A New Generation of Leaders

In 2001, Baton Rouge, LA-born-and-raised Bobby Jindal, was appointed by President George W. Bush as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation of health and human services. Two years later, the 32-year-old Jindal resigned his federal post to return to Louisiana and run for governor. Today, Jindal is being touted as a fresh young face in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race. His past experience and knowledge promise a new vision that Louisiana politics’ tainted visage has been criticized as lacking. Jindal, who is currently the frontrunner in the race is also the candidate endorsed by the current governor, Republican Mike Foster.

As Jindal seeks to make waves in the South, Democratic candidate Vik S. Bajwa has joined the fray in California’s unusual gubernatorial recall election. His promise to the state, which is mired in an enormous budget crisis: “If I’m elected I’ll seek the best brains to fix the problems and bring back the glory of the golden state.” Bajwa is the first Indian-American to run for California governor.

In a separate race, Ashok Bhatt, candidate for California State Assembly in the 20th Assembly, continued his string of endorsements by gaining the key support of Congressman Dick Gephardt, a contender for the Democratic nomination for President. Also, Governor Gray Davis appointed Bhatt as a member of the California Water Commission on Sep. 8.

Elsewhere in California, Indian-American entrepreneur Paul Randhawa, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the poll to a city council seat in Fairfield. Randhawa will contest for one of two seats on the Fairfield city council for which elections are scheduled in November.

In San Francisco, veteran prosecutor Kamala Harris, who was born and raised in the Bay area, is running for the office of District Attorney. Harris brings with her an impressive track record of courtroom experience and years of community leadership. She also comes from a family devoted to public service. Her grandfather was involved in the government of India, while her mother, who came to Berkeley as a graduate student, got involved in the civil rights movement. Taking stands on a number of local issues, Harris pledges that “as District Attorney, I will immediately implement a management overhaul aimed at improving our conviction rates for violent and serious felonies.”

And farther up east, Upendra Chivukula is reaching out to voters in New Jersey with a vision of “bold solutions to improve quality of life.” Chivukula is running for re-election to New Jersey State Assembly District 17.

Jindal, Bajwa, Bhatt, Randhawa, Harris, and Chivukula are not trailblazers by their very entry into U.S politics. However, they are among a handful of Indian-Americans running for office all over the U.S. Following in a trend set by those like Nimi McConigley in the 1990s, and more recently, Kumar Barve, Satveer Chaudhary, Swati Dandekar, and Suja Lowenthal, to name a few, they are the face of a new generation of U.S. politicians that chalks out a better representation of the demographics it governs.

“This election will determine if our city plans and implements an adequate response to changing demographics, meets the challenges of growth, and provides enhanced support to local people,” Randhawa says.

Inspite of the nearly 2-million strong Indian-American population in the U.S., “our only representation is three assembly members in the East Coast,” says Ashok Bhatt. “Indians have no political motivation. They are constantly fighting for their own narrow bridges. No one is thinking of the second generation that is going to stay here and not go back to India,” he remarks. That is what motivated him to run in the elections. That and the fact that since California is in capital trouble, he feels it is an opportune way of doing something for California and the U.S., and paying his dues to his adopted country.

Besides the opportunity to serve Californians, California gubernatorial candidate Bajwa foresees another desirable outcome of his participation. “The advantage of running for this office is that it will trigger political activation from our community,” he emphasizes.

The Indian-American Leadership Initiative (IALI), launched by Varun Nikore, is an organization that encompasses these recurring sentiments about Indian-American political participation. After working in the finance department of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, Nikore noticed that the substantial campaign contributions by Indian-Americans did not translate to increased political clout. “For far too many people in the community, their eyes are not on the true prize,” says Nikore. “Lobbying is enormously expensive and there is very little return on political investment. … Getting somebody (from the community) elected is the best route to advocating policies and issues of one’s own community,” he further explains.

Billing itself as an organization that is in the business of political empowerment, IALI’s stated mission is to proactively engage in the election or appointment of Indian-Americans to political offices on the local, state, and federal levels. In doing so, IALI identifies talented individuals with a desire to serve their communities, and strives to enhance their knowledge, skills, and abilities with regard to professional politics and public service, while directly and indirectly funding their candidacies. “I think they are absolutely wonderful,” says Harris of IALI. “... they have given me a lot of information and are very important to the development and growth of people of Indian origin in politics.”

Indian-Americans have made notable contributions in just about every professional field—technology, medicine, academia, business, law. Socially, Indians have adapted well to the American fabric. Yet, despite their achievements, Indian-Americans have shied away from the political arena and the representation of their community.

Hence, the need for an organization like IALI that focuses completely on getting the community’s own elected. “Unless we have a seat at the table, how can we truly say that we have given back to this country? We don’t want to be seen as a community of takers, a community that really just reaped the rewards of this great country because we came over as very educated, smart people. We want to be seen as a community that believes in the spirit of public service. We need to start giving back, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also in order to ensure our success in this country,” emphasizes Nikore.

