Is success in the political realm a pre-requisite for us Indian Americans to truly entrench ourselves in America and perhaps get the accolades and recognition for our contributions to American society?
Shefali Razdan Duggal, 39, political activist and fundraiser phenom opines that “for a demographic that has been so successful in so many different areas—business, medicine, law, the arts (to name just a few)—we have been very underrepresented politically in the United States. And this often means our voices aren’t heard when it comes to key policy issues and decisions.”
Expectations are high for this upcoming 2012 elections with a record thirteen Indian-American candidates that were contesting for Congress, prior to the primaries. Perhaps there is a strong urge to make the next generation build upon their own success in America or perhaps it is a natural inclination of the new generation wanting to supersede their parents.
Did I say 13 Indian Americans running for Congress? There were thirteen Indian American candidates initially running and this list was whittled down to seven after the primaries. The seven candidates still left in the race are Dr. Ami Bera (D), CA-07, Ranjit “Ricky” Gill (R), CA-09, Tulsi Gabbard (D), HI-02, Dr. Syed Taj (D), MI-11, Upendra Chivukula (D), NJ-07, Dr. Manan Trivedi (D), PA-06 and Jack Uppal CA 04. So, lets meet our seven candidates:
Tulsi Gabbard, 31 years old, was born in American Samoa to a Hindu mother and a Catholic father and follows the spiritual lineage of the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya. At the age of 21, Gabbard was elected to the Hawaii State Legislature where she served on the education, tourism, and economic development committees. She resigned from office to volunteer for the medical operations unit of the U.S. National Guard and served in Iraq and Kuwait—two separate deployments.
As the primaries played out in August 2012, Gabbard overcame an early 45-point deficit, to pull into a dead heat with the former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, two months before the Democratic primary—eventually winning by 21 points. Given the heavy democratic base of the 2nd Congressional District, a win in November is virtually assured for Gabbard.
Gabbard acknowledged the support from the community in a speech, stating, “I am so grateful for the Indo-American community who supported me in this election. They are very excited and inspired by the fact that there could actually be a Hindu serving in Congress.”
Asked about her Hindu beliefs and practices, Gabbard explains, “I am a practicing Hindu, a Karma Yogi, a core part of who I am is service and serving others. These are principles common to all faiths—of love, compassion, openness—all people are served, irrespective of background and I will seek to continue to do that.”
Gabbard’s key agenda items are the economy and the environment. “I will work hard to ensure that diverse communities in the community are well served, freedom of religion is upheld.” Gabbard has a clear cut view of public service. “I believe our leaders in Congress should work humbly to improve the quality of people’s lives instead of to increase their own wealth, reputation, or power. The primary concern of a public servant who is motivated out of love for the Absolute Whole is finding ways to be of service to the people. This is the spirit of karma yoga I want to bring to Washington.”
Gabbard’s campaign received support from the Indian community, including U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC), Hindu American Foundation, and many esteemed members of the Indian American community. It will be a historic day for Indian Americans to finally see her elected.
This is what USINPAC chair Sanjay Puri had to say about Gabbard’s incredible win in the primary “… her passion for her constituents, her state and country were infectious and you could feel that I was talking to someone who was in this for the right reasons. The other striking thing about her was the candid manner in which she spoke about her beliefs and faith given that so many politicians avoid it for the fear of it being a liability for them. USINPAC has supported her from that point onwards by connecting her to the Indian American community and also providing her campaign contributions.”
Upendra Chivukula, 61 years old, started his political career elected to the Township Council of Franklin Township, New Jersey. In 2002 Chivukula was elected to the New Jersey Legislature in the 17th Legislative District. Chivukula was the first Indian-American elected to the New Jersey Legislature, and only the fourth Indian-American to be elected to a state legislature.
Chivukula believes that Washington is broken and the country is polarized and is seeking to make a difference. In early August, Upendra Chivukula’s campaign announced that they outraised the opponent, Leonard Lance significantly. Chivukula does have strong credentials having come up the ranks, and the voters and donors are certainly noticing that.
