Second generation Indian-Americans shed apathy, vie for public service

By Raju Chebium

Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley became more than just the first woman to serve as South Carolina’s governor when she took the oath of office on January 13th. The daughter of Sikh immigrants also became the most prominent Indian-American politician to win public office during the November 2010 elections.

Haley, a conservative Republican, leads a record number of Indian-Americans – and South Asians in general – who are seeking elective office at the federal, state and local levels.

These candidates – most of them children of immigrants – are shattering the Indian-American community’s decades-long apathy towards public service. They’re proving that the 2.7-million-strong community has the collective maturity and sophistication to realize its political ambitions.

Haley and fellow Republican Bobby Jindal, who became governor of Louisiana in 2008, are the most prominent Indian-American elected officials – but they may soon have company.

Indian-Americans are bound to expand their political presence because the community has been steadily becoming a part of the mainstream American society and is eagerly expanding its political participation, said Joy Cherian, who was appointed commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “Indian-Americans … must build coalitions with like-minded people. They have to move to the mainstream first. Bobby did it. Nikki did it,” said Cherian, a pioneer among Asian-American nominees to high federal posts. “America is a country where accent, ancestry will not be a barrier if the people want you.”

Another prominent winner in the November elections was Kamala Harris, a Democrat who became California’s attorney general, the top-law enforcement official in the most Four other Indian-Americans came close to winning congressional races on November 2nd, and could learn from their robust but unsuccessful campaigns to win office in the future. Ami Bera, Raj Goyle, Ravi Sangisetti and Manan Trivedi lost close races in California, Kansas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, respectively.

Sanjay Puri, who heads the U.S. India Political Action Committee, used to think Jindal’s success inspired many in the South Asian community.

“This time we have to call it the Nikki Haley effect,” said Puri, whose group recruits, trains and helps fund Indian-Americans vying for political office. “Across the board, a resonance is happening. Across the board, we are seeing people say, ‘I want to get engaged.’”

The first generation of Indians who arrived in large numbers beginning in the 1960s and 1970s focused on integrating into U.S. society while maintaining their ethnic identities. Naturally, their focus was on gaining a foothold in their adopted lands and little else.

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, as the United States began paying more attention to India politically and economically, the American-born children of those immigrants came to believe that “they have the tools, the expertise and the knowledge” to achieve political success, Puri said.

Not that the path to victory has been easy for everyone.

Haley, for instance, prevailed despite having to endure a racial epithet hurled by a male politician – he called her a “raghead” – and overcome unsubstantiated allegations by two men that they had affairs with the married mother of two.

In her inaugural address, Haley did not mention those hurdles. Instead, she spoke glowingly of her family’s struggles to integrate into U.S. society.

“I stand before you today, the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Growing up in rural, small town South Carolina, my family experienced this state and this country at its best. No, not every day was perfect. No, we were not always free from the burdens faced by those who look and sound different,” she said.

Recalling how her mother was unable to become a judge in India because of her gender, Haley, 39, added: “Now she sits here today watching her daughter become governor of South Carolina, the state she proudly calls her home. When you grow up with a mom like that, the word ‘can’t’ is not in your vocabulary.”

The Indian-American community went from being virtually faceless in the political world a few decades ago, to calling two of its own governors last year – an achievement that continues to elude blacks and Hispanics, the much bigger minority communities in the United States. There is only one black governor – Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – and one Hispanic – Susana Martinez of New Mexico.

There are about 47 million Hispanics and 41 million blacks in the United States, while Indian-Americans make up only about 2.7 million, according to preliminary population counts from the U.S. Census. The final Census numbers are scheduled to be released this summer.

It’s not just elective offices that Indian-Americans have been storming into lately. Michigan-born Rajiv Shah is the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, which is in charge of distributing civilian foreign aid. Neal Katyal, who famously won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court against the Bush administration representing Guantanamo Bay detainees, is the acting solicitor general, the top lawyer representing the federal government before the nation’s highest court.

Puri said Indian-Americans are bound to make greater inroads into the U.S. political system because of the depth of talent among young up-and-comers.

“You have to watch presidential scholars, White House interns, (congressional) staffers,” he said. “The farm team is just incredible.”

Cherian was even more optimistic.

“One day one of us will raise our right hand in the White House,” he said.

(Chebium, based in Washington, writes about U.S. politics and covers Congress for Gannett Newspapers.)

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