Who are the Indian Americans behind the Obama and Romney campaigns? A report on the community’s increasing political muscle.
In the complex matrix of American politics, where every tic is polled, scrutinised and assessed for the greater cause, the importance of the Indian American community has grown exponentially. No longer is it seen as a sleepy community tucked away in suburbia to be woken and shaken for funds at election time. It is now seen as a crucial game changer that can bring its considerable weight to bear on the outcome.
In the short span of 15-odd years, Indian Americans have graduated from being shy, behind-the-scenes cheque writers for political campaigns to marking their presence on the national scene with key positions in the party apparatus. No longer satisfied with a mere photo-op with presidential candidates, today they demand specific clauses in party platforms and policy shifts. And often succeed.
The highest levels of both the Republican and Democratic parties now routinely engage with Indian Americans, seeking their blessings and their cheques. It is a happy confluence since Indian Americans are the highest-earning and the best-educated minority group in the United States. According to a Pew Survey published in June, the median household income for Indian Americans was $88,000, compared to the national average of $49,800, and 70 per cent of those above 25 years had a college degree or more compared to the national average of 28 per cent.
Although relatively small at 2.85 million in a country of 314 million and with only 500,000 registered voters, Indian Americans nevertheless mark their presence with aplomb. Gopal T.K. Krishna of Iowa, who has twice served as treasurer of the state Republican Party and was a delegate to the Republican Convention, ensured that the party platform contained extremely India-friendly language. Playing the game with dexterity, he called in his chips — his long years of work for the party — to have the manifesto declare India a “geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner” of the United States.
This was seen as one up on the Democratic Party platform, which mentioned continued investment in a “long-term partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region”. The difference in language may not appear monumental to India watchers but the larger point here is about the influence Indian Americans now wield in the political process and the willingness to exercise it.
This election season Indian Americans are not only raising millions of dollars for both Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, and President Barack Obama, the Democratic incumbent, they are also fielding a record six candidates for the US House of Representatives from constituencies in California to New Jersey, from Pennsylvania to Michigan. The first two Indian American governors — Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, both Republicans — were on Romney’s short list as possible vice presidential candidates.
“The Indian American tiger has sprung,” says Toby Chaudhuri, a long-time Democratic Party activist. Krishna, residing in the key state of Iowa, declares confidently: “All roads to the White House go via Iowa.” The largely agricultural state is seen as a barometer of national sentiment where presidential hopefuls spend weeks campaigning. Iowa is the first state to hold a “caucus” — a primary election to choose a party’s nominee — and a strong caucus showing sends a message to party leaders. Romney won the Iowa caucus by a narrow margin in January, and last week got the coveted endorsement from The Des Moines Register, the state’s leading newspaper.
Krishna remembers when George W. Bush came wooing, he showed him a picture of himself with George H.W. Bush, the father. “You were just a kid then,” Krishna told the younger Bush. “So then you should take care of me this election,” Bush junior shot back. Krishna did and continues as a party faithful. “What choice do I have? My first name has GOP in it,” he laughs, playing on his name Gopal and the Grand Old Party.
Personal relationships can go a long way in activating community leaders. A phone call, a private dinner or an invitation to the White House can work like magic. Almost everyone has a story about why they got involved in American politics. Shefali Razdan Duggal, a member of the National Finance Committee for President Obama’s re-election campaign, dipped her feet into politics because, as a mother of two children, fund-raising gave her the flexibility to keep her own time. Living in the San Francisco Bay area, she had a big pool of Indian Americans and other South Asians to tap. She rose to prominence relatively quickly, and now is a must-see for Democratic Party hopefuls in the area and beyond. She has raised $1 million for the presidential campaign.
The choice is clear
Obama clearly is an inspirational figure for Duggal, whose husband incidentally is a Republican. “My husband and I are both rational, moderate people and we disagree sometimes, but he is very supportive of me,” she said from her home in California. So why Obama? “It is his empathy. He is for racial and cultural equity and the intent matters. He has focused on improving the lives of all Americans. For me the choice is clear. Governor Romney himself has said that he has written off over 47 per cent of Americans,” she said, referring to the now notorious video clip of the Republican candidate dismissing nearly half the population as being too dependent on government handouts. Romney, who was addressing wealthy donors when he was secretly recorded, later said he was “completely wrong”.
The Republican Party’s increasingly harsh social and fiscal policy recommendations turn many Indian Americans away and the community remains largely a home for the Democratic Party. The Pew survey showed it was the most Democratic-leaning of all Asian minority groups, with a whopping 84 per cent voting for Obama in 2008; second perhaps only to African Americans, whose support for the president is at 99 per cent this election, according to an NBC poll.
An Indian American Congressional staffer, who didn’t want to be named, explained why the community favours the Democratic Party. “It is a natural fit simply because, as a party, it respects us and our views. It is inclusive,” he said. By contrast, the Republican Party often appears hostile to a multicultural, melting pot America. “The rhetoric coming out from the Tea Party-influenced right on social issues makes me uncomfortable. It also makes first or second-generation Americans feel like outsiders.”