Chivukula feels that the Indian American community needs empowerment. “When it comes to politics, we are lagging behind.” Upendra is invested in the task of addressing issues near and dear to the Indian American community like immigration, fiscal responsibility and job creation.
He has resided in the state of New Jersey for over 30 years.
Dr. Ami Bera, 47 years old, is a second generation Indian American, running for Congress. Bera has served the Sacramento, California region as a physician and an educator. He has been the Assistant Dean for Admissions at the U.C. Davis School of Medicine. His opponent, a Republican incumbent, Dan Lungren was elected with a 50.1% majority in the last election while facing off against Bera and is now again running against his familiar foe.
Back in 2010, Bera got a lot of visibility as he outraised this same incumbent six quarters in a row. Karl Rove had to jump in to help secure Lungren’s win—but it was widely regarded as poor performance by the incumbent. The new district that Bera is running from had Jerry Brown winning by a 5% margin—the tilt is definitely bluer, and Bera feels that this will play in his favor. He is currently on a fund-raising streak, yet again, outraising his opponent.
According to Bera, “corporate money is a challenge. We should have a system to have campaign finance reform.” Bera’s focus areas if elected would be unemployment and diversifying the economy. Bera’s key to this win is a very active volunteer and donor base.
This rematch in East Sacramento County’s 7th Congressional District is going to be a race to watch.
Manan Trivedi, 38, is also a second generation Indian-American physician and Iraq war veteran. He is running as a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s 6th district and is challenging incumbent Rep. Jim Gerlach.
Manan Trivedi was a Battalion Surgeon for the 1st Battalion 5th Regiment Marine Corps Infantry Battalion, and his unit was one of the first ground forces to walk into Iraq in March 2003. For his service, Trivedi earned the Combat Action Ribbon, the Navy Commendation Medal, and his unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Battle hardened, he came to a very important realization. “I never supported the invasion of Iraq. We did not find any WMD and this is an example of failed leadership. I followed orders. History now looks back and it is quite clear that that our decision was faulty.”
Trivedi went on to serve as Health Policy Advisor to the Navy Surgeon General. He is a primary care physician today. Practicing in economically ravaged Redding, PA, where he grew up. Trivedi’s race is being focused on in democratic circles, as an opportunity to defeat a Republican incumbent. The new district was won by President Obama, and tends to lean towards Democrats. Trivedi may have a pretty good chance.
Uppal is running as a Democrat against a veteran incumbent, Elk Grove Republican Tom McClintock, from the 4th Congressional district in California and looking to overcome a 28 point deficit by targeting independents and undecided voters.
Uppal, a Ph.D. in Chemistry from M.I.T., is no career politician like his GOP opponent and incumbent. But his background in high-tech, semi-conductor industry and managing a large sized budget at Intel, may be what the voters need to give Uppal a chance.
A second generation Indian American, Uppal became a naturalized citizen when he turned 18. He is running for the U.S. Congress because, in his words, “I want the promise of the American Dream to be a reality for others as it has been for my family and me.”
Uppal is running in a predominant Republican district, but his strategy to run as a moderate Democrat, should give him a strong chance. “I have a message that will resonate with voters. That is how I will win.”
Ranjit Ricky Gill
Ranjit “Ricky” Gill, at 25 is a rising Republican star. Born and raised in Lodi, California, Gill was appointed to the California State Board of Education as a student representative in 2004. He was the youngest member of the administration.
The Republican party, enthused by his candidacy, identified Gill as a “Young Gun” candidate and he was even given a speaking opportunity at the Republican National Convention.
His youth, while inspiring the Gen-X and Yers, is also held against him. He has never held a full time job, having graduated from law school recently. His website indicates that he is a small business owner and a family farmer. Gill’s parents who immigrated from India and Uganda are both obstetricians who run a vineyard and an RV park. Gill has been remarkably successful with tapping into the support from the Lodi Sikh community.
