Kumar Barve feels, “Every ethnic group has divisions—we are not unique. Sen. Paul Sarbanes told me about descendants of one island in Greece. The ones from the north part and the south part only recently decided to have a civic organization that encompassed both! But the Greek community has leaders like him and Paul Tsongas who are above the fray and can unite the community. That’s why it’s so important for us to have people in congress.” Satish Korpe however admits he does not know, “if working as a block is necessarily the way to success. Mahatma Gandhi said he is not against Tatas and Birlas. Rather he would like to see millions of Tatas and Birlas in India. Perhaps as individual achievers in business, entrepreneurship, politics, IT, we can be a strong community rather than waiting to get the numbers.” Satveer Chaudhary has felt that strength in his own campaign. He says though Indian-Americans may be slow to get involved, when they do they are hardcore and “my army of Indian volunteers literally smoked the competition.”
Certainly Indians seem to have the big bucks if not the big numbers. We hear about Sabeer Bhatia’s big fundraiser for Al Gore. Or Dr. Vijaynagar, the thoracic surgeon and fundraiser close to George W. Bush. In a classic case of photo opportunity politicking, the donations often go to the top of the ticket—some of the allure might be to have that photograph with Bill Clinton hanging in your office. Nimi McConigley chuckles as she remembers a conversation between two Indians when she went to an Indian function during her run for the senate.
“One asked ‘Who’s she?'”
“The other said ‘I don’t know. She’s running for the senate.'”
‘Oh really? Is she going to win?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Hmm. Arre bhai let’s take a picture anyway.'”
In congress Saund warned against giving foreign aid only to central governments, which, he thought, invited corruption and held up the Foreign Assistance bill. Indian Prime Minister Nehru in the midst of his own negotiations with Punjab told J.K. Galbraith with delight, “One Sikh can hold up the government of the United States. I have 40 million of them.” Saund wrote the book
Congressman from India as well as My Mother India, which was published by the Stockton gurdwara, as a response to Katherine Mayo’s infamous book Mother India
. But his philosophy is best summed up by his quote: “There is no room in the United States of America for second-class citizenship.” His inspirations—Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi.
In the end however change has to come from within. The community has to realize how much decisions made in Washington and in state legislatures and city councils and school boards affect our lives and the lives of our children. Nimi McConigley feels we need a mindset change, “Indian-Americans are largely just interested in promoting their own interest. And so they are not out there working for the betterment of everybody in the community, but concentrating on issues like licensing for Indian doctors or immigration regulations that would help us.”
Indian-Americans have traditionally run on Democratic tickets. Kumar Barve says, “You should run for office in the party you feel comfortable in. On the issues that really matter Indian-Americans tend to ally with the Democrats—religious freedom, not using tax payer money for parochial schools, public schooling. The Republican Party used to be a place that was inhospitable to people of color. But I think (and this strays from the party line) that that day has passed.” Even McConigley says her views on many social issues are closer to the Democratic party than the right wing of the Republicans. But in a Republican state like Wyoming she felt she could make more difference with her vote, “by being in the party of leadership, by being able to change things from within.”
Satveer Chaudhary sees a lot of hope in the growing slate of Indian-American candidates in the 2000 elections. He would encourage all those candidates, even the ones who lost, to run for more local offices like school board, city council, mayor. But he cautions, “It’s good that Indians are running but we should refuse to run as sacrificial lambs. I did notice that most of the candidates were running in districts with high index of the opposite party. We should not be used by both political parties for our monetary muscle in seats that the parties know they cannot win.”
Chaudhary is moving on to the State Senate. He thinks of all the Indian Americans out there, Kumar Barve has the best shot at a seat in the U.S. House. But in politics it’s all a matter of timing. As Nimi McConigley found out when her last run for political office was waylaid by open-heart surgery and then complications two weeks before election day. As soon as she recovered from that, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. She admits “I wasn’t even sure if I would be around to see this Christmas but here I am and my cancer is miraculously in remission. Maybe this spring I can take a hard look at what I am going to do.”
Perhaps one of them will soon be following Dalip Singh Saund’s footsteps to Washington. Kumar Barve says, “I wish I could have met Congressman Saund. I would have loved to pick his brains. The great tragedy of his career was because of his stroke he did not have the opportunity to create footprints.”
But Kumar Barve does. As do Satveer Chaudhary and Nimi McConigley. And Renu Lobo and Peter Matthews and Tahir Bhatti and Ramakrishnan Nagarajan and Yash Agarwal and Gangaharappa Nanjundappa all running for public office in a community near you.
While contesting for a fourth term Dalip Singh Saund was incapacitated from a stroke in 1964. He died on April 22, 1973 in Hollywood, CA.
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.