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Samosa Caucus: Indian Americans in US Congress are emerging as a power bloc

A new power bloc rises in the US. Can an Indian American some day be president of the United States?

long reads Updated: May 22, 2017 12:02 IST
Yashwant Raj
Potentially presidential: Congresswoman Kamala Harris.
Potentially presidential: Congresswoman Kamala Harris.(File photo)

As the young Congressman peered intently at the faces of Indian Americans around him in a small, crowded hall inside the Indian embassy in downtown DC, he felt a rush of emotion; he felt beholden to them. “I stand on your shoulders to be in the United States Congress,” he said, tapping the podium, as was his habit, with his pen. “Please visit me in our office; my office is your office, and anything you need on any issue, you come to us and we will help you. Pramila, me, Ami, Ro and everyone else – we are at your service.” He calls them the “Samosa Caucus”.

That was Raja Krishnamurthi, one of five Indian Americans elected to the US Congress that started its 115th two-year term in 2017. The three he mentioned by their first names were Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna – all elected to the House of Representatives – and Kamala Harris, the one he missed, is the fifth of the group and the first American of Indian descent elected to the Senate.

They are all Democrats, relatively young – with Bera, Harris and Jayapal the oldest, at 51 – and brimming with hope, plans and ambition. They made history in the past election by winning in record numbers. They are now caucusing as a group in the US legislature in the tradition of India Caucus, the Black Caucus and various other groupings, which, however, are officially recognised as such.

The Samosa Caucus is not there yet, but a beginning has been made.

Interview: ‘An Indian American may one day be the US president,’ says Ami Bera

“Basically, it’s really nice to be with my fellow Indian Americans in Congress,” Krishnamurthi said in an interview, while sitting on the steps of the embassy, as he greeted the visitors rushing in and out, some of whom he recognised by face and name, who were clearly thrown by his impressive memory.

“We all get along, we all talk often and we share … um … different ideas with each other … we sign on to each other’s bills and the one issue on which we all are pushing very hard is doing something about hate crimes, against any minority – Indian Americans, Hindu Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikhs, Jains … anyone.”

Krishnamurthi is particularly proud of a letter he started that was promptly signed by the rest of the Samosa Caucus, and then by over 70 other lawmakers, urging the administration to address the issue of hate crimes, in the days following the shocking murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer killed by an allegedly inebriated man who claimed to have mistaken him and his friend for middle-easterners, in other words, Muslims.

Krishnamurthi and the other lawmakers who signed, handed over the letter to the Secretary for Homeland Security John Kelly. Was that the first success of the caucus? “Not sure about that,” he said, laughing, but clearly proud of the effort. “But sure hope it will be one among many.”

The five Indian Americans elected to US Congress in 2016 for a two-year term starting 2017, are the pride of a tiny minority of around three million Americans of Indian descent who have begun seeking political clout commensurate with their economic strength as the wealthiest community in the country.

And they have their sights set on the loftiest political prize of all – the White House.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was born in India. She came to the US as a student and stayed on. (CQ-Roll Call,Inc)

Power bloc

Pramila Jayapal moved her first legislation with Harris. Called Access to Counsel Act, it was moved in the immediate aftermath of the outrage felt in the United States and the world over President Donald Trump’s first executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. The legislation guaranteed legal counsel to those detained or stopped. “It’s been a wonderful couple of months working with our small group – the Samosa Caucus or the Fabulous Five (as they have also been called), whatever you want to call us,” said Jayapal.

They were called the Fabulous Five at a ball thrown by Indiaspora, an organisation that does advocacy for the Indian American community, which is less than one per cent of the total population of the United States but punches above its weight because of its economic clout. But Samosa Caucus has a nicer ring to it, and it is original. You can take your pick, as Jayapal said.

They share an easy camaraderie and began bonding even before they arrived in DC to start work. They were on each other’s speed dial from the very early days, say staff, and were constantly checking with each other on what to do, where to go, whom to meet. With the exception of Khanna, who served in the commerce department in the Obama administration, none of them had more than a nodding acquaintance with DC, the much-derided city of power-brokers and self-serving lobbyists that every politician starts by running down but quietly fades into its fold with the passage of time.

