Indian Americans entering politicsafter building behind-scenes clout

September 5, 2012

With looks and brains, a résumé that lists a stint as President Obama’s chief technology officer and supporters that include some of the Washington region’s wealthiest Indian Americans, Aneesh P. Chopra is a fast-rising star from an immigrant community that is eager to parlay its wealth and education into political influence.

Chopra, an Arlington County resident who left the White House in July to launch his campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia, is an unabashed geek who sees high-tech innovation and “data-driven solutions” as the answer to just about every problem. At 40, he also exudes the confident charm and calibrated ambition that are essential for anyone plunging into American politics.

After a decade of quietly building behind-the-scenes influence, Indian Americans in the Washington area — as well as in California, Pennsylvania and other states — are entering public and political life in record numbers. This year, six Indian Americans are making credible runs for Congress, two are serving as state governors and dozens more are either holding or seeking seats in state legislatures.

“There’s no question, the Indian American political tiger has sprung,” said Toby Chaudhuri, 35, a political strategist in Washington who is deeply involved in Democratic politics. “It is no longer just about writing checks to gain access. We realize we need to use politics to gain a say in government. Our numbers are swelling at a time of enormous change in American society, and we have a new generation that is ready to run.”

Indian Americans have long been one of the nation’s most educated and affluent immigrant groups, according to U.S. census figures and surveys conducted by groups such as the Pew Research Center. Doctors and engineers began arriving from India in the 1960s, and many of its computer experts manned the information technology boom of the 1990s. Their numbers were small, but their democratic and English-speaking roots helped them fit into American jobs and society.

Today, the Indian American population has soared to more than 3 million, and Indian names and faces are becoming a familiar part of American life. An ambitious new generation is moving up fast in a variety of high-profile fields, from Preet Bharara, the U.S. district attorney in Manhattan, to Kal Penn, a television and movie actor who became Obama’s outreach coordinator and spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.

Until recently, however, their growing numbers and economic potential were not being translated into political power. By the early 2000s, more than half a million Indian Americans were eligible to vote, and thousands were in a position to bankroll political campaigns.

They began by seeking mentors such as Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and backing candidates such as James Webb, another Virginia Democrat who ran successfully for the U.S. Senate in 2006. They also took pride in the growing number of Indian Americans rising in the federal bureaucracy and appointed office, such as Vivek Kundra, who served as President Obama’s chief information officer.

But their real goal was to create a cadre of Indian American candidates who could directly represent their interests. In Northern Virginia, a group of Indian American business leaders began holding strategy sessions, identifying potential candidates and agreeing to donate substantial funds for their campaigns.

“We saw that if we wanted a seat at the table, we had to start building a bench,” said Shekar Narasimhan, 59, a McLean real estate and banking executive who is a co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Indo-American Leadership Council. “We started writing checks for non-Indian candidates, but now we are fielding our own. Even if they lose, it puts them on a leadership track. Eventually, we will have congressmen, senators and Cabinet members of Indian origin.”

One of the area’s few Indian American political veterans is Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), 53, a liberal Democrat and financial manager from Rockville. He won election to the Maryland legislature in 1990 and has been majority leader of the House for 10 years. In 2010, two younger Indian American Democrats, Aruna Miller and Sam Arora, followed in his footsteps and won seats as delegates from Montgomery County.

“The Indian American community has been pining for the validation of elective office,” Barve said. But he added that many first-generation immigrants shied away from politics as unsavory and irrelevant to getting ahead. “For the younger generation, it is different,” he said. “We look at President Obama, and he reminds us of ourselves — educated, motivated, tolerant and also dark-skinned, with Asian roots. We are rooted here now, and we are everywhere.”

Like Chopra and Barve, several surveys have shown that a majority of Indian Americans in the Washington region identify themselves as Democrats. The pattern is similar in California and Pennsylvania, where two liberal Indian Americans are making strong second bids for seats in Congress. Ami Bera, 47, a doctor from Sacramento, lost narrowly to a Republican incumbent in 2010 and is running against him again. Manan Trivedi, 38, a doctor and Navy veteran from Scranton, is also running against the Republican he lost to in 2010.