In a sense, IALI is working towards making that happen. The organization recently hosted a conference in San Francisco to encourage political participation from Indian-Americans. Earlier this year, IALI’s first conference held in Washington DC drew hundreds of Indian-Americans interested in running for elected office and working on political campaigns. The IALI conference in San Francisco was attended by South Asians from across the country, determined to raise the political clout and participation of Indian-Americans in the democratic process. Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve and Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal were among the speakers in San Francisco to train participants on how to get involved in the political process at the local, state, and federal levels.

Barve is the country’s highest-ranking and longest-serving Indian-American official. When he first ran for the Maryland legislature in 1990, few Indian-Americans thought he stood a chance. Similarly, Jindal who started off as an unknown in the Louisiana gubernatorial race, has fast gained popularity through his clear vision for the state.

Speaking at the conference, Barve said: “Ten years ago, there was no interest in politics. It was assumed we couldn’t win.” Indian-Americans in politics have undoubtedly come a long way since then: the 2002 election year garnered several victories for Indian-American candidates, including Swati Dandekar (Democratic candidate for 36th district seat in the Iowa State Assembly), Kumar Barve (Democratic candidate for the 17th district seat in the Maryland House of Delegates), Satveer Chaudhary (Democratic candidate for the 52nd district seat in the Minnesota State Senate), and Suja Lowenthal (candidate for Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education-District 3). Yet, current leaders in the community and organizations like IALI would like to see Indian-Americans go even further in the U.S. government make-up. To that effect, IALI’s 10-year plan calls for a transformation of the community from general political awareness to activism at all levels of the political spectrum.

Deepka Lalwani, who was also a speaker at the IALI conference in San Francisco, sums up the Indian-American involvement in politics in two dismal words: “Very poor.” An energetic community leader, Lalwani was instrumental in the launch of Indian Business and Professional Women (IBPW), an organization intended to help South Asian women to find professional networking opportunities. Lalwani’s recent effort, Indian Women for Political Empowerment (IWPE) is a task force that works to create awareness of the political processes among Indian-Americans. “Indians are busy with their own priorities like family, kids, and parties. Moreover, many long-time residents of the U.S. do not become citizens because of fear of losing touch with their motherland. Thus, if you don’t become citizens, and don’t feel completely at home in your adopted land, you naturally don’t participate,” says Lalwani of the apathy among Indians. Lalwani lost a Milpitas City Council election in California last year. She believes the number of votes she received would have been different if all Indian-Americans in the area had cast their ballots.

Commenting at the conference, IALI board member and attorney Lovely Dhillon noted that the first generation focused on establishing themselves economically and educating their children. “They didn’t think of America as their country,” said Dhillon. “Our generation is the first generation that’s entrenched in America. We see America as our country.”

The first major wave of Indian immigrants came to study at U.S. universities in the 1960s and ultimately settled here with their families. Fueled by the demand of skilled workers in the high-tech boom, the Indian-American population doubled in the 1990s with large clusters in California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois. South Asians are among the fastest growing populations in America, and Indian immigrants and their children over the past several decades have done well in medicine, engineering, and business. They are one of the wealthiest and best-educated ethnic groups in the country.

Sadly, this growth and prosperity has not been met with high levels of Indian-American electoral participation and political clout. There are only four Indian-American state legislators nationwide and no members of Congress.

“We have been here since the 1920s like other immigrants, but we haven’t streamlined our energies to the political arena,” observes Bajwa. “Look at our guys in Canada and England. We had a premier in British Columbia, we have nine MPs sitting in Canadian parliament, we have over 30 MLAs in Canada, and the same goes with England. We haven’t done our share in America,” he says, further drawing attention to the Indian diaspora around the world.

With Jindal, Bajwa, Chivukula and many others in the political fray for 2003 and 2004, it is fair enough to say that Indian-Americans have set out to do their share. And while every one of them may not be taking the U.S. political arena by storm, we can take pride in the inspiration they provide and support they garner as Indian-American candidates of merit.

Currently, optimism runs high in the Jindal camp as recent polls conducted on Aug. 5 and 6 by The Anderson Group report that Jindal is emerging as the consensus choice of Republicans and conservatives. Jindal’s popularity in the Louisiana gubernatorial race has more than doubled since May 2003. In California, Bhatt is confident that his experience will help him clinch the position he is contesting. Bajwa, who believes he can garner 400,000 to 500,000 votes, says his campaign has been well-received so far with endorsements from several associations.

In extending support and encouragement to candidates, “What IALI espouses is simply that in order to run and win, you need to give back to your local community,” says Nikore. And it doesn’t have to be in a big congressional or statewide way. It is sufficient to begin by getting involved in one’s local community. Nikore cites Chivukula and Dandekar as two great examples of people who had built roots in their community for a long time: Chivukula was vice mayor of Edison, NJ, and Dandekar was on the school board prior to running for office. “When we run like that, we give back to our local community in very small ways. Then we can run for higher office.”

Thus focusing on working its way up the political ladder, IALI’s goal is to see 10 Indian-Americans elected to federal office by 2010. Even if the community begins simply by turning out in full strength at the ballots, what’s to keep us from making IALI’s goal our goal?

Nitya Ramanan is the assistant editor of India Currents.




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