After leaving the commerce department, Khanna moved back to California where he worked as a lawyer and ran for the House of Representatives. He won on his second attempt, as did Krishnamurthi, who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Jayapal lived in Seattle, Washington, where she was a member of the state legislature, and Harris was the attorney general of California. They were all new to Washington DC.

Ami Bera, 51, is a Washington DC veteran. He is the seniormost member of the caucus. (MCT via Getty Images)

Bera, on the other hand, was a DC veteran. Though a native of California, he has lived here for more than four years now, on and off, serving a third term. He has been inside the Beltway, a Ring Road-kind of highway that runs around Washington DC, seen the hardscrabble life of a politician – he “bore all the bruises on his back”, as a Democrat strategist said – and he knows J Street (not a street but a lobbying firm), from K Street, a street that houses some of the country’s marquee names in lobbying.

Bera quickly became their mentor for all things DC – assuming the role of the Dean of the Samosa Caucus, as a Democratic strategist who has worked closely with the Indian Americans said – advising them on where to stay in DC (unlike in India, lawmakers do not get state accommodation), where to go, which events to attend. “Ami Bera has been wonderful to all of us,” said Jayapal, informally speaking for the group. “He has been generous with his knowledge, making sure that we go to certain events that he thinks we should go to, that we are involved in events he has been invited to, especially those with Indian Americans.”

In his third term in Congress, Bera is quite the veteran. “I remember four years ago, how overwhelming it was when I first got elected,” Bera said, adding, “Trying to hire staff, set up an office, select committees and just learning what it means to be a member of the House of Representatives.” In fact, he was only the third Indian American ever elected to US Congress, coming four years after Bobby Jindal, who finished his two terms in 2008 and left to run for Louisiana governor. The first was Dalip Singh Saund, who had left Congress 45 years before, in 1963.

Ro Khanna shot to national fame with a widely reported visit to coal mines in Kentucky, a Republican state won in a landslide by Trump. He served in the commerce department of the Obama administration. (File photo)

The big picture

In an interview to this reporter in 2012, shortly after assuming office to start his first term, Bera had seemed impressed by how far the community had come. He spoke of the time when he served as an intern on Capitol Hill, home to the US legislature, in 1985, when there were hardly any Indian Americans around. Things have changed dramatically since.

Bera was himself tentative when he started off, a physician by training who switched to politics. But he settled down quickly, and the Beltway’s Indian Americans couldn’t stop celebrating that they had one of their own in Congress, once again.

And now, there are five of them: the Samosa Caucus. “But don’t let them give you the impression it’s all kumbaya among them,” an Indian American who knows them said on the condition of anonymity so as to be able to speak freely. “And it’s more than sibling rivalry.”

They keep an eye on each other, watch their moves as they chart their careers, build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses. Khanna, for instance, shot to national fame with a widely reported visit to coal mines in Kentucky, a Republican state won in a landslide by Trump. The news site, Politico, ran a story about it with this headline: “Silicon Valley sends ambassador to Trump’s coal country.” Khanna’s Congressional District 17 in California is literally home to Silicon Valley.

Everyone is watching everyone. Also at stake is the community pot, which they will dip into to fund their elections, which can work as both seed money and a supplementary add-on. But Shekar Narasimha, a Democratic strategist and prolific fund-raiser for the party, said he was not worried. “There is plenty of money going around for them to worry – the pot has been growing, from 2008 to 2012, to 2014 to 2016.”

THE POWER PLAYERS

Potentially presidential: Kamala Harris, 51

The first Indian American elected to the US Senate, her heritage is mixed: African American (Jamaican from her her father’s side) and Indian American (her mother is from Chennai). Desis wonder which way she leans. “She hasn’t had as much of an outreach to the community as we would like her to,” said an Indian American Democrat, who requested anonymity, ”but we understand she has a bigger constituency to cater to, the African-Americans.” They are willing to cut her some slack, they say, if she needs to make it to the White House, a goal that appears tantalisingly close to the community because of the dizzying rise of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to UN, a cabinet-level position that sets her up for a run, at least in the eyes of many Indian American Republicans.

