March of the Desi Brigade

By Yashwant Raj

6th November, 2016

Donald Trump doesn’t have the vote or support of most Indian Americans, but they do concede that his presence at a New Jersey rally in October marked a watershed moment for them.

It was the first time that a US presidential nominee had made a direct pitch to them, bowl in hand, acknowledging the growing clout of America’s wealthiest and best educated ethnic group.

Hillary Clinton, his rival, hadn’t made a matching bid, but she remembered to extend Diwali greetings to the community, and so did Evan McMullin, the independent hoping to draw away conservatives from Trump.

And the Republican nominee’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, attended a Diwali function in Virginia, a swing state, to which Indian Americans held the key because of changing demographics.

It’s turning out to be quite an election for the community. There have never been so many Indian-Americans in the race for the Congress, past the primaries: six, including, Kamala Harris for senate, and the five – Ami Bera, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jaypal, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Peter Jacob – for the House of Representatives.

Moreover, the rest of the community has not exactly been on the sidelines, cheering quietly. They are out there raising money, organising events and displaying a mobilisation that has never been seen before.“This is really a historic year for Indian Americans,” Shekar Narasimhan, a Democratic strategist and a top fundraiser for Clinton, said, adding, “and a coming of age for the community.”

Shalli Kumar, the Chicago businessman who founded the Republican Hindu Coalition that staged the Trump event in New Jersey, has also emerged as one of the most generous donors from the Indian-American community. He is said to have spent millions in direct contributions to the presidential and congressional campaigns, plus expenses on events.

And some Indian-Americans also hold top positions in the presidential campaigns– at least in Clinton’s campaign. Neera Tanden, a long-time Clinton aide and policy adviser to President Barack Obama, is one of the four co-chairs of Clinton’s transition team; and Mini Thimmaraju heads Clinton’s outreach to women.

They’ve come a long way from Dalip Singh Saund, the first Indian American to have even made it to the top echelons of politics in the US: he was the first member from the community to have been elected to the House of Representatives in 1956.

A Saund Start

Dalip Singh Saund

A farmer-mathematician from California, Saund was the first Indian-American elected to the US Congress, in 1956. Saund was from Punjab, and reached the US in 1920, after finishing college. He married an american and became an American citizen in 1949.

In 1950, he ran and won the election for county judge but was turned down because he hadn’t been a citizen long enough. In 1953, he ran for the same post and won. By 1955, Saund started considering running for the Congress as a Democrat and won the party nomination, and the election.

Bobby Jindal

A Republican who became the second Indian-American in US congress, Jindal was the first from the community to be elected governor of Louisiana state.

Named Piyush Jindal by his parents, he preferred to be called Bobby and changed his religion to Christianity. He also claimed that he was tired of being Indian-American.

Jindal went on to run for the White House, becoming the first Indian-American to do so. But in 2015, he didn’t make it past the primaries, swept aside by Donald Trump.

Nikki Haley

A Republican and the second Indian-American to be elected governor. She is now serving a second term as governor of South Carolina. Originally from Punjab, Haley served in the state legislature of South Carolina from 2005-2011, before running for governor.

She is a rising star in the Republican party and was considered as a running mate for the party’s presidential nominee, till Trump grabbed the ticket.

The Gladiators, 2016

Ami Bera, 51

A doctor, Bera is running for a third term from California. His parents came here in 1958 from Gujarat. He became member of the House of Representatives in 2013, as the third Indian-American to be elected to Congress.

Pramila Jayapal, 51

A Washington state Senator, Jaypal is running US House of Representatives as a progressive. She came to the us as a 16-year-old to study. She went on to become a leading advocate. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has supported her and shared his email list of donors with her.

Rohit “Ro” Khanna, 39

A lawyer who served in the Obama administration as a senior official, is running for the second time to unseat a seven-term incumbent democratic member of the House of Representatives. Khanna failed narrowly in 2014. This time, he is faring better, and has been constantly out-raising his rival, who is twice his age.

Kamala Harris, 51

California’s attorney general, running for senate has been called a front-runner by US media. Her mother is Indian and father, Jamaican. If elected, she will be the first Indian-American senator. President Barack Obama once called her “brilliant”, “tough” , “the country’s best looking attorney general”, which he later apoligised for.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, 51

“I like to joke that I want to increase the number [of Indian-Americans in Congress] by 100 per cent,” says Krishnamoorthi, who is running from Illinois. A Harvard and Princeton alumnus, Krishnamoorthi met Obama in 1998, and worked as a “low-level policy researcher” on his 2000 campaign.

Kesha Ram, 51

A member of the state legislature in Vermont, Ram is running for the post of Lt. Governor. Watching Obama speak at her university, Ram thought, ‘If there was a place for someone like him in politics, maybe there is a place for some like me”. She ran for the state legislature at the age of 21, and won.

Peter Jacob,30

He has never held any elected office, but is confident of unseating the incumbent, a republican who has held the seat since 2009. He became a social worker after college. Jacob has said, “I am not running to climb a political ladder. I will ensure that my fellow citizens...are able to thrive in the same American dream that my family was able to.”

The Strategists

Neera Tanden, 45

A long-time Clinton aide who served as policy adviser to President Barack Obama and worked on his signature healthcare reform legislation, Tanden is co-chair of the Clinton transition team, which will select the roughly 3,000 political positions across the administration that come and go with presidents. Tanden is expected to land a senior position in a Clinton administration herself, possibly in the cabinet.

Maya Harris, 49

Kamala Harris’s younger sister was one of three top policy advisers helping Clinton formulate the agenda. A lawyer and public policy advocate, Maya became one of the youngest law school deans in the country at 29, and she did so while raising her daughter on her own. She has served as the former vice president of democracy, rights, and justice at the Ford Foundation and was a fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Mini Timmaraju

She heads the Clinton campaign’s women outreach effort as National Women’s Vote Director. Before that, Mini was national director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, where she managed legislative, advocacy and communications strategy for a coalition of 34 national Asian Pacific American organizations. She was also chief of staff to congressman Ami Bera, the only Indian American in the US Congress.

Raj Shah, 30

Shah is the Research Director and Deputy Communications Director at the Republican National Committee. As co-founder of the right-leaning opposition research firm America Rising, he developed the organisation’s Hillary Clinton opposition research book — essentially an exhaustive list of dirt on the Democratic nominee. A graduate of Cornell, he has also served in the Bush administration.

Web production by Gurman Bhatia
Illustrations by Mohit Suneja
Edited by Namita Kohli