No Beating About the Bush

They are of voting age and angry.


Rock the vote or it could be bang-bang-bhangra the vote, if young Indian Americans have their way.

Reshma Saujani and other South Asian supporters canvassing for John Kerry.

On a recent evening, down at SOBs in Varick Street in the Village in Manhattan, a crowd of young people had gathered, wildly dancing, their arms flailing in the air, feet moving to the pulsating rhythms of Indian drums.

Bhangra Against Bush was the event organized by DJ Rekha in her popular series Basement Bhangra Third Thursdays, and it drew a frenzied lot, quite ready to get the White House vacated.

DJ Rekha, who will be organizing Bhangra Against Bush every Third Thursday through September, says: “We are putting all our energies into getting Bush out of office and also opposing the war that’s going on. This is the way I articulate my policies by doing what I do. I think the most effective way people can make change is to make change from where they are standing.”
Bye Bye Bush is the cheeky name for a dance benefit organized by Ashu Rai, co-founder of Sholay Productions, an entertainment company that caters largely to the gay and lesbian South Asian community in Tribeca, but also to straight progressive South Asians and non-desis.

Mekhail Anwar co-founded the Boston chapter of South Asians for Kerry.

The event is timed around the time of the Republican National Convention in New York, and is one of the many protests that are planned.
She and her friends are also encouraging their families who live in swing states to get out the vote: “Personally my whole family is hard core Democrat, but I do have lots of friends whose families come from Republican backgrounds. “I also read about these young Indians who are Republican and running for office. It’s a little disconcerting because I wonder what’s going to happen to us, as immigrants, and to the entire world in general, if Bush is re-elected to office. It’s very worrisome.”

New York, of course, wears its liberal heart proudly on its sleeve and has had a strong progressive South Asian presence for many years. The anti-Bush sentiments are repeated in group after group of young South Asians, especially those that are activist and progressive. Young people are doing just about everything from mass emails and voter registrations to raising a cool million dollars for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Dino Teppara, senior legislative assistant with U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

The American-born children of immigrants have come of age and unlike their parents, who seem to live in India in spirit, they feel very much American and relate to the issues here – healthcare, education, immigration and creation of jobs. Many of them have got further politicized by the aftermath of 9/11 when every brown face was looked upon as a potential terrorist.

Reshma Saujani, 28, is an attorney in New York who co-founded South Asians for Kerry in February 2003, long before the senator became the front-runner.

She recalls, “I was doing pro bono work on special registration cases after the Patriot Act and felt it was a severe violation of first amendment rights and decided to get involved in this election.”

This specifically is an organization to get John Kerry elected, and branches have been started in Washington, Boston and California, all led by young professionals under the age of 30.

The Boston chapter was co-founded by Mikhail Anwar, 26, who is currently doing his Ph.D in electrical engineering at MIT, and Maya Nambisan, who studied public health at Harvard. Rushabh Doshi, who is 28 and works as a strategy consultant, started the Washington, D.C., chapter in January 2004.

Saujani believes many of the younger generation got politicized on college campuses so it’s natural for them to remain politically involved when they become professionals. This generation doesn’t stop at photo ops and fundraising, but is actually getting involved at the grassroots level, organizing phone banks, voter registration drives and canvassing with the candidate.

One big difference between the organizations of the second generation and the first is the word “South Asian.”

Dhruti Contractor, founder of the Georgia American Political Action Committee.

If you look at all the existing political organizations, all of them are Indian American-centered and none of them, I think. are at this point inclusive of all South Asian communities,” says Saujani.

The recent Kerry-Edwards fundraiser by South Asians for Kerry in New York raised a whopping million dollars, the largest donation in the history of the Indian American community. “It was unprecedented, the money that we raised,” she says, “but you really felt it in the room. This was the first time you had Pakistani and Indian-American leaders sitting together, doing an event together.”

Says Saujani, “Some of our top donors are 33, 34 and have raised a lot of money.”

In embracing a South Asian identity, would these young professionals have to give up some of the pet issues of the first generation? She says, “I don’t think so. We may have very different views about India and Pakistan and Kashmir and regional issues, but we can still get together in a forum to discuss.

“I think that’s really what it is – helping one another get a seat at the table, to advocate for our own interests. And the reality is what we learnt after 2000, if you don’t advocate for your interests as Americans on a domestic level, you could be seriously affected.”
The domestic issues – health, education, the fallout from the Patriot Act, the environment – are the ones energizing the young.

Congressman Joe Wilson with interns from the IACFPA Washington Leadership Program.

Left leaning groups like Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS) and DRUM have been started by young South Asians and new ones, all emphasizing issues, are cropping up all the time. The newest is a Jackson Heights based organization, People Against the Draft, which is initiating a series of town hall meetings.

Among its founding members are Mona Sehgal, a lawyer, and her husband, activist-writer Jacob Levitz, and the purpose is to protest the possible reinstatement of military conscription.

