Indian-Americans eye US Congress posts

  • Yashwant Raj
  • Updated: May 29, 2016 07:44 IST

WASHINGTON: He likes to joke on the campaign trail that he plans to double the number of Indian-Americans in US House of representatives. That’s not very ambitious, given the base.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, a smalltime businessman, is running for the House from District 8 of President Barack Obama’s home state Illinois, and won his Democratic primary last March.

This is a Democratic district and he is most likely to be elected to the House in the general election in November, pushing up the tally of Indian-American members.

Ami Bera is currently the only Indian-American in the House and is running for reelection. If the two of them win, Krishnamoorthi would have vindicated himself.

“I like to joke that I want to increase the number by 100%,” Krishnamoorthi said in a recent conference call with Washington-based reporters for Indian news publications.

In fact, the Indian-American community expects to scale up its presence in the US Congress substantially this year — three or four times, by some account. Things have never looked better.

Kamala Harris, who is running for the US Senate from California, has been called the frontrunner, and Ro Khanna, who is fighting for the House from the same state has been outraising his rival.

In Washington, Democrat Pramila Jaypal, who is running for the House of Representatives, has the benefit of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ list of donors.

“This is looking like a good year for Indian-Americans,” said a Democratic strategist, who is backing some of the above candidates with advice and resources.

Shekar Narasimhan, a senior Democratic strategist of Indian descent, said he sees in the candidates a certain level of maturity that comes only with experience, and doggedness.

Asked what he is doing differently this time, Krishnamoorthi said: “The most important thing I learnt was to not run against Tammy Duckworth.”

He lost miserably to Duckworth, a US army helicopter pilot — who lost both her legs and severely damaged an arm in combat in Iraq — in the 2012 Democratic primaries. He was wiser for it, and didn’t run against her in 2014. And, now that she has set her sights on the US Senate, he is back in the fray, with more than a decent chance of being elected.

Born in New Delhi, Krishnamoorthi, 42, came to the US with his parents when he was three. He grew up in Peoria, Illinois. And after school, he studied mechanical engineering at Princeton and law at Harvard, like President Obama.

Krishnamoorthi met Obama in 1998 and worked as a “lowlevel policy researcher” on his 2000 campaign for the US House, when he tried to unseat a powerful incumbent. That campaign didn’t go too well for Obama.

“In 2002, he told me he had one race left in him and he said - would you be my policy director?” Krishnamoorthi recalled, adding, he jumped at the offer and was on board. That was Obama’s Senate campaign, and he won.

It was an eye-opening development for Krishnamoorthi and many other aspiring Indian-descent politicians — “that people of Illinois were willing to look past the colour of your skin”.

Kesha Ram, an Indian - American running for the post of Lt Governor in Sanders’ home state Vermont, has also cited Obama as her inspiration for entering politics.

“I am a unique breed of Democrats,” she said. “I am a small business democrat, and a progressive and also someone who believes in entrepreneurship and helping small businesses.”

David Axelrod, one of the two Davids (David Plouffe is the other one) widely credited with engineering Obama’s rise to the White House, has endorsed Krishnamoorthi.

So has the Democratic senator from Illinois and an early Obama backer, Dick Durbin, who is also a strident critic of Indian IT firms, who, he argues, are shipping American jobs abroad.

Can Krishnamoorthi change the narrative, if elected? He will be a powerful voice on the issue if elected, said Ronak Desai, a DC lawyer who is volunteering for Krishnamoorthi.

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