The rise and rise of Desi Americans

Published: 01st November 2016 03:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd November 2016 11:22 AM   |  A+A-


Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Kumar Barve

The U.S. Congress had no members of Indian origin in 1956. But Dalip Singh Saund, who was born in Chhajulwadi, Punjab, was about to usher in a change. Author of My Mother India, the mathematician, farmer and local elected official was running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in California’s District 29.

When he won, Saund became the first Indian-American man to serve in the U.S. Congress.  
Fast forward to 2016. Sixty years have transformed America’s political landscape, and Indian-Americans are flexing their muscle throughout the country, from individual states to Washington, D.C. Many analysts believe Indian-Americans – who at some 3.5 million constitute a growing political force within the U.S. population – are well-positioned to increase their influence.

This article is one in a series of pieces stemming from a collaboration between The New Indian Express and The India Center at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, Florida. The India Center is an interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to broadening awareness and understanding about India. UCF is the second-largest university, on the basis of student enrollment, in the United States.

As an example, Congress Blog points to the expanding reach of the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). A signature achievement of the organization, says Congress Blog, “was successfully convincing a bipartisan majority in Congress, including famous ‘non-proliferation diehards’ such as former Republican Senator Richard Lugar and Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi, to vote for the landmark India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement.” This occurred despite India’s refusal to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. USINPAC used newspaper advertisements, hosted receptions on Capitol Hill and sent supporters to Washington to meet directly with congressional staffers, and urge representatives and senators to consider their views. “The fervor with which the community mobilized around the cause was unprecedented,” says Congress Blog, and “signaled a new phase in Indian-American political involvement in Washington.”

Such resourcefulness and energy with economic and political consequences comes as no surprise to long-time India watchers. Trend forecaster John Naisbitt predicted such developments decades ago, when he wrote in Megatrends Asia about the coming rise of India and the networking potential of Indians globally. “Stay tuned to the Indian network,” he presciently advised.

Teresita Schaffer, a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy for The India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., agrees. The co-author of India at the Global High Table and former U.S. ambassador – who served in embassies in many parts of South Asia, including India – emphasizes how well-educated, well-off and well-connected the Indian-American population tends to be. “You find that Indian-Americans are very well-represented in professions such as the Foreign Service, law and health care,” she states. This adds up to an increasingly prominent position in American society. It’s an ethnic group politicians like to cultivate, Schaffer says, adding that there are now India caucuses in both houses of the U.S. Congress. Although there aren’t many Indian-Americans in high elective offices, there are several well-situated Indian-Americans in appointive offices, she indicates.  

Indeed, the Obama administration made news by bringing in a record number of Indian-American officials. Examples include: Vinai Thummalapally – a former U.S. ambassador to Belize and the first Indian-American to serve in such a capacity – who is now the executive director of SelectUSA in the International Trade Administration; Nisha Desai Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs; Vikram Singh, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia; and Subra Suresh, a former director of the National Science Foundation.  

James Lai, an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at Santa Clara University in California, describes the Indian-American community as becoming more influential in U.S. politics and not only as a campaign contributor, which it has historically been. More and more, Indian-Americans are engaging politically in other important ways, such as by voting and advancing candidates for elective office. From 2000 to 2010, the Indian-American community increased in size by nearly 69 percent, he advises, one of the largest percentage growth rates in the nation. Further, the Pew Research Center has found that, as voters, nearly 65 percent of Indian-Americans are Democrats or leaning Democrat compared to 18 percent who are Republican or leaning Republican. Given these numbers, Lai says, Indian-Americans are likely to vote overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the November 2016 presidential election.

So how is Indian-American influence manifesting itself in high-profile U.S. elections? Today, as in 1957, there’s only one Indian-American member of the U.S. Congress: Representative Ami Bera of California. Bera, a physician, narrowly won re-election in 2014, a year that a political surge among Indian-Americans was evident. Five Indian-Americans were on the ballot in congressional and gubernatorial races that year. Two won. Bera is running for re-election this year.

Lai, in anticipation of more Indian-Americans being elected to Congress, draws attention to what he calls “the most high-profile election” in 2016. In California's San Francisco Bay area, Indian-American candidate Rohit “Ro” Khanna (a lawyer and former deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration) is in a closely contested, intraparty election against long-term incumbent Mike Honda for a House of Representatives seat in District 17. That area includes Silicon Valley and is currently the only majority Asian-American congressional district in the continental United States. This is a “re-match of the 2014 election in which Honda barely survived the challenge from Khanna, a fellow Democrat,” Lai says. He believes Khanna has a greater chance of defeating Honda in the general election this time. Should Khanna win, he will become the second Indian-American holder of a House seat from California. To Lai, such developments underscore how the Indian-American community is becoming a stronger political force, from California to New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states.  

Nikki Haley

Consider South Carolina, where Nikki Haley secured re-election as governor in 2014. Haley, a businesswoman, is the first Indian-American woman to serve as governor of a U.S. state. 
What about the first Indian-American to be elected governor in the United States? It’s Bobby Jindal, who is also the second Indian-American to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Jindal, after two terms as governor of Louisiana, unsuccessfully threw his hat into the Republican nominee pool for the 2016 presidential election.

That result doesn’t keep some Indian-Americans from dreaming about the White House. M.R. Rangaswami, a software executive, entrepreneur and philanthropist, is the founder of Indiaspora. That organization is designed to unite Indian-Americans and extend their success into a meaningful impact in India and around the world. Rangaswami believes it’s possible for an Indian-American to be elected president of the United States within a generation.  

Such an idea isn’t simply wishful thinking, experts say. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., has been evaluating the political rise of Indian-Americans. He says they are becoming more significant with every election cycle. “Presidential candidates and those running for other offices have listened to their concerns and are aware of their importance in our political system,” according to Thurber. In the short term, he adds, “they will have access to people close to President Hillary Clinton [Thurber isn’t waiting for the election results] on issues related to trade, immigration and the India-Pakistan relationship. This is new and very important to the Indian-American community.”

The rise of Indian-Americans clearly has the attention of the leading U.S. presidential candidates. Trump mentioned a meeting with Indian officials during the final presidential debate and has spoken at rallies to Indian-American audiences. He also recently released a television advertisement stressing his affection for India and even spoke a few words of Hindi. Clinton has been more systematically engaged with Indian-Americans, resulting in campaign contributions reportedly reaching at least $10 million. 

Another prominent win in 2014 by an Indian-American was outside the congressional/gubernatorial arena: Kamala Harris’ re-election victory as attorney general of California. Harris is continuing to generate headlines as she runs for a U.S. Senate seat this year. If elected, she would be the first Indian-American woman in the U.S. Congress, as well as the first Indian-American in the U.S. Senate. 
Indian-American women have been vying for U.S. congressional seats since 2010, when Reshma Saujani, an American lawyer and politician from New York, made an unsuccessful bid for the House of Representatives.

Kumar Barve

What about Indian-Americans aiming for high political office from other states? In Maryland, Kumar Barve – a former majority leader of the state’s House of Delegates and the first Indian-American elected to a state legislature – is on the ballot for a House of Representatives seat in November. Peter Jacob – a New Jersey social worker – is also running for a House of Representatives seat. So is Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state senator. Like Harris in California, a victory would distinguish Jayapal as the first Indian-American woman in the U.S. Congress. The two women will share that distinction if both win election. 

What will 2016 add to the evolving story of Indian-Americans in U.S. politics? Stay tuned. The candidates are numerous, and they and their campaigns are eager to expand what former U.S. Representative Dalip Singh Saund started six decades ago.

(Shannon Payne is the senior program assistant for The India Center at UCF.)


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