Power play: Indian-American Fab Five formally enter US Congress on Tuesday
Raja Krishnamoorthi was once called Roger Christian Murphy by a voter who wondered how and when the Irish reached India. A man he cold-called for a donation insisted he had already sent him a check, mistaking him for a lawmaker named Murphy.
Krishnamoorthi, who takes these experiences with a chuckle, may fare better next time with his voters in Illinois when he seeks re-election. He may not have to run ads tagged, “Just call me Raja”. Krishnamoorthi will do, perhaps.
Born in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, the 42-year-old will be among five Indian-Americans — a record turnout from a minority community of three million — who will take the oath of office as members of the new US Congress on Tuesday.
The other four are Ami Bera, who starts his third term, Rohit “Ro” Khanna from California and Pramila Jayapal from Washington state for the House of Representatives and Kamala Harris, also from California, for the Senate.
All five are Democrats, as are the bulk of Indian-Americans, despite the two Republican governors - Nikki Haley, who is still serving but has been nominated as US ambassador to the UN, and Bobby Jindal, who just finished his term.
2016 was a bumper year for the Indian-American community, with a record haul of four — their number ranged previously between zero, mostly, and one, occasionally — in the House of Representatives, and their first seat in the Senate.
There were other firsts as well. Jayapal and Harris, who is also of Jamaican descent on her father’s side, were the first Indian-American women elected to Congress, and to their respective chambers, the House and the Senate.
Dalip Singh Saund, who came to the US from Punjab around 1920, was the first Indian-American elected to Congress when he won a seat in the House from California in 1956. A Democrat, he went on to win two more terms.
The next Indian-American would enter Congress after more than 40 years, when Jindal was elected to the House from Louisiana in 2004. He won a second term before returning to state politics in Louisiana.
Bera, the third Indian-American elected to Congress, started in 2012. He won a second term in 2014 and will begin his third term on Tuesday. The senior-most Indian-American in the House, he also co-chairs the India Caucus.
He has already assumed the role of a mentor to the first-timers. “I like the fact that I can call or text Ami and ask him what does he think about x in terms of logistics,” Krishnamoorthi said on a recent call with reporters.
They are texting or calling each other as well. Mostly about “mundane stuff”, said Krishnamoorthi - about their offices and what gatherings or parties to attend, but the new congressman believes these conversations will get serious over time.
Probably once they are assigned to House committees, or of the Senate as the case would be for Harris, that have direct oversight over specific executive branch functions. Bera has been a member of the House foreign affairs committee, for instance.
He is also on the subcommittee that oversees the conduct of US relations with Asia, including India, and was among the handful of lawmakers who travelled with President Barack Obama on his second visit to India in January 2015.
Bera, a physician of Gujarati descent, has been a steadfast backer of India, and has been a key voice in support of India at hostile House hearings during which even long-time sympathisers were found flowing with bile.
All five of them maintain strong links with India. Krishnamoorthi was in Chennai recently with his wife and their infant daughter to meet relatives in a low-key visit that seemed to have completely escaped media attention.
Jayapal had her mother over from India to campaign for her, which, she has said, went off surprisingly well belying her initial trepidation. Harris has recalled her trips to India to meet her grandfather, on her mother’s side, also in Chennai.
For factoid freaks, in conclusion: three of the Fab Five trace their roots to Chennai - Krishnamoorthi, Jayapal and Harris - one to Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state — Bera — and one to Delhi’s Nizamuddin area — Khanna.