“The Indo-American population should not be underestimated. Their candidates are doctors and professionals and CEOs and military people, and they are very, very prepared for public office,” said Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who represents the Silicon Valley area, where many Indian Americans have launched successful high-tech firms. “A lot of people don’t realize it yet, but I know the potential they have.”

Indian Americans are also flourishing as Republicans, especially in the South. The two Indian American governors — Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina — are GOP rising stars who were invited to speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Jindal, who was elected to Congress from Louisiana in 2004, established a high profile during Hurricane Katrina and became governor in 2008. He was reelected governor in 2011.

Many older Indian Americans in the Washington area said in interviews that even after achieving economic success, they continue to shy away from partisan politics. In the Washington area, the most important social hub for Hindu immigrants is a large, ornately decorated temple in Lanham. Older temple leaders and other Indian Americans here described spending years immersed in work, family and worship, quite apart from American society.

“When I came to this country I had nothing in my pocket. For years, it was always the same mentality — only work and family. We created an island in a new country,” said Prakash Hosadurga, 50, who owns a construction company in Bowie. “We were successful, but we were slow to move into the mainstream. We never raised our voices, and we never learned to have fun. It’s the younger generation that is changing.”

Although fear of prejudice has inhibited some Indian Americans from venturing into public life, it has galvanized others into action. One example was an incident in 2006, when Narasimhan was involved in Webb’s campaign and his son Rajiv Sidarth was volunteering for it, too.

At a public rally, then-Sen. George Allen (R) spotted Sidarth, then 20, and taunted him as “macaca,” a word thought to mean monkey and viewed by some as an ethnic slur. “Let’s give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” Allen said. He later apologized, but the widely reported incident helped lead to Webb’s upset victory and propelled Narasimhan into a senior Democratic Party post.

Six years later, Aneesh Chopra is eyeing a very different political landscape, one in which supporters think his name and ethnic background will be an asset. A group of Indian American business leaders in Northern Virginia, mostly members of the influential Indian CEO High Tech Council, have already donated to or raised nearly $1 million for his campaign, which kicks off after the presidential election.

“To us, Aneesh is like a start-up to invest in,” said Reggie Aggarwal, a close friend and supporter who heads an online event management firm in Tysons Corner. “Technology is the new basis for the American economy, and Indian Americans like Aneesh are on the cutting edge of it. They are visionaries and practical problem solvers, and they are moving too fast to get caught up in side issues. That’s what America needs.”

Chopra is not an official delegate to the Democratic National Convention, but he traveled to Charlotte on Tuesday and began a hectic agenda of convention-related events. His schedule for the day included a convention “watch party” he sponsored for other uncredentialed Virginia delegates, a series of professional meetings and press interviews, a private reception with other Indian Americans and friends, and a late-night Virginia delegation party at an Irish pub.

Asked to describe his values, Chopra ticks off a list that includes objective truth, hard work, generosity, family and economic mobility. His résumé is a model of success: a bachelor’s from Johns Hopkins University and a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; co-founder of a highly profitable health-care think tank; Virginia’s secretary of technology from 2006 to 2009; and the president’s top technology adviser from 2009 to this year.

His most likely opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race is Corey A. Stewart, the conservative Prince William County supervisor who spearheaded a campaign against illegal immigrants in 2007. He is the best known of four Republicans who have announced they are running for the post; so far, Chopra is the only Democrat. The two men have spoken cordially of each other so far, but they could not represent more sharply contrasting backgrounds and views.

Chopra, aware of his tendency to lapse into high-tech jargon, has begun honing his political technique, speaking of his devotion to public service and describing how his generation of Indian Americans has learned to “balance assimilation with cultural identity, so we can add to the mosaic that makes this country great.”

If all else fails, he has one more ace up his sleeve. During a 2009 episode of his satirical-news show, TV host Jon Stewart, watching a video of Chopra talk about his White House mission, anointed him “the George Clooney of India.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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