Why Are They Hiding

Indian American Republicans always ask us to forgive their politics


So here it starts again. Every election cycle, we have to go through the same argument. We are asked by all the Indian American Republican candidates to support them not for their politics but for their being of Indian origin.

The Indian American Leadership Initiative, which does very important work, has launched a “10 in 10” program, to help elect ten Indian Americans to federal office by 2010. Varun Nikore of the Initiative vowed that by 2010 we’ll have two desi Senators and eight desi Representatives.


The move was launched in November 2001, at the height of the anti-desi backlash as a result of 9/11. It was optimistic then, and it remains optimistic now. But I’m with Varun: it is better to be optimistic, to set outrageous goals, so that we can motivate each other to attain them. I’m with you Varun: 10 in 10.

The 2000 Census showed that there are about 1.7 million Indian Americans. The Indian American Center for Political Awareness took this figure and calculated that, if we had a system of ethnic representation (which we don’t), this should translate into three U.S. Congresspersons and forty-five state legislators. There are currently no Congresspersons of Indian origin and a handful of state legislators. As Varun put it, “We have a lot of work to do to fill this enormous gap.”

Since 1990, when Kumar Barve won his post to the Maryland House of Delegates (where he is now Majority Leader), Indian Americans across the country have run for elected office. They are now water commissioners, state representatives, school board members, and district attorneys.

There has been an upsurge of interest in elections, not just among the second generation that is coming of political age now, but also among the first generation, many of whom have become naturalized and increasingly confident about their place in the United States.

These are good times for our electoral life in this country, and it is only correct that we have a host of organizations at work to bring us to the polls and to encourage us run for office.

From Southern California comes a new organization, the South Asian American Voting Youth run by Tanzila Ahmed, and from Boston comes another one, SouthAsianVotes run by Reshma Saujani (currently the coordinator of South Asians for Kerry).

These groups recognize that only about a third of Indian Americans who are eligible exercise their franchise, and among young desis the percentage is lower.

We don’t have statistics for South Asian youth specifically, but among Asian Americans between the ages of 18-24, the numbers of those who registered dropped from 50% in 1990 to 35% in 2000. SAAVY has been created to help register young desis and get them to the polls – to conduct political voter education in a non-partisan manner, in the style of groups like Project Democracy.

We do need to register to vote and get to the polls. That is essential not just for the presidential race, but for all local and regional races. Participation is essential for our place at the U.S. table. If we don’t vote, we won’t get taken seriously when public
policy is formulated and our issues will be ignored.

It is true that money buys entry into the halls of Washington, but for a community to rely upon its wealthy to open doors, is false: the wealthy among us will begin to dictate our issues, which may end up being their issues and well in opposition to the bulk of us.

The only way for us, ordinary desis, to get our views into the DC halls is to organize as a bloc and vote in large numbers.
Among Asian Americans, there is a movement known as the 80-20 Initiative that believes the following: Asian American votes are evenly split between the two parties, and that means that neither pays any attention to the community and its issues. If we can draw a larger number of our community to one party or the other, then we can have leverage on that party. African Americans and Latinos overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party – this has given them power not only in the making of appointments, but also in the foregrounding of some issues that are important to African Americans and Latinos. (By the way, many African American and Latinos who live in the nether region of the U.S. economy would say that they have been fundamentally attacked by the two parties who have relied upon debt, prisons and workfare to constrain their freedom; but that is another story.)

The 80-20 Initiative believes that politicians are interested in their next election, whereas political parties have to have a longer memory, this is why the Initiative is interested in an investment in a party and not just in this or that politician.

I don’t believe that either of the two parties are capable of solving the major problems that beset this country and our world. Both are in favor of profits over people and both are wedded to warfare over social welfare. Nevertheless, the Republican Party today is a party of evangelical zealots and warfare extremists, of fat cats and running dogs.

This is the reason why every time a desi who runs for office on a Republican ticket has to tell us that their politics should not matter, only their ethnicity.
The most recent candidate to do this is Nikki Randhawa Haley from South Carolina. Running for the South Carolina Assembly she expressed the opinion, “Does it matter for the Indian community whether a candidate is Republican or Democrat? What we need is more people in political office. The candidate’s party affiliation is irrelevant for us as a community, at this time.”

At this time it is most relevant to know if a candidate is part of an extremist political party (such as the Republicans) or one that is willing to listen to the world and its own population (although much of the Democratic Party is deaf to the crises of the impoverished).

We don’t hear Swati Dandekar, Upendra Chivukula or Peter Mathews (all Democrats) telling us to avoid their politics and concentrate on their ethnicity: each of these candidates leads with their issues because they don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. Dandekar stands for economic rejuvenation of areas wracked by job loss and against the death penalty, and she worked as co-chair of the Kerry campaign in Iowa.

Chivukula’s platform includes rethinking how we fund our education (and to contest the link between property tax and schools, which enables rich districts get better schools), defending open spaces in our communities, and benefits for children of immigrants especially so that they can get in-state tuition for college.

Mathews, who is a relentless campaigner, recently said of his run for Congress this year, “The main reason I am running is that America is at a crossroads. The U.S. is involved in an expensive quagmire in Iraq. Some $150 billion has already been spent. I want us to have more multilateral, new and responsible foreign policy. I also want to bring funds back into my district which is heavily minority.”

These candidates tell us what they stand for, and they don’t have to hide behind their ethnicity to get our attention.

We don’t have accurate surveys of desi political attitudes. However, the bulk of desis who run for political office do so on the Democratic Party (or Green Party) ticket and they run on liberal platforms. My own research among desis suggests that we are against immigration controls, we are against the death penalty, we are for the right of a woman to control her own body, we are for better wages for working people, we are for better care of the elderly, we are for health insurance coverage for all, and we are generally interested in peaceful solutions to conflict rather than war.

Among the second generation, I tend to believe the liberal trend is even deeper: and there are many second generation desis who would call themselves progressives and radicals rather than liberals. At the South Asian Awareness Network gathering in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this year, I was pleased to see that most of those who participated held very progressive views on diverse issues, from Israel to Women’s Rights. On college campuses, where I often travel, there are always a group of second generation desis who have formed a progressive caucus outside the South Asian Students Association, to work alongside, to push their peers to more liberal or radical positions.

For all our diversity, we are a fairly liberal community with regard to our lives in the United States (our positions on the homeland may be far less liberal, but that’s certainly another story).

The Republican Indians, who claim to be against affirmative action and ethnic tokenism, speak loudly about their ethnicity and softly about their links to the extremism of the Bush government. The classic example of this is the current Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. In October 1989, Elaine Chao told the Washington Times, “I’m an American first. I’ve never viewed myself as an Asian American.”

This view is resonant with the general antipathy held by the Republican administration for ethnicity and ethnic assertion. However, at the same time, Chao was national chair for Asian Americans for Bush-Quayle. She wanted the support of Asian Americans when it came to her own position in public life, but she savagely attacked Bill Lann Lee’s confirmation to be U.S. assistant attorney general for civil
rights because Lee supports affirmative action. Why didn’t Chao support Lee regardless of his politics? Because Republicans don’t.
They are ideological and partisan. They ask us to support them regardless of their extremism, but they won’t support people who disagree with their own framework. This is hypocrisy and it bears remembrance when we hear from people like Randhawa Haley.
Chao and people like her disguise their hatchet job for the extremists with their ethnicity.

As journalist Sonia Shah put it, “Chao has shrouded her right-wing stances and hard-core corporate mindset in soft-core identity politics.” In other words, Chao likes to talk about being an “Asian immigrant” and to give us her false story of uplift (the real story is in Laura Flanders’ excellent Bushwomen, from Verso Books) as a way to not talk about her support for the corporate pillage of the global village.
When Chao was appointed Labor Secretary, far too many Asian Americans fell over backward to be jubilant. Dan-Thanh Nguyen of the National Pacific American Women’s Forum offered a more sober view: “Chao opposed Bill Lann Lee, she opposed affirmative action. She’s affiliated with the (ultra-right wing) Independent Women’s Forum, she’s anti-union, and Asian Americans are supposed to be glad because she’s Labor secretary? She is somebody’s American Dream. But not ours. Not everybody’s.”

We are a bunch of savvy voters, and we don’t get taken in by this façade.

The substantial desi voters of District 18 in New Jersey (Edison and New Brunswick) sent Jesal Amin (Republican) home and elected the Democrat. I hope that this represents a national trend.

We need more desis in politics, but not at any cost. They have to be desis who are aware of our community’s complex demands and needs, they have to be desis who recognize racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, who will stand up for us when the time comes.

They have to stand up for us, all of us, not just the fat cats who claim to be our leaders and have set themselves up as heads of this or that faltu organization.

So, Varun, I’m with you: 10 in 10. But let us organize and send 10 progressive desis to Washington, and not 10 who will offer ethnic cover to the zealotry of the Bush war machine. 

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