Gill has his hands full running against a Democrat incumbent Jerry McNerney who is seeking his fourth term in office from California’s 9th congressional district. According to The Washington Post correspondent, Rachel Weiner, Gill’s campaign focuses on education, immigration and agriculture and he declined to endorse Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.
Syed Taj, another physician by profession, won the democratic primaries for the 11th congressional district in Michigan.
Taj came to America via the United Kingdom where he had first immigrated to in search of a postgraduate degree in medicine. In 1982, Taj moved to the United States and began his career as a medical resident. He worked his way up, finally becoming the Chief of Medicine at Oakwood Hospital and Medical Center in Dearborn.
Taj serves on the Canton Township Board of Trustees as well as the Canton Community Foundation and the Wayne County Senior Alliance.
Taj is convinced of his “crossover appeal” as he is getting ready to compete against Tea Party Republican, Kerry Bentivolio, a teacher and a reindeer farmer.
Taj’s campaign is expectedly centering on health care, but also education, jobs and social security. Taj is strangely the underdog in a Republican leaning district of Michigan, that has typically been going blue the last few presidential elections, but Taj believes that moderates from both parties are likely to support him.
What do these Indian American political contenders and political figures feel about the community’s support for them?
According to Anu Natarajan,Vice Mayor of Fremont, “Chinese Americans have been good with pipeline, mentorship programs. Indian American candidates are not there yet.”
Chivukula calls it a question of attitude: “The Indian community has a ‘aaya ram, gaya ram’ attitude. Running and losing once or twice—they disappear. It’s like a relay race, help the next guy and pass it on. We don’t do that well.”
San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra states, “We show up for fund raisers, we like to take pictures with elected officials. We need to register to vote, talk about the issues and make informed decisions. We don’t want to be ATM machines for folks looking to run.”
Shefali Razdan Duggal is interested in stimulating the South Asian community to becoming more involved in the political process. “I think our community has focused so intently on success within these other areas that we have underestimated the impact we can have within the political system.”
According to Manan Trivedi, “We need to continue to unify. To gain influence, we need to show our strength via political organizations; getting more organized is the key.”
Assemblyman Jim Beall says that the Indian American community is a powerhouse in Silicon Valley politics. Getting Indian Americans elected to local, state, and national offices is going to become a common occurrence. Both young men and women are stepping up to serve our public.’’
“Assimilation into society and getting support from the mainstream is critical,” says Upendra Chivukula. “I cannot run as an Indian candidate and win.” He goes on to emphasize the need for a foundation “There is a process. You need to have small wins before going for the big one.”
Democratic fundraiser, analyst and lawyer, Kavita Tankha emphasizes assimilation. “Be perceived as a mainstream candidate, to be elected. Appeal to a broader base … be proud of your heritage, but don’t go to an extreme. The defining issues are not ethnicity, gender. We need folks to get us out of the economic mess.”
According to Jack Uppal, “You gotta have a good message. Have a good reason—that is truly from your own heart as to why you are running and clearly articulate that to people. Being an Indian American is neither positive nor negative. We are all Americans.”
But our community has to make a gradual shift through some introspection and reconciliation that politics in America runs quite differently from back home. If there is an opportunity to get engaged and make a difference, take it. Get involved in local community issues, launch voter registration campaigns, and rally the community to get ourselves the attention we deserve.
Reshma Saujani stated it best in an interview for The Politics Daily when she ran in 2010, “When you get to the ballot box, you don’t know if that’s a boy or a girl, a Muslim or a Hindu. Someone named Barack Hussein Obama made a lot of us feel like we could run.”
Let’s support our candidates’ aspirations by voting on November 6, 2012.
Rishi Kumar lives in the heart of Silicon Valley with his wife Seema and their two boys. Rishi’s day job is in the valley tech industry selling software. In his spare time, Rishi loves being involved in volunteering for charity, local politics, and hosting the “Saratoga’s Got Talent” event.