The Tea Party emerged in 2009-10 as a major force with its strict advocacy of adherence to the US Constitution and extreme fiscal conservatism. Its blessing for the Republican candidates was seen as crucial last year with most of them striking more and more extreme positions on government spending, lower taxes and religious issues. Once nominated, Romney has been walking back from some of the ideas just as the Obama campaign is trying to ensure the Tea Party label sticks to him.
But Sue Ghosh, who proudly wears the Republican badge and is a member of the party’s National Finance Committee, insisted that Romney had not wavered from his position. He wants to “streamline government and lower taxes and not cut defence”. A lawyer by profession, Ghosh grew up in New York under a father who most decidedly was left of centre. He studied at the London School of Economics and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute, two places that in Ghosh’s opinion are “leftist” in orientation.
“It would be very difficult to change him but I find the Republican Party values work for me and my family,” says Ghosh, who was drawn to the party as a young university student. She rose in the party hierarchy, serving as legal counsel to three Congressmen and working as a member of the Bush-Cheney steering committee in 2004. She said that many Indian Americans in the private sector don’t support Obama’s policies. “They are very frustrated and some are wondering if they can stay in business,” she said, on the basis of her interaction “with hundreds of Indian Americans” this campaign season.
When asked about the Republican Party being less diverse, as was evident at the August convention, Ghosh said it was because of “camera angles”. But she added that, the US being a white-majority country, it was inevitable. Yet, the conventions brought into sharp relief the differences. An African American camerawoman for CNN was abused by two Republicans who threw nuts at her and said, “That’s how we feed animals.” They were thrown out immediately and party bosses apologised to CNN but the incident was flashed across to all people of colour. The Democratic Party convention was a medley of faces of different colours and ethnicities, a fact that can’t but make many Indian Americans feel more at home.
Other factors determining their vote is how many high-level appointments Indian Americans get in each administration and how they treat India in policy terms. The latter matters a great deal, especially to the first generation. In the debate on which party is better for India, Sampat Shivangi, a long-time Republican fund-raiser from Mississippi, pulls out the trump card: the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear agreement. “It was Bush’s biggest foreign policy achievement. He stood by India. The Democrats didn’t do it. Senator Obama and Senator Clinton were last-minute signatories to the bill,” he said, recalling when both the president and secretary of state Hillary Clinton were in the US Senate. “They were not in favour of the deal.”
Giving back to India
Shivangi, a gynaecologist, has a simple litmus test for a candidate before he opens his wallet for him. “He has to be pro-India. I don’t support anyone because I want a government contract from him. I don’t have an agenda. I only want to give back because we owe India,” said the 70-year-old who raised $1.7 million for Romney. Similarly Krishna, who grew up poor in Andhra Pradesh in a family of eight supported only by his father’s meagre school teacher’s salary, says he will never forget his parents, his teachers and the home country. He said Obama is more talk than action on India. Obama supported India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council but “never did anything about it”.
Obama supporters, strongly refuting that Republicans are better for India, instead point to the many high-level appointments granted to Indian Americans in this White House. Obama appointed Aneesh Chopra, a young and ambitious politico, as his technology czar in the White House while Kal Penn, the first Indian American actor to play major roles in Hollywood, has served as associate director of public engagement in two stints. Penn, who was born Kalpen Modi to Gujarati immigrant parents, is currently mobilising the youth vote for Obama. Many other Indian Americans were appointed at senior levels in the federal government.
As soon as a president is sworn in, those who consider themselves worthy start lobbying for jobs. Some get so ambitious that they pitch above their weight, as it happened last year when the position of US ambassador to India opened up mid-way. Indian Americans have been appointed as US ambassadors to minor countries (Bill Clinton named Vin Gupta as ambassador to Bermuda and Obama sent his college roommate and friend Vinai Thummalapally to Belize), but the India job was clearly too hefty and required qualifications greater than mere smarts and fund-raising abilities.
In general, younger Indian Americans are less likely to make a party’s policies towards India a criterion for support. As distance from the old country grows with each generation and the community assimilates, it is anyone’s guess how much “India” will remain in the Indian Americans. What is certain is that the community will become more and more a part of the hurly burly of American politics.
Behind the scenes
Name: Sampat Shivangi
Party affiliation: Republican
Achievements: Has donated for various candidates and raised $1.7 million this cycle, lobbied for the Indo-US nuclear deal, currently chair of the state Republican Party Finance Committee
Name: Sue Ghosh
Party Affiliation: Republican
Achievements: Romney delegate to Republican Convention, member of the National Finance Committee, former trade adviser to Gov. Nikki Haley, member of the 2004 Bush-Cheney steering committee, member of the Indian American Coalition for Romney, which has reportedly raised more than $10 million.
Name: Gopal T.K. Krishna
Party Affiliation: Republican
Achievements: Pushing pro-India language into the current party platform, started a scholarship at Osmania University for poor students.
Name: Shefali Razdan Duggal
Profession: Homemaker and fundraiser
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Achievements: Raised $1 million for Obama’s re-election, doing grass roots work with door-to-door campaigning and raising awareness among South Asians.