Sehgal, who has a 7-year-old son, says: “As a mother I’ll do everything I can to stop it.” Indeed, as the second generation start families and put down roots, these issues become increasingly important to them.

Indian youth, however, are not uniformly Democrat. Young Indian American Republicans, who believe that Bush is the right person to steer the country through difficult times, are also becoming vocal. 

Ralph Nurnberger, a professor at Georgetown University and a Washington associate of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACFPA) believes that the Indian American community, like any other community, is affiliated with both parties.
However, IACFPA’s 1996 survey of Indians found a three to one advantage for Democrats among the Indian community: 42% identified themselves as Democrats; 13% Republican and 30% Independent. The survey also found that nearly 66% of Indian Americans preferred Clinton over Dole, who was preferred by only 9% in the 1996 presidential race.

Nurnberger says: “If there is a distinction and this is more anecdotal than anything I can prove, it strikes me that the older generation tends to be more with the Republicans and the younger generation with the Democrats, but you’ll find so many exceptions to that, that it’s hard to generalize.”

He sees some distinct differences between the two generations of Indian Americans: “The older generation focuses more on foreign policy and the younger focuses on domestic issues. While the older generation seems to think contributing funds is a sufficient way of being involved, the younger generation is actually willing to put more time into it.”

As he points out, all the Indian Americans who get involved in seeking elective office or make politics a career or at least a way station along their career tend to be young. There are now some 40 Indian Americans working in Congressional offices, most under 30 years of age.

Narender Reddy, a pioneer fundraiser for the Republican Party in Georgia and a delegate to the Republican National Convention, believes that almost 90 percent of Indian Americans are Democrats, but are slowly moving toward the Republican Party.

He estimates that among the second generation the percentage is 75 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans. Reddy, who feels the older generation has been more focused on photo opportunities than hands-on work, says, “The younger generation is the best – all my hopes are on them. They really talk about the issues.”

Hari Kondabolu of Queens, NY, was 20 when he interned with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington D.C. last year. He is planning to attend law school and is also involved with voter registration. He feels that since minorities generally tend to vote Democratic, the first generation has those leanings as well, but has generally been apathetic about getting involved: “Growing up, I heard more about Indian politics than about American politics in our household. I think there’s a closer connection to India than to America so American politics is not going to be on your dinner table at night.”

Moving in the political circles that he does, he finds that young people identify with America as their country and issues like the Patriot Act, immigration restrictions and hate crimes have all politicized them further, on college campuses and the workplace. He says, “We know what our rights are more than the past generations. We also have numbers now, so we are not afraid to speak up and ruffle a few feathers.”

So is there an anti-Bush bias amongst young South Asians, we asked Dino Teppara, 31, a Republican, who is an attorney and senior legislative assistant to U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C).

“I think younger college students make up a substantial part of that group,” he responded. “Just being younger and in college I might have identified myself that way, just not following issues in-depth. I can understand why they feel that way, but I think there just tends to be more of a general liberal attitude on college campuses.”

However, he says, attitudes seem to change as these students move from campus to the workplace. “If you look at the second generation, at people in their late 20’s, you actually see a lot of Indian Americans who are conservative – IT, lawyers, physicians – so it’s a maturing process from late teens, early 20’s to late 20’s and early 30’s when many young Indian-Americans become professionals.”


He believes the core values of Indian Americans, the sanctity of marriage, family and faith, are Republican values. Indians are also a strong business community, so that’s a strong segment that supports the Republicans, who are seen as pro-business, he says.

Teppara, who is a board member of the Indian American Republican Council, says there are several second generation Indian Americans on the board of directors. He points to the many young Indians who are active in the Republican Party and to the fact that Bush has anointed over 20 political appointees, “Every single one of them is a second generation young professional Indian American conservative.”

Indeed, there are several names in the Republican Party who are power players, starting with Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal to Ash Jain, who at the age of 33 is the highest-ranking Indian in the State Department.

Says Teppara: “There are a lot of people who identify themselves as conservatives so I think the Indian American community is pretty balanced politically, but I guess the people who are more anti-Bush are just very vocal about their opposition.”

Out in Atlanta, Dhruti Contractor, 25, has an overview of the political scene as the founder of Georgia Indian American Political Action Committee, a non-partisan group that works to promote political awareness: ” There are people in both camps that are serious about supporting their parties. Some people think that the second generation is more active or attuned, but I see equal amounts of apathy and interest in both generations.”

Asked if the second-generation tends to be anti-Bush and pro-Kerry, she says: “It might be occupational in the second generation, where some of the business-oriented folks might be more Republican, while people in other sectors might be more Democratic. The amount of voting and participation I’ve seen is equal as well.”

Indian American voters also tend to have an independent streak where they may vote for particular candidates rather than parties and in the absence of current surveys of Indian American voting patterns, one cannot predict the mood of the second-generation voter.

But if the 1996 survey from IACFPA is any guide, for the vast majority of young Indian American voters, there’s no beating about the bush – they want a Bush Free White House.  

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