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.