Ami Bera took a much needed break from campaigning past week to show up at an Asian American community gala in Washington DC. It’s important to be seen at such events.
It helped, of course, to been seen around the most famous Democrat in town and country, President Barack Obama, the keynote speaker, who is seeking a second term.
Obama was pitching himself to a community that’s among the fastest growing, richest in the US, and one that is acutely aware of its own rising political clout.
Indian-Americans, the third largest Asian American community at 3.2 million, are among the most prosperous, and one of the most generous. They have donated lavishly to presidential candidates — Obama is a major beneficiary — and local politicians. It’s good to know local representatives, just in case.
But they now want to make their case themselves.
Bera says it’s time Indian Americans got a seat at the table.
“Who do we have in the House? Or in the Senate,” asked KP George, who is contesting from Texas, adding, “to turn to if the community ever needed help.”
There are then what some might call exaggerated fears.
“We don’t have any voice and I am sure one day we can be thrown out like Indians of African and Burma,” said Jayendra Shah, who is contesting in California. He was referring to the eviction of Indian settlers from Burma (now Myanmar) in 1962 by the military junta and from Uganda in 1972 by dictator Idi Amin.
Bera, George and Shah are among a record number of Indian-Americans running for office in 2012. At least 12 of them are contesting in congressional primaries.
There are others contesting for state Houses and Senates.
“Asian Americans are on the rise and much of the lift is from Indian Americans, who are gaining institutional capacity and political sophistication,” said Toby Chaudhury, a political strategist.
Most of those running now are seeking Democratic nominations — a recent survey showed Indian Americans are overwhelmingly pro-Democrats.
If any one of them wins eventually — not just the primaries, he or she will become only the second Indian-American elected to congress, more than 50 years after the first, Dalip Singh Saund.Saund, a PhD in Math who went on to become a successful farmer in California, was elected in 1956 and went on to serve two terms, each of two years.
The number of Indian-Americans has grown manifold since but they stayed away from politics, stepping out only to write cheques and volunteer for the usual suspects.
They haven’t sent anyone to congress since Saund.
The two Indian American governors — Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, both Republicans — remain largely state players.
Either America was not ready for them, or had changed its mind, or the Indian American community didn’t feel either the need for or the confidence to seek political power.
They made money, built large mansions, sent their children to expensive private schools and vacationed in Europe. But they kept to themselves, individually and as a community.
They are now ready, a number of them ran for congress in 2010 — Bera, Manan Trivedi and a few others. But the country didn’t seem ready for them.
Now, it is. Schmoozing reporters in a corner of the hall, while waiting for President Obama to arrive Bera, a doctor, said: “This country is absolutely ready now.
This is his second run. He got swept away by the Republican Tsunami that hit Democrats in November, 2010, a defeat Obama described as “shellacking”.
This time? It’s going to be better, he said.
Chiefly because he has learnt his lessons: “I have learnt that raising funds will not be enough to win elections, you have to connect with people”.
Bera, therefore, is spending a lot of time on the road this time.
What about help from the Indian American community? Volunteers are pouring in from all over the state, he said, adding that some have come even from other states.
Bera perhaps has been luckier.
“I have found the Indian American community lacking enthusiasm,” said a candidate requesting not be identified because of the damaging nature of his statement.
He has had some help from friends and family, but not from the community. People from other Asian American communities have stepped up, but not “our own people”.