Indian Americans set to wield greater influence in US politics

It can safely be concluded that 2020 is the year the Indian American community has become relevant in American politics, writes Frank Islam for South Asia Monitor 

Frank F. Islam Sep 05, 2020

On November 6, 1955, Dalip Singh Saund, an Amritsar-born mathematician and farmer stunned America when he won a congressional election from California’s 29th district, northwest of Los Angeles. Saund’s victory, who had come to America at the age of 19, more than three decades earlier, to pursue a master’s degree at the University of California, Berkley, won against all odds. 

Coming nearly ten years before the landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened doors for Indians and citizens of other Asian and African countries into America, it was a case of a man willing himself to victory in a not-so conducive environment. Saund, who went on to obtain a PhD in mathematics at Berkley, holds many firsts. 

He was not only the first Indian and Asian American to enter Congress.   He was also the first politician of non-Abrahamic faith to enter US Congress.

The trailblazing nature of Saund’s victory is evidenced by that it took nearly half a century for another Indian American to get elected to Congress. That second congressman was Republican Bobby Jindal, who won from Louisiana’s first district in November 2004. 

Fast-forward to August 11, 2020. The political process that began with Saund’s election nearly 65 years earlier, culminated when Vice President Joe Biden picked Sen. Kamala Harris, daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican- American father as his running mate. 

Harris is the first woman of colour to be on a major party ticket. If the Democrats win in November, she will become the first woman to serve as the Vice President of the United States. Harris’ nomination as the second in command to Biden at the Democratic National Convention shows how far the Indian American community has traveled in the past six and a half decades - especially in the past decade and a half.

From Bobby Jindal to Kamala Harris

If the community’s journey from Saund to Jindal was on a slow train, its voyage from Jindal to Harris has been on a rocket ship. Until the 1990s, it worked hard for a seat at the table at every level, but results were few and far between. 

One major milestone was the election of Kumar Barve, who was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1990. Barve, the first member of the community to represent in a state legislature, continues to serve in the statehouse.

Between Barve and Jindal’s 2004 election to the US House, a few more Indian Americans were elected to statehouses across the country, including Nimi McConigley (Wyoming State Legislature, 1994), Satveer Chaudhary (Minnesota House of Representatives, 1996), Upendra Chivukula (New Jersey General Assembly, 2001) and Swati Dandekar (Iowa House of Representatives, 2002).

Since Jindal’s election in 2004, however, there has been an electoral bonanza for Indian Americans. After being in the House for just two terms, the Louisianan, who served in the Bush administration briefly prior to entering Congress, ran for governor in his home state of Louisiana in 2008 and became the first member of the community to be elected the chief executive of a US state. 

Two years later, another Republican, Nikki Haley, became the second Indian American to become a governor, when she won in South Carolina. 

Indian Americans in key positions 

In recent times, the number of Indian Americans serving in various positions on Capitol Hill and in administrations has been steadily increasing. In 2009, President Obama appointed Raj Shah to become the head of the USAID; Arun M. Kumar and Nisha Desai Biswal were named assistant secretaries; and Vinai Thummalapally a US ambassador.

In 2012, Ami Bera became the third Indian American to get elected to the House, when he ousted the incumbent Republican from California’s 7th Congressional District.

Another major political milestone for the community came in 2016, when the size of its congressional delegation quintupled overnight. Bera was joined in the House by Ro Khanna (California), Pramila Jayapal (Washington) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois). Harris, then the attorney general of California and a rising star in the state politics, became the first African American and Indian American to serve in the US Senate.

Harris’ elevation as her party’s vice-presidential nominee earlier this month wasn’t surprising. In fact, it had been many years in the making. Although one of the primary reasons Biden chose Harris was the senator’s African American affiliation, she has played up her Indian heritage repeatedly - an indication of the growing political clout of the community.

It can safely be concluded that 2020 is the year the Indian American community has become relevant in American politics. Today, both major campaigns court the Indian American community. While Harris’ presence in the ticket itself is a political statement by Biden, the Trump campaign has been trying hard to woo Indian American voters, who have been reliably Democratic until now.

There are three main reasons the community has become such a politically potent force in such a short time. The first is the huge growth in its numbers since the 1990s. 

According to an estimate by the American Community Survey, there are at least 4.1 million Americans of Indian heritage, comprising 1.3 percent of the U.S. population. The community has a sizable presence in many so-called battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, which more or less decide the presidency.

The second reason is their economic might. With a household income of nearly $127,000, they are the richest ethnic group in the country. (In comparison, the average household income in US is a little over $65,000). With money comes visibility and prominence. 

Best is yet to come

Finally, over the years the community has become more and more politically active. Until the late 1980s, Indian Americans mainly organized themselves for cultural events. In the mid-1990s, that began to change. 

Today, Indian Americans are engaged in political activities as never before. Many Indian Americans support candidates from the community irrespective of the party affiliation. For example, Jindal’s first House race and Haley’s maiden gubernatorial campaign were fueled by Republican and Indian American donations from across the country, 

In my opinion, the best is yet to come for the Indian American community. In upcoming electoral cycles, as more and more of its members enter electoral politics and the current officeholders gain more experience and seek higher office, the community is set to wield increasingly greater influence in American politics,

In 2016, when Jindal entered the race, an Indian American ran for president for the first time. In 2020, Harris ran. In 2024, you might even see — Harris, Jindal and Haley — running for the highest office in the land at the same time.  
The rocket ship will have taken off and the sky will be the limit. 

(The writer is an Indian American entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal)

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