Nearly a century ago, a young man arrived at a university in California seeking to study the canning of fruits. Instead of a career in agri-processing, he ended up with a doctorate in mathematics. But he couldn’t get employment in that field as the American immigration system of that time did a number on him: Those from India were barred from citizenship.
It took a quarter-century for that exclusive club to be disbanded. About a decade later, he entered politics and in 1957 became the first-ever Indian-American to be elected to the US House of Representatives. That, of course, was Dalip Singh Saund. He also visited India as a one-man Congressional sub-committee to foster ties between the United States and Asian nations.
While Saund was the pioneer, it took over 50 years for the next Indian-American to be elected to the House — Bobby Jindal in 2004. In another eight years, Ami Bera became the third. Now, in 2016, that total notched up over 60 years, could be matched in a single election cycle.
Bera faces serious re-election headwinds due to the charges against his father for gaming the donation system to funnel funds to his campaign. But others could make it to Capitol Hill. The prospects include Raja Krishnamoorthi in Illinois, who was policy director for Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign; Pramila Jayapal in Washington state; Ro Khanna in Silicon Valley; and potentially Peter Jacob in New Jersey. Kamala Harris is identified as an African-American, but is comfortable with her mother’s Indian heritage, and will almost certainly become a Senator from California.
It isn’t as if Indian-Americans have been missing in political action. After all, we’ve had Jindal as the governor of Louisiana and governor Nikki Haley in South Carolina. Many have figured in Congressional polls past. Those like Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania or Ashwin Madia in Minnesota, came close without closing the deal. Even Bera only managed to capture his seat in his second attempt. Others like Raj Bhakta of Pennsylvania will remain better known for wearing just briefs while being chased around a tennis court by Anna Kournikova on an episode of The Apprentice.
The difference in this year’s slate of House races, barring that of Jacob’s, is that the Indian-Americans are nominated not to swingable seats but winnable ones. In fact, in the cases of Krishnamoorthi, endorsed by Obama, and Jayapal, supported by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, or Khanna, they are in deep blue Democratic waters, and things ought to go swimmingly for them.
At about a per cent of the American population, their numbers shouldn’t add up this way. Unlike several Canadian House of Commons’ ridings, there isn’t a single House seat in America where Indian-Americans form a critical mass. But the fallow field has given way to fertile soil mainly because the cropping pattern has changed. While the prior generation wallowed in being cheque-mates to politicians, given to forking out donations in exchange for photo-ops, their juniors took to populating the political space. Krishnamoorthi, for instance, was a “lowly researcher” for Obama’s failed Congressional run in 2000. So, despite being a demographic featherweight, the Indian-American community is punching way above its category.
New Delhi should be grinning with delight. Each of these newbies wants to be part of the India-US calculus, like Bera, who is a co-chair of the India Caucus. They could be the secret sauce to making the bilateral curry sizzle. Not that this is a particularly newfound ingredient. In his time, Saund was also an India booster, though his was a lonely voice. Now, there could be a chorus. Change in the White House is unlikely to alter this symphony.
When Saund was national president of the Hindustani Association of America, he wrote, “All of us were ardent nationalists and we never passed up an opportunity to expound on India’s rights,” according to a PBS biography. His memoir is titled Congressman from India.
When Saund ran for Congress, the term Indian-American didn’t even exist. Those from the subcontinent were described as Hindus. Sixty years later, they’re on the political scene with an identity that’s far more complex and also much more consequential.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal