Will the Indian Jesse Stand Up?
Does the community need the equivalent of an Indian Jesse Jackson?
Between them, they’ve raised millions and millions for both the Republican and Democratic parties. They’ve reached that elevated stage – above all glass ceilings – where President George W. Bush and Presidential nominee John Kerry, not to say Bill and Hillary Clinton, know them on a first name basis.
Zach P. Zachariah, Finance Co-Chair for Bush Cheney Re-election Campaign in Florida, for instance, has raised millions for George W. Bush. This Florida cardiologist has even flown with Pres. Bush on Air Force One and visited him at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
At the Republican National Convention in New York, Zachariah sat in Vice President Dick Cheney’s box, along with none other than Rudy Giuliani. Then last month he had dinner with the senior Pres. Bush and Barbara Bush at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine. And this month Bush le pere and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are coming to Zachariah’s home for dinner.
On the Democratic side, Ramesh V. Kapur of Winchester, Mass., has been active in Massachusetts’s politics since 1978 and has held high finance positions in the elections of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen John Kerry, Sen. Tom Daschle and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He’s raised at least $2 million every election.
Kapur, who is the president of Medical-Technical Gases, Inc., currently serves as a trustee for the Democratic National Convention, and is national chair for its Indo American Leadership Council.
During the Clinton years, he was invited by Hillary Clinton to accompany her to pay homage to Mother Teresa, and he also headed the ad hoc delegation that traveled to India with President Bill Clinton in 1999. John Kerry has publicly said that he’s known Kapur as a friend and supporter for 20 years.
While all this schmoozing in high places has got to be a heady experience, what are the concrete results of all the heavy-duty fundraising for the Indian community? Since these fundraisers generally tap the Indian American community to write out the checks, does said community benefit in any concerete way? Do these high-fliers have an agenda for the community, do they truly represent it?
As State Finance Co-Chair of the Republican Party, Zachariah has helped raised $12 million for the president in Florida. He says, “There are many Indians who are involved in the campaign and have raised substantial amount of money.”
Asked when he raises these substantial amounts of money from the Indian community, does it in any way make him a spokesperson for the community, Zachariah replied: “It all depends. Our job is to elect the best person for the office, that is the only issue involved in raising money and supporting a candidate. There is no other hidden agenda for any one of us. I think we want to have a good president who has a vision to do the right thing. That is the only and main object.
“But when you do that, I suspect that the Republican Party and the president’s staff know that we are a vital part of the campaign. Having said that, I don’t think any one of us is going to lobby for India, absolutely not. Sure, I would want America to have the best relationship with India possible, but I don’t want to be a lobbyist. My focus is America first.”
Kapur, who has been raising money since 1980 in Massachusetts for Democratic candidates from Mike Dukakis to the Clintons to John Kerry, says: ” The key thing is to be engaged on a regular basis. That’s how people get the respect of the candidates, whether it’s the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.”
Although he started in fundraising, he says he has been involved to a certain extent in policy, with a particular interest in U.S.-India relations, and in civil rights issues important to the Indian community.
“My excitement is with the Indian community, that’s where I get my high, to get them involved,” says Kapur who worked actively to get Kumar Barve and Satveer Chaudhry elected. “We are always fighting for issues which are of importance to the Indian community. On the top of the list, to my generation, is U.S.- India relations.
“To the next generation it’s making sure there’s no discrimination. Our generation is probably used to discrimination. We came in the late 60’s but the next generation isn’t willing to tolerate what we did. At times when the economy went down, we were the first ones laid off.”
Questioned whether the issues of interest to the Indian community are being addressed by his candidate, Zachariah asserts that because of their involvement in the political process, both at the state level and the national level, several Indians have been appointed to commissions and boards in many states and nationally.
He adds, “I think the campaigns know that the Indian community is one that they ought to reckon with, mainly because of their fundraising prowess, as the number of registered voters in the Indians are not that big. From the fundraising aspect, the Indians have done very well as an ethnic community.”
While the Indian American community is one of the most affluent, it also comprises of people who are struggling on the margins. Zachariah points out that every community has these disparities, which are a fact of life “Everybody has to watch out for themselves, you’ve got to do your best,” he says. ” This is a land of opportunity and I personally don’t believe in giving things away. If you have the ability to work, you should work and if you work hard, you will succeed in America. I don’t believe in handouts. No one handed out anything to me and I don’t believe in handing anything out either.”
At the same time, there are issues of immigration, of detentions in the wake of the Patriot Act, and racial profiling. So does the Indian community need an Indian Jesse Jackson to advocate on its behalf?
“Absolutely not!” says Zachariah. “That would be totally counter-productive because it doesn’t make sense. There isn’t that kind of discrimination against Indians nor have they gone through slavery in America.”
He adds, “This is a land of opportunity and nobody is stopping anyone from doing their thing and I think if you have the know-how and do the right thing, you will get ahead in the game. All I’m talking to is your question about whether we should have a Jesse Jackson in the Indian community. I don’t think it will happen, it cannot happen and it should not happen.”
So who would be the role model for Indians in politics? Zachariah believes that people from all parts of the world are drawn to America because it’s a great country with extremely generous people: ” I think the men and women of Indian origin who are successful in America should contribute to the society, rather than running a huge bank account. We come from a society where we don’t give anything, we hold on to everything and give to our kids. I think we should give back to the community. If we do that, then others will respect us.”