‘Dean of the Caucus’: Ami Bera, 51

A doctor by training, Bera, the senior-most among Indian American legislators, is into his third term. Each of his elections were nail-bitingly close. His politics is centrist, accommodative of the disparate streams of thought. He is said to be the Dean of the Caucus. Born to Gujarati immigrants from India, Bera has retained a strong, continuing link with India. In his previous two terms, he emerged as an influential voice on South Asia. He travelled to India and co-chaired the India Caucus in the House of Representatives. “The Indian American community has done very well… One day we may see an Indian American President – after all, this is the America we believe in,” he said in an interview. He is, however, not a big fan of the name ‘Samosa Caucus’.

The Resistance: Pramila Jayapal, 51

Jayapal was born in India. She came to the US as a 16-year-old student and stayed on. She has emerged as one of the leading lights of the Resistance, a movement launched by Democrats to rally their troops against President Trump, leveraging her expertise as an immigrant lawyer. The objective of the bicameral legislation she moved with Senator Kamala Harris was to guarantee legal counsel to those detained or held under Trump’s first executive order temporarily banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. With her political hero Bernie Sanders, the hard-charging progressive, she moved legislation aimed at guaranteeing free college education to eligible students and helping others pay off their college loans.

Silicon Valley’s ambassador to the US: Ro Khanna, 39

Khanna has been as busy as his other Indian American colleagues. He has sponsored one legislation and co-sponsored 108, essentially signing on to those moved by other lawmakers (just for perspective, Krishnamurthi sponsored 5 and co-sponsored 51, Jayapal 3 and 132 and Bera, 1 and 64). Among those Khanna co-sponsored was one that proposed tightening the H-1B visa programme to discourage outsourcing and encourage companies to hire locally. While this made him seem anti-India, Khanna’s position was that the nation was in the mood to “fix abuse”. Many Indian Americans said “he has to represent his constituency.” And his constituency is Silicon Valley. He was born in the US, but remembers vacations in India with his grandparents, who lived in Nizamuddin, New Delhi.

Raja Krishnamurthi ‘s bipartisan effort as a legislator on hate crimes in the aftermath of the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, was well received and widely covered in the media. (CQ-Roll Call,Inc)

People’s person: Raja Krishnamurthi, 42

He has charted a course for himself that, said a Democrat strategist, is based on his belief that “his best use is somewhere between all these Indian Americans”, with a distinctly clear pitch to the community and a readiness to cooperate with it at every opportunity. His bipartisan effort as a legislator on hate crimes in the aftermath of the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, was well received and widely covered in the media. More than 70 lawmakers, including his Samosa Caucus colleagues, signed a letter addressed to John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security, on the issue. Krishnamurthi was born in Delhi’s Willingdon Hospital, since rechristened Ram Manohar Lohia hospital.

Being a Hindu who took the oath of office with a hand on the Bhagwat Gita, Tulsi Gabbard won over the community of Indian Americans, a majority of whom are Hindu, and has built on this support. (CQ-Roll Call)

A DISTANT DESI: Tulsi Gabbard, 36

Many mistake Gabbard, a Democrat, for Indian American, because of her name and her religion, which catapulted her to early fame in her legislative career as the first Hindu ever elected to US Congress. Gabbard is a Hindu though. Being a Hindu who took the oath of office with a hand on the Bhagwat Gita, she won over the community of Indian Americans, a majority of whom are Hindu, overnight and has built on this support. She has developed a relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unmatched as yet by anyone in the Samosa Caucus. Modi sent BJP leader Ram Madhav to represent him at her wedding in 2015, for instance. And she was recently named co-chair of the India caucus of the House of Representatives, further strengthening her India credentials.