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Janitor to Congressman: Shri Thanedar, the Fifth Indian American in US Congress

Shri Thanedar spent the first 24 years of his life in Belgaum, Dharwad, and Mumbai.

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Video Producer: Shohini Bose

Video Editor: Prajjwal Kumar

Indian American entrepreneur Shri Thanedar made history by becoming the first desi politician to win a seat in the United States (US) House of Representatives from the state of Michigan.

With 99 percent of the ballots having been counted, Thanedar, a Democrat, has amassed 166,203 votes in the US midterm election – defeating Republican candidate Martell Bivings, who managed to get 56,111 votes.

Taking to Twitter after the election was called in his favour, Thanedar said, "We did it! With early returns showing us receiving 89.2 percent of the vote, I'm honored to be the next Representative in Congress for the 13th District!"

The 67-year-old joins the so called 'Samosa Caucus of Indian Americans' in the US House, which includes Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Raja Krishnamoorthi – all of whom are poised to win from their respective seats in the midterms.

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The story of Thanedar is inspirational, to say the least. Having lived a humble life in Karnataka's Belgaum, to coming to the US with as little as $20 and then going on to become a Congressman is nothing short of a fairytale.

Here's a closer look at his journey.

Humble Beginnings

Thanedar spent the first 24 years of his life in Belgaum and Dharwad in Karnataka, and Mumbai in Maharashtra.

After his father was forced to retire at the age of 55, Thanedar – who was all of 14 at the time – took up odd jobs to support his family.

"I grew up in poverty in India, in a family of 10, where I remember going to the river to get drinking water. After my father retired, it fell to me to care for my family, so I worked as a janitor," Thanedar says on his website.

More than the passion for studying, what compelled Thanedar to educate himself and perform well at his studies was his commitment towards his family, who were undergoing immense financial difficulties at the time.

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At the age of 18, he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and went on to do his Masters in the subject from the University of Bombay – a degree he finished with a distinction and a gold medal. He also had a brief stint as a scientist at Mumbai's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

To the Land of Dreams

In 1979, Thanedar came to the US to pursue a PhD at the University of Akron. To sustain himself financially, he took up a job as a teaching assistant, and sent a portion of his salary back him to his family.

"My $300 monthly salary wasn’t much to live on – especially after sending $75 each month to help my family still living in India. But through hard work and a little bit of luck, I was able to earn an MBA and a PhD in chemistry," he said.

He also said that he had purchased a car at the time, and used to sleep in it while he was working on his research at the university due to the paucity of money.

After years of working as a scientist and a scholar, Thanedar decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship. Over a span of 25 years in the private industry, and painstaking attempts towards raising finances, he managed to create several businesses, such as Chemir, Azopharma, and Avomeen Analytical Services.

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Entry Into Politics

Despite having earned a millionaire status and the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award by Ernst and Young thrice, something was missing from his life. He wanted to do more, and found that his passion now lay in politics.

Thanedar had said that he was deeply inspired by the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He also said that he had experienced racial discrimination first-hand "because of my colour," and thus wanted to "fight for social, racial and economic justice."

In 2018, he threw his hat in the ring in the Democratic primary, and contested for the post of Michigan's Governor – which he lost.

Some of his poll promises at the time included a a $15 minimum wage, and paid sick leave for working people. "I’ll never forget what it’s like to live in poverty, and I’ll never stop working to lift families out of it," he had said.

Later, however, he became a member of the Michigan State House in 2020, and beat as many as eight candidates to become the frontrunner in the Democratic primary. He then went on to represent the third district in the Michigan House.

In the 2022 midterms, Thanedar ran from the 13th Congressional District of Michigan, replacing Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, who instead ran from the 12th district.

Shri Thanedar with his constituents. 

(Photo: Twitter/Shri Thanedar) 

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While votes are still being counted, he has a winning margin of over 70 percent, compared to his closest rival's 23 percent.

Connection with India

The new Congressman, who visits India twice a year, speaks Kannada, Hindi, and Marathi fluently, and has also written an autobiography in his mother tongue, Marathi, and a memoir in English, named The Blue Suitcase: Tragedy and Triumph in an Immigrant's Life.

When asked about the relationship between India and the US, Thanedar said, "We are the two biggest democracies in the world and must work together," The Hindustan Times reported.

"When I go to India, I largely talk to younger people about entrepreneurship. All I will say is that governments, both in India and the US, have a responsibility to cater to the rich and the poor, lift people at the bottom of the economic scale, create opportunities."
Shri Thanedar

A boy from a remote part of Belgaum, a former janitor, will now have the US Capitol Hill as his address for the next two years. Talk about the will of the human spirit!

(With inputs from The Hindustan Times.)

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Edited By :Ahamad Fuwad
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