Indian toehold in US political whirlpool
So far Indian Americans have given money in dribs and drabs and the great US political campaign vacuum has sucked it all up and not even burped. But as the community learns to organise, donate and demand, things may change, says Seema Sirohi
THE American political process at one level is transparent and simple — you pay money, you get results. It has taken Indian Americans some time to figure it out, but with Election 2002 they have made a smart beginning. No more peeking from the outside, scared to get their little hands dirty in the gushing waters of American politics. This time, they definitely dipped their toes and apart from the chills, they got some payback.
They ran for office both national and local, making a bit of history along the way. Swati Dandekar became the first Indian American woman to win elected office and is now a member of Iowa’s state legislature despite her Republican opponent’s malicious attempts to raise her caste, class and upbringing in India.
Two others were re-elected — Kumar Barve in Maryland and Satveer Chowdhry to the Minnesota state senate. Alas, all four who ran for national office lost their maiden bids, but they must be applauded for trying to break the drought on Indian American representation in the US Congress. The last man standing was Dilip Singh Saund in the 1950s who, incidentally, ran for office because no university would hire him as a professor in those days.
Now that the community is coming out of its suburban ghettos and viewing politics as a career roughly equivalent to medicine or science or computers, a mini-revolution is in the making. Provided, of course, it doesn’t get bogged down in petty squabbles and prolonged navel-gazing. The big picture will include a seat at the table of decision makers. The impact on Indo-US relations could be enormous in the future. A strong, well-organised lobby of Indian Americans can push for a clearer convergence of goals between the two countries, more than the jaded bureaucrats are prone to do.
For years, the rich and powerful Indians both in India and the United States have enviously admired the special relationship the Jewish community enjoyed with American politicians and wondered if they could recreate the magic. After all, the ingredients were there — Indian Americans are highly qualified, possess significant wealth and excel in their professions. But they lacked one thing — a well-oiled professional organisation to articulate their aspirations and beat the drums.
When they looked at the political access of the Jewish community, they found a highly structured kinship of contacts, networks and community relations smoothened by money. Jewish Americans across the country donate generously every election cycle, both individually and through more than 120 political action committees or PACs as they are commonly known. The PAC members rise up as a solid flank whenever any American president dares tell Israel to curb settlements or show restraint. They ensure that the annual $4 billion-aid package to Israel remains untouched irrespective of the budgetary gymnastics required at home.
The pro-Israeli PACs are linked to a single lobbying group — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC — which guides them on policy issues, alerting them of any mis-step, however small, by any politician on an issue affecting Israel. Campaign donations to the candidate start drying up unless the marked politician changes his tune. It works like clockwork and on many levels is a model for any political organisation in a democracy.
Well, Indian Americans have watched and learned, reverse engineering being one of the hallmarks of our ingenuity. They realised that although they donated more than $7 million to the two parties for the 2000 presidential elections, there was hardly any return on their investment. No senior Indian American was appointed to a media-visible post, none given a policy job requiring a Senate confirmation — a hallmark of prestige in the hierarchy of government jobs.
Even though 30 per cent of doctors in the US are Indian Americans, no President has got around to thinking about appointing an Indian American to the post of Surgeon General. And for all the tech innovation and ruling Silicon Valley, Indian Americans are invisible at the policy table on cyber legislation.
They gave the money but in dribs and drabs and here and there. The great vacuum of American political campaigns (this election cost $1 billion in campaign spending) simply sucked it up and didn’t even burp. But things may change in the future. Some of the far-sighted are finally coming up with a plan to organise, participate, donate and demand. They have launched their very first professional clearing house for money — US-India Political Action Committee or USINPAC and supported seven politicians this past election on the basis of their stand on immigration policy, relations with India and the policies as they affect Indian Americans in a post-September 11 scenario. They gave more than $50,000 in campaign donations to the selected politicians and six of them won.
Not a bad start for Sanjay Puri, USINPAC’s executive director, who is determined to emulate the successful model. He has lured two senior officers from pro-Israeli PACs to start the operations and to open doors on Capitol Hill. He is running the organisation with four full-time staffers and 20 ‘‘incredible’’ volunteers alongside his own company. He is ‘‘consolidating’’ the money so it comes from the PAC rather than individuals who are forgotten soon as the Congressman or Senator reaches Capitol Hill and begins enjoying national attention. A regular monthly breakfast is planned with key senators and lunch with that powerful army of young senatorial and congressional aides who pull the strings and write policy documents.
Also in the offing is an Indian American think-tank of sorts that will search and select good candidates for political office from the community. It will provide logistical support with communication and information. It is the second generation that is coming forward to demand its rightful place on the political stage. It is less burdened by its background and not afraid to build coalitions with other minorities in the country — African Americans, Hispanics and other people of Asian descent.
For the first-generation immigrants, American Blacks were not ‘‘people like us’’ and there was no overlapping of goals and strategy. But all that may change in the coming years — slowly by surely. —IE