Why you should care
Indian-Americans are a growing political force and a constituency worth capturing.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Discard your stereotypes about striver doctors and IT nerds and convenience store clerks. Leave aside, for the moment, the Jindals and Haleys whitewashing up for their Southern conservative constituencies. And forget — please, for the love of Krishna, forget —your ABCDs. After a generation and a half relegated to model minority status, Indian-Americans are starting to come into their own as a political — and progressive — force. No longer content to become the quiet doctors, bankers and engineers they were groomed to be, a rising generation of desis (that’s Hindi shorthand for “from India”) are entering politics, activism and civil rights at a rate that makes their cautious elders’ heads spin.
“There’s been an explosion of Indian-Americans on the D.C. scene,” says Vikrum Aiyer, a 27-year-old advisor in the Department of Commerce who has also been a speechwriter and advisor to the Obama administration. In 2007, Aiyer chagrined his parents by dropping off the law-school path, and since then he has noticed many more South Asians on Capitol Hill.
For this, Aiyer credits a perfect storm of conditions. The 2008 financial crisis sent “shock waves into stable recruiting paths” that young, privileged desis relied on, like banking and consulting. Around the same time, a critical mass of “rogue dreamers and organizers intrigued by government and policy issues” accumulated, providing “proof of concept” for their younger cousins. Today, young South Asians serve as speechwriters, campaign strategists and political operatives, and record numbers are seeking elected office. In Washington, D.C., a “Desi Power Hour” functions as a sort of South Asian brain trust, connecting ambitious politicos with one another and with job opportunities.
It’s not just Politics with a Capital P, either. Jeena Shah, an Indian American human rights lawyer who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a leading rights organization, was surprised at the number of other South Asian women who worked there, too. She thought she was avant-garde when she arrived but quickly realized, “Oh my God, there are all these Indian women everywhere — I’m not breaking down any doors or barriers!”
The shift into politics, and leftward, has a lot to do with demographics and the passage of time. The number of Indian-Americans has grown rapidly in recent years, from about 1.7 million in 2000 to 2.8 million a decade later, helping to make South Asians overall the United States’ fastest growing immigrant group. Over the same period, the campaigns of Barack Obama struck a particular chord with South Asians, especially after many of them perceived a new and frightening xenophobia after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. One of the first hate crimes after 9/11 was against Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas-station owner in Arizona. His murderers assumed that because Singh wore a turban, he was a Muslim and complicit in the terrorist attacks.
“Obama’s story is not just that of an African-American, but, in a lot of ways, that of an Indian-American,” says Parag Mehta, 37, who trained activists all over the country during his years at the Democratic National Committee. “He is the son of an immigrant, was raised by a mother and grandparents who believed in education as a silver bullet, and worked his way up, genuinely believing that merit would trump race in his path to success.”
Mehta, now a special assistant at the Department of Labor, says that Obama, and Bill Clinton before him, saw South Asians as a constituency worth courting, and they did so in ways that meant a great deal. Clinton cultivated a generation of Indian-American heavy hitters and visited India twice during his presidency. Obama’s first state dinner was with Indian prime minister Manhoman Singh. He also appointed a record number of Indian-Americans to senior administration positions. Even before he was elected president, Obama deployed one of his old law school classmates, former New York State solicitor general Preeta Bansal, to cold-call registered desi Democrats in Iowa in advance of the 2008 caucuses. (She spent half an hour talking to your correspondent’s Indian-Iowan parents, making sure to call them “auntie” and “uncle.”)
Some 84 percent of Indian-American voters cast their ballots for Obama in the 2012 election, a marked shift leftward.
It worked. According to an exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, some 84 percent of Indian-American voters cast their ballots for Obama in the 2012 election, a marked shift leftward. Until 1994, Asian-American voters tended to come down evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Mehta says. “There’s an anecdotal myth out there that uncles and aunties are overwhelmingly Republican,” says Mehta, but it’s not accurate: The breakdown depends on class, profession and gender. “Aunties, for example, say something quite different when they’re not with their husbands.”
Many young political desis have already done the unimaginable by convincing their parents that politics can make for a viable career. Still, the elders don’t always approve. Aunties are prone to say things like, “Children from good families don’t go into politics,” while parents worry about the stability of a career in politics or activism.
Part of the reason is that politics in India are perceived as more corrupt and less public-minded than politics in the United States. Generational differences in risk-tolerance factor in too. The first generation of Indian immigrants to the United States, who arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s, kept their heads down and their noses to the grindstones. A great number were doctors and engineers, products of India’s post-independence technocratic boom. While many ended up in ethnic enclaves in the New York/New Jersey area or in the Bay Area, others moved to small towns where assimilation was a survival skill. Though able to provide their families a better standard of living than most immigrant groups in the United States, first-generation desis knew the value of political quiescence.
But, some aunties say, children from good families don’t go into politics.
“Political activism wasn’t a feasible career option for them,” says Nisha Agarwal, 34, deputy director and a co-founder of the Center for Popular Democracy in New York, which works on organization and mobilization strategies for grassroots groups. Though her parents support her work and “have a generally progressive view of the world, they never see themselves as activists.” Agarwal says that many in her parents’ generation came to the United States to give their children the opportunity to do what they wanted.
Shah, the human rights lawyer, echoes the sentiment. “Because my parents paved the way for me and my sisters, we’ve had the luxury of deciding how active we want to be, how loud we want to be. It’s a privilege I’ve been afforded because I didn’t actually have to worry about being an immigrant in the United States.”
Although a good number of desis skew liberal, there is in some quarters a classist aversion to identify as a “person of color” or with the struggles of other brown- and black-skinned people. Aiyer believes that South Asian Americans are still developing their political identity and voice. There is as yet no desi Cory Booker.
Still, as an ethnic group, Indian-Americans are remaking the political landscape at a fast pace, as players and as voters. “This is all progress,” says Mehta. “It’s how immigrants become American.”
After scoring a job with the Obama-Biden transition team, Mehta came home to his father in Texas and asked, “Did you ever think your son would be working for the president of the United States?”
“My dad said, very correctly, ‘Beta, that’s exactly what I thought.’”