Million dollar path to Washington

A million dollars won’t go very far in Silicon Valley. But raised in one quarter, that money went far enough for a young Indian-American, running for US congress. Yashwant Raj reports.
Hindustan Times | By Yashwant Raj
UPDATED ON JUL 28, 2013 03:20 AM IST

A million dollars won’t go very far in Silicon Valley. But raised in one quarter, that money went far enough for a young Indian-American, running for US congress.

Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna, 36, is now a serious candidate, from California’s District 17, home to most of Silicon Valley, including Apple, Cisco and Intel.

Though elections are not due until November 2014 — with the primaries in June — the contest has taken centre stage, sharing it only with the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

“I think we have struck a nerve in probably the most important district in the nation and one of the most important regions in the world,” Khanna said in a interview.

Khanna, a Democrat, served in a senior capacity in the Obama administration for two years before jumping into politics, via a teaching assignment at Stanford.

Indian-Americans are no longer happy just writing checks to local politicians. They want political clout they think they deserve, to match their financial muscle.

At least 14 Indian-Americans ran for congress in 2012, mostly Democrats. Only one, Ami Bera, won, becoming the third Indian-American elected to House of Representatives. Ever.

Khanna represents a generation of young Indian-Americans seen in increasingly large number on the Capitol Hill, the state department or even the White House. “He will be a role model for the Indian-American community,” predicted Silicon Valley entrepreneur and guru Vivek Wadhwa, who knows Khanna well.

He has started well, outraising his nearest rival, Mike Honda, a fellow Democrat of Japanese descent, with contributions from the likes of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg.

Though he lost President Barack Obama’s endorsement, he signed up his fearsome electoral machine including top fund-raiser Steven Spinner and strategist Jeremy Bird.

“He should win,” Bird said in a lengthy Businessweek profile of Khanna titled “Ro Khanna, Silicon Valley’s Wannabe Obama”. And the comparison has caught on since.

Ro Khanna (fourth from the left) with his well wishers from the Silicon Valley. (HT Photo)
Ro Khanna (fourth from the left) with his well wishers from the Silicon Valley. (HT Photo)

Dial D for Delhi

Politics runs in Khanna’s family. His grandfather on mother’s side was Amarnath Vidyalankar, a freedom fighter who went on to serve several Lok Sabha terms and was minister in Punjab government.

“My grandmother would tell me about my grandfather disappearing for long periods of time,” said Khanna recalling stories he heard at grandparents’ house in Nizamuddin, Delhi.

Vidyalankar would be in jail then. But no one knew. Khanna’s father, Vijay Khanna, went to IIT Delhi, and moved to the US for higher studies after graduation. Mother Jyotsna Khanna became a teacher.

Khanna was born in Philadelphia in 1976. After graduating in economics from the University of Chicago, Khanna joined Yale law school, finishing in 2001. He is now working with a Silicon Valley law firm.

Obama picked him to serve as deputy assistant secretary in the department of commerce in 2009, an experience Khanna topped with a book arguing America’s future lay in manufacturing.

He is single for now. “It’s a project, I fully intend to get married when I meet the right person,” he said. There is no time for it now though, not when he is out all day knocking on doors.

The Battle

Khanna is running a grassroots campaign that’s gaining notice. And he needs that attention given the challenges facing him, and not just the incumbent, Mike Honda, 72.

Honda is a veteran of seven terms, with no plans of conceding the contest. Though out-raised by Khanna, he has secured the support of the Democratic party establishment.

President Obama and his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, vice-president Joe Biden and leader of House Democrats Nancy Pelosi have all endorsed him. Even Bera.

If that worries Khanna, he doesn’t show it.

“The contrast in this race is that I have the support of the local community, the entrepreneurial community,” he said, “and my opponent has the support of Washington insiders and the establishment.”

Sounds familiar? A certain first-time Illinois senator ran up against the same establishment in 2007-2008, and beat its candidate then, Hillary Clinton.

Obama ran a grassroots campaign, drawing upon his experience as a community organiser, changing the way elections are fought not only in the United States but all over the world.

Khanna is up against the same insiders, and some more.

Many in the Indian-American community — outside District 17, it must be stressed — view his candidacy as betraying Honda, who has been good to the community, and mentored Bera.

But Khanna believes it’s time to move on, with disruptive politics needed to break the impasse in Washington DC, which, he said, needed Silicon Valley solutions.

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