Why Georgia’s Indian-Americans Are Going All Out to Control Senate

5 Jan 2021 Senate election will determine control of the US Senate. Will Biden get broad power, as desis hope?

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Map of Georgia (US), and Indian and American flags used for representational purposes.
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(This story is being reposted from The Quint’s archives as voting for Georgia senate runoffs is underway. It was originally published on 30 December 2020)

Bangalore-born 14-year-old Siddhant Karmali is persuading American voters in the state of Georgia, US to elect Democratic Senators. A 10th grader, not eligible to vote, he has sent handwritten notes to Georgians to enthuse them about issues that concern him, his future, and the future of other high schoolers.

A resident of California’s Orange County, thousands of miles away from Georgia, Siddhant is concerned about climate change, minority rights and healthcare dispensation: “I wrote to registered Democratic voters that they should choose a Democratic Senator on behalf of my friends and I, to reduce discrimination based on gender identity and race, and bias in healthcare.”

Thousands of desis have embraced a role in the political process as active campaigners for elections in Georgia.

Democrats Break Fundraising Records, Out-Raise Republicans

Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are pitted against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in Georgia’s special Senate elections on 5 January 2021. President-Elect Joe Biden is set to take office on 20 January. But the US Senate stills hangs in the balance — Republicans have 50 seats, two more than the Democrats’ 48 seats.

The Senate’s balance of power teeters on these two seats, both of which will be decided in Georgia.

No candidate in either of Georgia’s Senate races won a majority or more than 50 percent of the ballots on 3 November, triggering a runoff election for both seats, as per election laws in the state.

In the last few weeks, tens of millions of dollars have poured into the state to fund a marathon of political advertising.

The runoffs are both set to be among the most expensive Senate races so far, with Democrats shattering fundraising records by hauling in more than USD 100 million each in the past two months, significantly out-raising the Republicans.

How Georgia Defied History & Convention — And Flipped Democratic

Over the years, the suburbs of Atlanta had cemented the stereotype of being rich, white, die-hard Republican, sprawling neighbourhoods. Donald Trump saw this as one of his states.

But Georgia defied history, flipped Democratic after 28 years and voted for Biden in the 2020 US presidential elections. Asian American voters’ contribution to swing Georgia was significant as the increase in their turnout was the highest among all communities, doubling from 2016.

Indian Americans make up the large plurality of Asian American voters in Georgia, preferring Biden to Trump by a 2 to 1 margin. Due to community mobilisation efforts by desi political organisers, more than 30,000 AAPIs (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) voted for the first time. Biden won Georgia by just under 12,000 votes.

Can Atlanta suburbs — that helped elect Biden — deliver the Senate to him?

Come 5 January, Will Biden Admin Get Broad Power Or Will Republicans Be ‘In Charge’?

The Indian American community, refuelled by the Biden-Harris victory, is fund-raising and canvassing in Georgia. Executive Director of an Indian American civic organisation, IMPACT’s Neil Makhija — who played a significant role in marshalling the desi democratic vote in 2020 — is working alongside dozens of community organisations to ensure that every Georgian vote is cast: “It’s an extremely competitive race. Every vote and every community counts. Indian Americans are a critical part of the Democratic Party, but they can’t be taken for granted.”

The world’s eyes are on Georgia as the 5 January election will determine control of the Senate, either handing Biden broad power to carry out his policy agenda, or leave Republicans in charge.

Republicans want to hold onto Senate-power under the new Biden Administration. Democrats would need to capture both of the seats in Georgia to secure a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Then, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could cast tie-breaking votes to carry out the Democratic agenda.

Why Desis Are Counting On A Biden Regime For More Rights & Representation

Bills and favorable appointees decided on the Senate floor impact Indian Americans. Top three on the agenda for them are immigration reform, public health and racial discrimination. Race-related crimes and discrimination increased during Trump presidency. Indian American professionals want relaxation in limits 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. As per 2018 USCIS data, the Green Card wait for some Indian Americans can be as high as 151 years.

Thumbed up by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris earlier, the S386 immigration bill seeks an increase in family-based Green Cards issued to Indians.

