Indian-American feminist set to make electoral history

Pramila Jayapal, the frontrunner for the State of Washington’s 7th Congressional District seat, could become the first Indian-origin woman to sit in the U.S. Congress.

May 15, 2016 01:07 am | Updated 02:52 am IST - WASHINGTON:

PRO-REFORM: Pramila Jayapal taking oath of office as State Senator at the Washington State. Photo: Special Arrangement

PRO-REFORM: Pramila Jayapal taking oath of office as State Senator at the Washington State. Photo: Special Arrangement

“I will be opting for an English major,” Pramila Jayapal, then a teenager, told her father on the phone, and held the earpiece away, anticipating the torrent of advice from across the world on why this was not the smartest thing for a South Indian girl to do in the U.S. in 1982. “I did not send you to the U.S. to learn English; you already know English,” her father, who wanted her to study Economics, said.

Thirty-four years later, her father is proud, and perhaps relieved, too, of the impact his counselling had. Ms. Jayapal did what Economics graduates do — went on to business school and joined the Wall Street, but her interests were wide-ranging. Drifting into politics through a series of public interest campaigns, she has now emerged as the frontrunner for the State of Washington’s 7th Congressional District seat. If elected, she will become the first Indian-origin woman to sit in the U.S. Congress.

Wide support

Washington has a ‘top-two primary’ system – i.e, all candidates run, and the top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. District 7 is predominantly Democratic and all her four challengers in the August 2 primary are from within the party.

Ms. Jayapal’s campaign has made great strides. She has 17 labour unions and a whole range of women’s organisations, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem endorsing her; has raised over $750,000 in campaign funds, the highest, from 30,000 contributors. “Ninety-six per cent of these contributions are less than $100 each,” she told The Hindu on the phone from Seattle.

Backed by Bernie Sanders

Ms. Jayapal is one of the three Congressional candidates across the United States—all women—whom Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has endorsed.

“Pramila… is not afraid to take on powerful special interests. She’s fought for immigrant rights, opposed the war in Iraq, and worked to protect Social Security. She’s also running her campaign with our political revolution,” Mr. Sanders said in an e-mail to donors last month.

For a person who has always fought for greater representation of women in government, choosing Mr. Sanders over frontrunner Hillary Clinton was a bit of a dilemma, but not an agonising conclusion. “Hillary brings a lot to the table, as far as women’s issues are concerned. But her position on war — wars have a deep impact on women—ties with the Wall Street and changing positions on issues were not reassuring,” Ms. Jayapal told The Hindu over the phone from Seattle.

Meeting with Bernie

She had a meeting with Mr. Sanders in September 2015, during which they discussed various issues such as gender, race, mass incarceration and guns that cemented their association.

“He has engaged a whole swathe of people. He has fundamentally changed the political process by getting these new groups into politics. He is pulling the Democratic Party platform to the left, something that many people in this country have been yearning for,” Ms. Jayapal said.

After a stint on the Wall Street as an investment banker, Ms.Jayapal moved to the non-profit sector in 1991. A fellowship allowed her to stay in Uttar Pradesh’s villages between 1995 and 1997 “studying change-makers”. Her mother never forgets to mention that she speaks better Hindi than Malayalam, their mother tongue.

It was the turmoil following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that pulled Ms. Jayapal deep into U.S. politics. “It was only months after I became a U.S. citizen,” she recalls.

She founded Hate Free Zone, which later became OneAmerica, a group organising and advocating for many diverse communities of colour.

The organisation sued the Bush administration on the deportation of Somalis and fought against the Patriot Act. “In 2006, we felt that the elected officials were not listening to us sufficiently.

Then we started a new voter registration campaign enrolling 23,000 new voters. “In 2014, when the State Senate seat opened up, I felt that there should be more representation of diversity in the legislature, and so I decided to run and the rest is history,” said Ms. Jayapal.

Progressive laws

She won, and in a Republican- majority Senate, Ms. Jayapal has managed to push several progressive laws. One success she recalls with pride is a programme that ensures low-income, uninsured women access to contraception.

“I have been good at taking up controversial and complex issues and building common ground even with people who think very differently from me,” she said. “The English major has made me a good communicator,” she chuckled. That will in all likelihood take her all the way to the U.S. Congress, come November.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.