Why More Indian Americans Want To Be In US Government

Why more ‘desis’ want to be in US govt: “If you are not at the table, you will be on the menu.”

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Neil Makhija is having to take media phone calls while riding his bike. The Pennsylvania-based Executive Director of IMPACT, Indian American Impact Fund, is getting barely 4 hours of sleep for the last few weeks, as the 2020 US election day inches closer. His workouts keep him going. IMPACT is assisting Indian American candidates in their election campaigns, with outreach and fund-raising efforts.

They have endorsed 23 general election candidates including Biden and Harris. There are at least 70 South Asians who are running for tickets including the US Senate, House of Representatives, state senates and state houses. The prominent ones are Sara Gideon and Rik Mehta for US senate. Neil tells The Quint, “Between 2016 and now we have quintupled the number of Indian Americans in the US Congress.”

Nel Makhija and Biden.
Nel Makhija and Biden.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)
His organisation wants the voices of the 4 million strong Indian American community to be represented in the corridors of power.
Neil Makhija and Kamala Harris.
Neil Makhija and Kamala Harris.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)

So far, the focus in 2020 has been on desis as voters and supporters of the two parties. Simultaneously a phenomenon of an increasing number of Indian Americans on the ballot is emerging.

Importance Of Getting Along With Both Democrats & Republicans

There are numerous organisations, with Democratic or Republican affiliations, working to bring South Asians on the ballot. ‘South Asian Republican Coalition’ was set up to bring Americans of SAARC descent on one platform to make them ‘a reckoned force’ in the Republican Party. Hemant Bhatt of New Jersey founded the group in 2018 and is also a member of ‘Indian Voices for Trump Coalition Advisory Board’. He is supporting Anantatmula Manga for Congress and Rik Mehta for Senate.

Hemant Bhatt and Trump.
Hemant Bhatt and Trump.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)

He says, “There are hundreds more like me who want to be involved. The tremendous response is like a movement.”

He was part of Trump’s India visit – the ‘Chalo Gujarat’ program – and believes that Indian representation in US government and the Trump presidency will ensure that India is protected vis-à-vis Chinese invasions.

For Danny Gaekwad, a prominent Florida real estate developer and hotelier, the number one goal is to get the next generation of desis into politics. Advisory board member of ‘Indian Voices for Trump’, a republican for 27 years, Gaekwad has supported and funded Indian American candidates across the board, including Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Danny and Manisha Gaekwad.
Danny and Manisha Gaekwad.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)
He feels that the Indian community is quite small, and platforms should be provided to all.

He is thrilled that more Indian Americans are running for office than before, and feels the need to make it ten-fold. Gaekwad talks about the importance of getting along with politicians from both parties. He travelled with Bill Clinton to India in 2000 and has hosted Joe Biden at his hotel.

Danny Gaekwad and Mike Pence.
Danny Gaekwad and Mike Pence.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)

He represented the Asian American Hotel Owners Association at a July roundtable with Trump, and met Pence at another forum, both related to the pandemic fallout. More recently he has been running his own ads in desi media about Trump having ‘saved’ India during the recent border crisis with China, by sending a fleet of F-35 planes to the South China sea.

Citing examples from Africa, Gaekwad stresses that Indians must be in government, or else it takes just one ‘dictator’ to throw a community out.

Dramatically Danny Gaekwad adds, “If you are not at the table, you will be on the menu.”

‘21st Century Will Be A Remarkable One For Indian American Community’

Increase in representation brings more leverage on issues of importance to the Indian American community.

At the IMPACT 2020 summit, Indian American members of the US Congress spoke about issues that they are working on. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, stressed on immigration reform, including wait times for Indians to get green cards.

As per 2018 USCIS data, the wait for some green cards can be as high as 151 years.

Krishnamoorthi wants a reduction in individual country caps in the H-1B visa program. More than 70 percent of H-1Bs approved for the fiscal year 2019 were for skilled workers born in India. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, DC, worked to get a bill on South Asian heart health awareness cleared by a house committee recently. Californian physician Ami Bera, elected to the US Congress in 2012, is a leading voice on behalf of both the Indian American community and US- India relations.

Only the third Indian American to serve in US Congress, Ami Bera believes that their caucus will grow and the 21st century will be a remarkable one for the Indian American community.

Unprecedented Number Of Indian Americans Working At Grassroots Level

Desis are not aiming only for the top tickets. Wanting their spot at the table, several patriotic Indian Americans are running for their county and city elections. San Ramon is a sought after suburban city of the San Francisco Bay Area. South Asians are approximately 13 percent of its population, but form 70 percent of candidates in the San Ramon elections this year.

For a city that has never had a South Asian mayor, there are four Indian American candidates running for mayor in 2020.

None of them has contested a mayoral race before, and have no future political ambitions. The mayoral role in small cities does not bring any financial benefit. It is more about serving one’s city.

The number of Indian Americans working at the grassroots level to get elected as mayors, judges, treasurers, school board trustees, etc, across the US is at an unprecedented scale. No one has been able to keep a count of how many desis are on the ballot in 2020.

Dr Sangay Mishra, a political scientist at Drew University, author of ‘Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans’, tells The Quint that no data has been collected on Indian Americans contesting local elections. He adds that, “In the last ten years, many more South Asians are contesting elections. And in places where there may not be a large number of South Asians, such as Maine, Arizona.”

Indiaspora is a non-profit organisation with a network of Indian American venture capitalists, high tech entrepreneurs, physicians and lawyers, who have contributed millions of dollars to prominent desi campaigns.

Indian Americans Are 7% Of US Physicians, 10% Of American IT – ‘Why Not Have Clout?’

M Rangaswamy, Founder and Chairman, Indiaspora, takes a guess that the number of Indian American candidates in 2020 could be anywhere between 200 to 300. He says: “This is what happens when a community is inspired. They want to be part of the process. We are 7 percent of US physicians, 10 percent of American IT, well represented in academia, so why not have clout.” He gives the example of the Jewish American community, who are 2 percent of US population, but are 10 percent of the Congress.

The clout of the Indian American community is on the rise and they are now in turn supporting mainstream candidates.

Senator Harris, Congressman Ro Khanna, and California Assemblyman Ash Kalra have endorsed Josh Becker, the top contender for State Senate from Silicon Valley. Becker has made many connections in the Indian high tech community in the last 30 years. He says: “The Indian Americans are a critical part of the tech industry.”

He has known Kamala Harris since her race for San Francisco District Attorney. He shares with us:

Kamala and Josh.
Kamala and Josh.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)
“She is supporting me now. She has a big heart, she is caring, it is hard to know that in the national campaign. When I lost the senate race in 2010, Kamala left me the most encouraging voicemail that I have saved. It is so inspiring and it encouraged me to run again.”
Josh Becker to The Quint

The desis are inspiring the mainstream. Dilip Singh Saund was the first Indian and Asian American elected to the House of Representatives in 1956. Indian Americans are continuing to build on that legacy. Their motto being, ‘the decisions will be made; it is up to us whether we want to be inside or outside that process.’

Josh, Ash Kalra and Vinay Kalra.
Josh, Ash Kalra and Vinay Kalra.
(Photo: Accessed by Savita Patel)

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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