Political Game Changer
The center of gravity of the Indian American political scene shifted this election cycle from the old guard in both political parties.
Indian American participation this presidential cycle is the most intense and substantive ever and in the process it has also overturned the traditional political applecart in the community.
Indian American Republicans, who, despite their very small proportion, were publicly ascendant and triumphant during the last two presidential campaigns, are lying low this season. Indians like to be seen running with the winner and Republicans this time around just aren’t setting the country on fire. The biggest Indian American Republican fundraiser Zach Zacharaiah, who co-chaired the Bush-Cheney Florida Campaign Finance Committee in 2004, is sitting out this election cycle.
On the Democratic side, likewise, many political and fundraising heavyweights have found themselves sidelined, as they placed all their chips on the wrong horse – Sen. Hillary Clinton. Sant Singh Chatwal, the controversial hotelier and restaurateur, who boasted about raising over $5 million for Clinton (a highly dubious claim based on Little India’s examination of Sen. Clinton’s public campaign records) was very publicly rebuffed by Sen. Barack Obama, after he very visibly sought to shift his political allegiance and vowed to raise $10 million for the Democratic Party nominee’s campaign.
The ghosts of previous campaigns, it seems, are recasting the community politics. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain had fought a bruising battle with George Bush in the 2000 elections, which has many supporters of both men smarting to this day. Zacharaiah’s failure to pony up for the Republican candidate this election cycle is perhaps as much as function of his closeness to the Bush family, with whom he has been associated for almost three decades, as it could be the charges filed this May by the Securities and Exchange Commission, accusing him of insider trading on the stocks of the pharmaceutical company IVAX, on whose board he serves. According to records of the Federal Elections Commission, as of Aug. 18, Zachariah had not made any contribution to the McCain campaign, although he did pitch in the maximum allowable $2,300 for Sen. Fred Thompson’s failed presidential bid.
After Clinton dropped out of the presidential race and tepidly endorsed Obama, Chatwal gloated he would bring his prodigious fund raising prowess to the Democrat’s campaign, grandiosely promising to raise $10 million from the Indian American community. Chatwal even claimed he held a private meeting with Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton at a joint fundraiser by the two campaigns at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on June 26.
Chatwal related to the media details of that “meeting”: “Obama told me, ‘Mr Chatwal, my office has been trying to reach you, and I said, ‘I was waiting for the order from my boss (Senator Clinton), and now, I got it,’ and I said, ‘I am going to hold the biggest fundraiser you have ever seen in your life.’
“Obama replied, ‘I believe it, I know, my chair of the Finance Committee says if you want Indian Americans, get a hold of Sant Chatwal.’
Shortly thereafter, however, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor, disputed Chatwal’s assertion that he had a private meeting with the nominee, claiming: “Sen. Obama greeted Mr. Chatwal very briefly on a rope line, but this report of the substance of that conversation simply isn’t accurate.” Subsequently, another Obama spokesman, Ben Labolt, told the media that Chatwal “does not sit on a fundraising committee, he has not fundraised for the campaign and we do not expect him to.” Indeed, Chatwal was not named to a 14 member Asian American Finance Committee, half of who were Indians, including, Nasser Ahmad, Romita Shetty, Swadesh Chatterjee, Vinod Khosla, Mahinder Tak, Hrishi Karthikeyan, Dave Kumar, Reshma Saujani and Preeta Bansal. Chatwal did not respond to phone calls or email inquiries from Little India seeking comment.
Curiously, notwithstanding Chatwal’s claim at the end of June that he would lead the fundraising charge for Obama among Indian Americans, as of Aug 18, neither he nor any member of his family, all of who had made the $2,300 maximum allowable contributions to Clinton’s primary campaign, had pitched in a dime to Obama’s campaign.
In fact, seven of the Sen. Clinton’s top 10 Indian bundlers (people who packaged contributions from friends, family and business and professional associates) – Talat Hasan, Kishore Kaul, Arvind Raghunathan, Anil Shah and Ken Singh, aside from Sant Chatwal and his son Vikram Chatwal – had not made any contributions to Obama’s campaign by mid August, the last date for which public data was available. Just three – Talat Hasan’s wife Kamil Hasan, Prakash Shah and Mahinder Tak – had contributed, the maximum permissible of $4,600 each, to his primary and general election campaigns. Talat Hasan co-sponsored a major fundraiser for Obama late in August in San Francisco and presumably pitched in his contribution at the time, but public data on that fundraiser was still unavailable at press time.
Clearly Clinton’s prominent Indian American financial backers are resisting embracing the man who vanquished their candidate in the primary and media reports suggest that the Clintons have been lukewarm about pulling their supporters, both political and financial, behind Obama. Indeed, the day before Sen. Clinton took to the Democratic National Convention floor, she had still not released her pledged delegates to support Obama, according to several of her Indian American delegates.
Longtime party activist and Clinton delegate Rajen Anand told Little India at the convention that while he was fully behind Barack Obama, as a Clinton delegate he was pledged to support her until she directed her delegates otherwise, a sentiment echoed by Upendra Chivukula, a state legislator from New Jersey and another Clinton delegate at the DNC.
Several of Clinton’s Indian American delegates expressed disappointment and some even anger that she had put them in a spot by not releasing them in advance of the convention to support Obama. “It puts us in a difficult spot,” said one delegate. “I support Obama, but I cannot do so as I am pledged to Hillary and until she releases us I have to vote for her if there is a roll call vote. But I hope it does not come to that.” It did not.
Anand said the vast majority of Indian American Democrats supported Sen Clinton for the Democratic nomination during the primaries and not all of them had reconciled to Obama’s candidacy. However, he said, Obama was the overwhelming favorite among younger Indian Americans.
The Democratic Convention was the party’s most diverse ever. More than 40% of DNC delegates were minority, including 5% Asian. By contrast, the Republican National Convention was overwhelmingly White, featuring just 7% minorities – a sixth of the number at the DNC. The number of Indian American delegates at the DNC jumped significantly – to over 50 – from the 2004 convention. On the other hand, the number of Indian American delegates at the RNC in 2008 actually slipped from 2004.
The St Paul, Minn., RNC convention drew just 10 Indian American delegates, predominantly alternates, one fewer than in 2004, when half were delegates, according to Little India estimates. Narender Reddy, a Georgia RNC delegate in 2004, was an alternate this year and Shambu Banik, another 2004 delegate, attended simply as a guest this time around. Nonetheless, Indian American Republicans, with others in the GOP, were clearly charged up by the surprising and exciting choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. But they confront onerous odds.
The substantially higher Indian American presence at the DNC compared to the RNC is reflected in stronger Democratic Party identification in the community. A Little India online poll had Obama besting McCain almost 4 to 1 with 79% to 21% at the end of September. National polls do not break out the data for Indian Americans, although polls of Asian Americans as a group show that Obama has a 4 to 1 advantage over McCain in the Asian community. A national Pew Center survey this summer found that 63% of Hindus identified themselves as Democratic or leaning Democratic, five times the number (13%) who were Republican or leaned Republican. 35% identified themselves as liberal, three times as many as those identifying themselves as Conservative. The vast majority of Indian Americans are Hindus and the Democratic Party identification was even higher among Muslims, who constitute the largest minority in the community. The Pew survey found surprising congruity among Hindus and mainstream Democratic Party positions on a range of social and cultural issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism and the role of government as well. There is no doubt that the Democratic Party this year is ascendant in the community.
The deck has surely been scrambled this year from 2004.