The passage of the bill S386 into a law does still have a roadblock — would Trump sign the bill into a law before his presidential tenure ends?

Why Desis Are Working Overtime To Ensure Biden Holds Key To Senate

Trump has discontinued work permits granted by the Obama administration for H-4 visa holder, qualified spouses of H-1B professionals.

Biden has promised to not only restart this program, but also streamline immigration, increase representation of Asians in government, provide them access to affordable healthcare and education, and ensure justice and dignity for all races. How much Biden will be able to get done depends on who controls the US Senate.

Hence, Indian Americans in multiple US states are helping those on the ground in Georgia, to ensure that they remain inside the decision-making process, not outside.

Suresh Kolichala co-founded the Georgia chapter of ‘They See Blue’, an Indian American Democratic group, which organised actively in the 2020 US presidential election to deliver desi votes to Biden. Kolichala is tilling the streets with large South Asian populations in the metro Atlanta region: “Trump is gone, but Trumpism is not dead. Legally, we need some legislations to make US immigrant friendly again. We, Democrats, need to control the Senate.”

The Tremendous Impact Of ‘Namaste Aunty’

As they make this monumental decision, desis in Georgia are being bombarded with requests to ensure they cast their ballots. The Biden-Harris campaign realised the efficacy of language, religion and culture for desis. The playbook is being adopted in Georgia. Phone calls, texts, fliers, radio and video spots in desi media are being produced in more than 14 South Asian languages to persuade voters.

The tremendous impact of a caller saying ‘namaste aunty’ is being harnessed.

Volunteers from many states who helped with the national election, have converged on Georgia. Tasks have been divided — desis living in Georgia are plowing the streets to mobilise infrequent voters, and desis from other states as far away as California and Michigan are calling, texting and writing to South Asian voters in Georgia to vote. Grand old dadis and nanis from all over US are writing to Georgian desis to go to the polls. California’s Saroj S and Naishad S — who are in their late 70s — have mailed hundreds of postcards to Georgia.

Desi Teens Canvassing, South Asian Celeb Endorsements — No Stone Unturned In Swaying The Desi Vote In Georgia

Indian Americans in Georgia are recognising that they have power and their vote is strong. The digital army is using leaders and influencers in the local ethnic community, who have large social media presence, to push out ads. Relational organising is being effectively used to influence friends and family to register to vote and vote early. High school students with notable Instagram following are involved in persuasive campaigning.

The newly qualified to vote in Georgia, who turned 18 years after the 3 November presidential election, are being wooed by Indian American teenage canvassers.

Vast amounts of money has been spent on video and radio ads, featuring South Asian celebrities. Locations such as grocery stores and food trucks — where the desi community gathers — have been identified for canvassing. Desi events displaying posters and Democratic signs, at prominent locations in Georgian cities, are coming up.

Indian Americans Hope That The Georgian Senate Result Helps Biden Pass Favourable Legislations

Democratic signage was not visible in Georgia till recently. 68-year-old Rajul Gokarn who lives in downtown Atlanta, came to Georgia as a student and has been in the state for almost 46 years. An active campaigner for the Presidential and Democratic Senate elections, Rajul has seen Georgian politics change: “We would never venture to a couple of counties, which were very Republican and racist. KKK was prominent. I am energised to think about South Asians making a dent, and efforts to bring in diversity. Our sign-waving has encountered pretty rough things, profanity thrown at us like ‘go back to where you came from’. Influx of Asians and Latinos has changed the demographic. Second generation Indian Americans, who are desi yet American, are pushing for race relations.”

Georgian desis are becoming aware that there are other Democrats in town.

Big sound trucks with Democratic slogans are seen and heard around. Desis can be loud and proud about who they support. They are realising for the first time what it means to be a Democrat in Georgia.

The Republican candidates for the Georgian Senate races know that they are the GOP’s last line of defence against Democratic control of the Senate.

The Democratic candidates hope that the Biden-Harris victory is going to help them in the tight Senate races. The Indian Americans wish that the Georgian Senate outcomes in turn will help Biden pass favourable legislations.

(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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