Contesting to Win

Politics is usually the last vocation for an immigrant community, and Indian-Americans are no exceptions. Ambivalence about Indian or American national identity comes in the way. Other concerns take priority—a degree from a U.S. university, green card, a steady job, a house in the suburbs, raising a family. Meanwhile, a stronger identification with the new country is formed from involvement with the school’s PTA, Sierra Club membership, or volunteering for the local gurudwara. Once the kids go to college, and savings in the 401(K) account start accumulating, some are motivated to channel their professional, administrative, and people skills into public service. Sometimes it is not until the next generation that a political career is seen as an option.

In Rohit (Ro) Khanna’s family, electoral politics seems to have skipped a generation. His grandfather was a freedom fighter in India’s independence movement, and later became a member of India’s parliament from New Delhi. “I am inspired by my grandfather,” says Khanna, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to California’s District 12 congressional seat in the March 2 primaries.

Khanna is challenging veteran Congressman Tom Lantos, who, he says, is “out of step with his constituents.” District 12 includes parts of San Mateo County and San Francisco, which was the center of huge protests last year against the American invasion of Iraq. While Lantos voted in the House for the Patriot Act and the Iraq war resolution, Khanna has been consistently opposed to the war. As an attorney, he has worked with the California Civil Rights Alliance to evaluate the impact of the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the power of the federal government to search homes, intercept communications, and detain individuals without probable cause or oversight by the courts.

“My political interest was shaped at the Yale Law School,” says Khanna, “which has a rich tradition of political involvement.” He has worked for the Clinton Administration on policies concerning the federal budget, at the Carter Center on reforming the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs, and for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on education issues.

Contesting another California’s congressional seat in the Democratic primaries is Peter Mathews in District 37, which includes Long Beach, Compton, Carson, and South Los Angeles. Education from K-12 and college, and health care are the top issues on Mathews’s agenda.

“We live in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world,” notes Mathews, “yet, when it comes to our children, our most precious resource, we cannot find the funds to give them the education they deserve as Americans.” Mathews has spent 28 years as a college and university professor. As an educator, Mathews has seen, first hand, the effects that a lack of funding has on education. He has visited schools in his district, and found that they do not have basic necessities such as updated textbooks, computers, adequate number of classrooms, credentialed teachers, and after-school arts, academic, and sports programs.

Allocation of limited budget resources is always a contentious issue. In this election cycle, the economy is emerging as the overwhelming concern in all races. Ashok (Ash) Bhatt sees California’s budget crisis, and the resulting cuts in education and social services, as the biggest issue facing his constituents. He is seeking the Democratic Party nomination for an open seat in the California State Assembly District 20, which includes Milpitas, Union City, Newark, and Pleasanton.

Bhatt is opposed to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposed $15 billion bond measure. Instead, he has drawn up a detailed economic plan that he would pursue, if elected. “No one talks about solutions,” he comments, “only problems and issues.” His proposal includes an international business park in his district, complete with cultural and community centers, trade and tourism offices, that would be established with the help of the consulates of 110 countries, and would potentially create 10,000-25,000 new jobs. He would also seek to double the state earnings from the lucrative California Lotto that helps to fund education.

Bhatt has served in several public appointments including the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for the last three years. What differentiates him from other contenders, he says, is that he is a problem-solver. “I believe in achieving results rather than polished talk,” he says. “I like to complete projects and move on.” He cites a longstanding budget issue for the Hetch Hetchy Water System that he helped resolve creatively at the PUC.

Because of record federal deficits and dwindling state tax revenues, city governments have seen their funding dry up, and have been forced to cut local services. In Fresno, California, Suchitra (Sue) Saigal, medical practice administrator, decided to use her administrative skills and get involved in local government. “I have been attending city council meetings on a regular basis because I wanted to educate myself on the issues facing the city,” says the 23-year resident of Fresno.

What she saw was a leadership crisis and a “downward spiral in city affairs.” She says that she found that the mayor was disengaged, and hardly ever in Fresno. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 14 percent and air quality is getting worse. “Fresno deserves a full-time mayor addressing the community’s most pressing concerns,” she says. Saigal is challenging the incumbent, Mayor Alan Autry, in the March 2 mayoral election in Fresno.

If elected, economic development and job creation by setting up industrial and business parks would be a top priority for her, she says. “Fresno needs innovative vocational and trade programs and school-to-work initiatives to prepare a productive and successful workforce for the future.” To improve air quality, “as mayor, I will replace all vehicles owned and operated by the City of Fresno with compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles.”

Although Khanna, Mathews, Bhatt, and Saigal have not held elected office before, they are highly qualified and serious candidates with impressive track records of public service. Their issue-based campaigns, passionately emphasizing foreign policy, the economy, education, and the environment, will help to draw more Indian-Americans into the political process.

Another campaign that seeks to raise awareness is Chicago resident Chirinjeev Singh Kathuria’s run for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in the Republican primary. A Sikh-American, Kathuria believes passionately in religious freedom, and sports the traditional beard and turban despite the backlash against Sikh-Americans since the tragic events of 9/11.

The recent French ban on religious headgear made him stop and reflect on the greatness of America, he says. “Freedom and acceptance is the key to secularism. Trampling over the rights of your own citizens and forcing the people to follow a state-sponsored agnostic code cannot achieve secularism.”

His victory may be a long shot, but Kathuria hopes that his campaign for the U.S. Senate will help raise awareness of the value of religious freedom as enshrined in the Constitution.

Other Indian-American candidates are in the fray not just to raise issues, but also to win. “I have a real chance to win,” says Khanna, who has received endorsements from San Francisco Supervisors Matt Gonzalez and Chris Daly, and the California Democratic Council. Khanna has put together well-oiled campaign machinery with a proactive staff and a lively website, www.VoteRo.com, that demonstrate the seriousness of his candidacy.

At a recent fundraiser in the Silicon Valley, Stanford University Professor Rafiq Dossani commented, “Ro Khanna, whose worldview is global, is the kind of person we need to further the process of globalization in both the economic and social spheres.”

Donations have been coming in, and Khanna has already raised over $200,000. He estimates that another $100,000 of broad community support will enable him to get the necessary buzz in the media and win the primary. If he does, given the overwhelmingly liberal voting record of district, he is most likely to go to Washington in November.

Last year, Bobby Jindal came close to winning the Louisiana gubernatorial election in a high profile race. Upendra Chivukula won re-election to the New Jersey State Assembly, and Kamala Harris was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney. This year, according to the Indian American Leadership Initiative website, www.ialipac.org, there are over a dozen Indian-American contenders nationwide. Emerging from a population that has excelled in education, technology, entrepreneurship, and healthcare, these candidates now seek their own place at the table.

Ashok Jethanandani is the editor of India Currents.



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