Ro Khanna | Pragmatic progressive

The U.S. Congressman, a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, seems to be settling into a Clinton-like pragmatist mode

August 20, 2023 01:54 am | Updated August 22, 2023 08:12 pm IST

Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna, 46, led a bipartisan congressional delegation to India last week. During the visit, he attended the Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, among others. Media reports suggested that human rights and the treatment of minorities were the major agenda of his visit. While he did meet with victims of the recent communal violence in Haryana, as well as representatives from the Kuki community from Manipur, the delegation’s agenda also included trade ties, technology transfer, and defence cooperation.

Mr. Khanna is a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, alongside the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. He is the co-chair of the U.S. Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans.

He likes to highlight his connection with India, especially the fact that his grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar was a freedom fighter who went to jail with Mahatma Gandhi and later became a Member of Parliament from the Congress party. The Congressman, who paid tributes at Rajghat during his India visit, also claims that Gandhi has had the “most influence” on his life. His repeated invocation of Gandhi is in line with his conscious positioning as a progressive Democrat who stands for Gandhian values of peace and pluralism.

In 2019, in the days following India’s dilution of Article 370, Mr. Khanna had tweeted, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. That is the vision of India my grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar fought for.”

His statement sparked an immediate and vicious backlash from the Hindutva ecosystem. In the four years since, political observers have noted a distinct softening of his stance toward Hindutva, and his progressive credentials have begun to attract greater scrutiny. Many attribute this subtle shift to the increasing clout of Hindu nationalists, both among the Indian disapora in the U.S., and in American politics.

Indian-Americans, who number around four million, are the second largest immigrant group in the U.S, after Mexicans. With higher median incomes compared to most other immigrant groups, their political aspirations have been rising. This was evident in last year’s mid-term elections, which saw five Indian-Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, while many more hold state offices. Mr. Khanna is the most high profile among this pack, tipped to be a potential Presidential candidate in the future. The constituency Mr. Khanna represents, California’s 17th congressional district, is remarkable for two reasons. It roughly overlaps with what the world likes to call ‘Silicon Valley’, and it is a district where Asian Americans are in the majority. Mr. Khanna has been effective in leveraging both these constituencies for his political advances.

The interlocutor

Mr. Khanna is a second generation immigrant. His father, a chemical engineer from IIT, and mother, a school teacher, immigrated to the U.S. from Punjab. Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Khanna studied economics from the University of Chicago before graduating from Yale Law School. He subsequently worked as an intellectual property lawyer, with clients from the tech industry. As a Congressman elected from Silicon Valley, he has fashioned himself as a ‘progressive capitalist’ — someone who is not only an effective interlocutor between the messianic fantasies of tech billionaires and federal regulators, but also between the libertarian impulses of IT employers and the social needs of their employees.

His books, Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing Is Still Key To America’s Future, (2012) and Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech work for All of Us (2022) strike a techno-evangelist note as they make a case for using digital innovation as a means to create high-paying tech jobs in the U.S. and foster greater economic inclusivity. In taking this line, he has been able to help present techno-barons as job creators rather than data predators or AI-promoting job extinguishers. This facet of his politics came into prominence during the recent collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank, when he lobbied successfully to secure the deposits of tech investors.

At the same time, given the strong presence of the Indian-American community in his Congressional district, Mr. Khanna has courted — and received — their support as well. Just as he’s had to navigate the contradiction between his positioning as a progressive, and the not-so-progressive politics of tech czars, Mr. Khanna is often caught between his avowed Democratic ideals of equality and pluralism, and the majoritarian sympathies of sections of the affluent Hindu American community. And since 2019, his Gandhian ideals have been tempered by a heavy dose of realism. It is a matter of public record that he has also received more than $110,000 from individuals linked to Hindu nationalist groups.

His branding as a progressive Democrat concerned with human rights issues, though a bit frayed, stands for now. But civil rights groups in the U.S. have been vocal in their criticism of his proactive lobbying — which involved orchestrating a bipartisan letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy — for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

Mr. Khanna has responded to this criticism in two ways: first, by pointing to India’s strategic importance, both as a geopolitical ally, and for the U.S.’s economic ‘decoupling’ from China; second, by arguing that it is better to engage with regimes accused of human rights violations rather than lecture them from a moralistic pulpit. But if engagement is the key, Mr. Khanna had a chance to walk the talk when fellow Democrat Pramila Jayapal initiated a letter urging President Joe Biden to engage Mr. Modi on the issue of protecting human rights and democratic values during his meeting with him. More than 70 lawmakers signed the letter. For all his grandstanding on human rights, Mr. Khanna was not one of them.

Mr. Khanna has lobbied hard, and effectively, to get India a waiver from the Countering America’s Adversaries under the Sanctions Act (CAATSA), an issue on account of New Delhi’s purchase of S-400 weapons system from Russia. This is a part of his continued emphasis on reviving manufacturing jobs in the U.S., including by boosting U.S. export of arms and advanced weaponry to India and other countries, Gandhi’s influence on him notwithstanding.

Having started out as a progressive idealist in the Bernie Sanders mould, Mr. Khanna’s progressivism seems to be settling — some might say ‘maturing’ — into a Clinton-like pragmatist mode as he masters the difficult art of juggling the contradictory expectations of political constituencies polarised along multiple axes.

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