As the US presidential campaign picks up steam, Indian-Americans expect to play a small but pivotal role in deciding who will be the next Oval Office inhabitant.
This reflects both the unusually open nature of the 2008 race and the financial clout of the Indian-American community. "All the candidates want our support and this gives us a chance to push our agenda," says Sanjay Puri of the Washington-based US-India Political Action Committee.
One person who is already wooing Indian-Americans is Hillary Clinton. In announcing her intention to run for the White House on Saturday, Clinton implicitly admitted she cannot assume the Democratic Party nomination is hers by default.
She has a healthy lead over her main challengers, Senators Barack Obama and John Edwards, in national polls and in terms of funding. But in the first states that kick off the process by which Democrats choose their candidate — Iowa and New Hampshire — all three are neck-and-neck. Early defeats could throw her campaign machine into reverse gear.
With 12 Democratic contenders already in the fray, Indian-American political activists see opportunity in this crowded field. "For the first time in a long time there is no incumbent president nor even a vice-president running," says Puri of USINPAC. Since many of the candidates are originally local politicians, they have all interacted with Indian-Americans. "Many candidates are senators and governors. They have worked before with Indian-Americans."
Indian-Americans are also noteworthy because of their wealth — one in nine is a millionaire. Tapping them for funds has become important to all US politicians.
Clinton and the other New York candidate, Republican Rudy Giuliani, have an eye to raising funds from the Indian-American community. New York City and its environs have the single largest Indian-American concentration in the US.
Clinton’s fund-raising from Indians has not been without controversy. Restaurant owner Sant Singh Chatwal is one of her largest individual donors, providing her over $200,000 for a senatorial campaign. Yet Chatwal was charged by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation with defrauding an Indian bank in 1996.
Says Arjun Bhagat, a California real estate developer who has been active in Democratic fund-raising for four years, "The buzz in the party is a groundswell of support for Clinton. The only question is whether she is electable on the national level."
Indian-Americans are an important swing vote in New Hampshire. Though they number only 10,000, in the thinly populated state this makes them one of the largest ethnic minorities, larger even than Latinos.
Indian lobbyists like USINPAC have been holding "house meetings" with almost all the candidates, ranging from the key Republican contender, John McCain, to the main Democratic challenger, Obama. However, it is the Democratic fold where things have come to a boil first.
Indian-Americans are expected to both vote and donate in higher than normal numbers this campaign. A Republican shift among younger Indian-Americans that had begun in 2004-05 seems to have been arrested by the Iraq war.