He feels that if the Indian community follows the Jesse Jackson model, then it will always be fighting for any kind of position, along with other minorities. He says, “Then you become a part of the minority, which I believe is the wrong thing to do. I think you should be part of the mainstream and you should contribute, like the rest of the Americans who have become successful have done.”
Out in Atlanta, Narender Reddy is a statewide chairman for the Bush-Cheney Campaign in Georgia and was also a delegate to the Republican National Convention. He is one of the four people who have reached the Pioneer Level in the Bush-Cheney campaign, having raised $100,000 or more.
He was appointed by Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia to serve on the Board of Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and serves as state vice chairman for the Georgia Bush-Cheney Campaign. He’s been selected as presidential elector for the Republican presidential candidate in Georgia, so his name appears on the statewide ballot in the upcoming election next to that of Pres. Bush.
Asked why we don’t have the equivalent of an Indian Jesse Jackson to lead the community, Reddy says with a laugh, “The problem is that amongst Indian Americans, if there are three people there will be two leaders, minimum! Everyone wants to be a leader, that’s the problem. That’s why we don’t have a Jesse Jackson.”
While minorities generally have a common focus, he feels, Indians don’t have that: “We don’t share the common issues. Most of us came from different cultural and economic backgrounds in India and we are still glued to those diverse cultures. You’re a north Indian or a south Indian or a Patel and all that.
“For example, South Indians are not generally in politics. When I go into an Indian American event, it’s mostly North Indians and they look at me, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he in politics? He’s supposed to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that! So that’s why we don’t have a Jesse Jackson, because of our diverse cultural background.”
Instead of Jesse, Zachariah says, the Jewish community might the one for Indians to emulate, “I think the Jewish community has done a great job. Remember, the strength of the Jewish community is with the money they raise. The way they do that is they are unified. But with Indians it’s not going to happen. North Indian, South Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and each one has his own little agenda.
“We have brought a lot of prejudices from India, so can we unify? I hope we can. There are Indians who have done fantastically well and who are very knowledgeable and I have great hope that it will happen, especially with the second generation. We are going in the right direction.”
Ask Kapur whether we need an Indian Jesse Jackson as a spokesperson for the community or do we follow the Jewish model, and he says, “We can do a combination, but you’ve got to realize that there will never be just one Jesse Jackson in the Indian community. Because of the nature of it, we might have a hundred Jesse Jacksons, you know! The more, the better!
“People joke that we Indians have more organizations than we have people. But I tell you, organizations are great. They hreflect the dynamism of a society when you have more organizations.”
He points out that Jesse Jackson is also pushing for political access for his community, so if in our community there are certain people who are affected by discrimination, especially after 9/11, then there should be someone active forming institutions like the Jewish community has done with B’nai B’rith or the Anti-Defamation League.
“We do need a leader and it will probably be someone from the next generation who will take the leadership in that area,” says Kapur. And if the next generation gets active in the political arena, forming an Indian caucus like the Black Caucus or the Hispanic Caucus, then there will be more people of Indian origin running and being elected in the House and Senate.
He adds, “These folks can make sure that people are not discriminated against, because they will make and set policy also. We are not big in numbers so we will probably have to create coalitions with the Asian, Black, Hispanic and the Jewish communities.”
Whether blue or red, one point that these heavy hitters agree on is that political involvement is the only way to power. So their message is get out there and vote, and if you aren’t eligible to vote, at least write a check or man the phone banks. The Indian community has achieved success in every field, and the last, final frontier that remains to be conquered is the political arena.
Are they still stuck in the photo op stage or have they evolved politically?
“It’s just the beginning and slowly people are beginning to talk about issues,” says Narender Reddy, ” but this photo op craziness is still there. Our people are still happy with the photo op. They don’t even discuss issues with their congressman or senator when they see them”
He recalls that at one Indian American political fundraising event with several congressmen and senators, one person was taking pictures with just about every one of them: “Finally he took one with Alan Simpson who was a senator at that time. Simpson is a tall, humongous personality, everyone knows him. Yet this guy takes a picture with him and then comes back to me and says, ‘Woh Kaun Tha?'(Who was he?)
“You don’t even know who he is, yet you take a picture with him anyway! I told him ‘Photo keechne se pehle puchna tha (You should have asked before taking the picture!)'”
Observes Zachariah about the photo-mania: “I don’t think it’s something just to do with the Indian community. Even in the Caucasian community there are people who go for photo opportunities. There are people who take pictures and brag about it. But it’s a growing process. It takes several years for mainstream America to recognize what the contribution of Indian Americans has been and I think it’s going to take time. Now are there photo opportunities, sure there are. Are there people who are influential, sure there are. But it takes time. Rome was not built in a day.”
Kapur feels that fund-raisers are one avenue where citizens get a chance to meet up close with their candidate in a smaller gathering and put forward their own issues and point of view: “There’s picture taking too, but there’s nothing wrong in getting a picture taken with a candidate.”
He defends the photo op urge: “Everyone likes a picture with the president. There’s no harm in that, I don’t know why we get defensive about it. I have seen people at very successful levels and they have such pictures and they show them. Even if you go to Ted Kennedy’s office, you will see his picture with the president at that time! So even he enjoys it. We all do.”
However, he believes that the Indian American community has moved beyond picture taking but the real success will be when members of the community can be pushed to get more involved and run for political office: “Our community is not willing to take some time off, to take a sabbatical to serve in the government. Unless we do that sacrifice, we will never have the ultimate assimilation in the society.”