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Climbing Capitol Hill

December 2004
Climbing Capitol Hill

Indian-Americans in high elected offices.

By Siddharth Srivastava

Thousands of miles away from the hurly burly of U.S. politics, the population of the small township of Malerkotla, in the Indian state of Punjab, is celebrating. Friends and relatives of newly elected Congressman Bobby Jindal are rejoicing even as a continuous stream of well-wishers flock to their homes.

There is a reason for the pride and cheer of Jindal's win to travel so far across the oceans. He is the first Indian-American in our times elected to the U.S. Congress. In 1956, Dilip Singh Saund was the first Asian-American (not just the first Indian-American) elected to Congress. Jindal who had earlier lost in the Governor seat in Louisiana, espoused the strong conservative message of the Republican Party and comfortably won a Congressional seat from Louisiana. Jindal, 33, was widely expected to win and polled 78% of the votes in defeating his nearest rival, Democrat Roy Armstrong, who polled 7%. Jindal got 213,610 votes against Armstrong's 18,531 votes to take Louisiana's mostly conservative 1st Congressional district.

Besides Jindal's historic win, this election will also give the community its fifth state legislator, thanks to the election of Nikki Randhawa Haley as state legislator from North Carolina and the re-election of Swati Dandekar who was a state legislator in Iowa. They join the ranks with Kumar Barve in Maryland, Satveer Chaudhary in Minnesota and Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey.

It appears that Indian-Americans, after long remaining in the background of politics and being satisfied with just contributing to political campaigns, are now finding their way to meaningful offices.

Indeed, Nikki Haley's win was also a historic one. Haley, 32, a Republican, will become the first Indian-American to hold elected office in South Carolina. Haley's opponent, an independent, was unable to get his name on the ballot. Haley's interviews to the American and Indian media find prominent coverage here. She says she feels a great sense of responsibility not just to her constituents but also to the Indian-American community that's now close at about 2 million in the U.S.

"It's exciting but it's been a long and very challenging year, a very rewarding year. But I feel a sense of responsibility to accomplish things in my district," Haley told a news agency. "My big concern is to try to find relief in property taxes, get some solutions for education - South Carolina is next to the last in education performance. Of course, I want us to work within our budget."

Swati Dandekar, a Democrat who won an upset victory over her Republican contender two years ago to make it to the Iowa state assembly, has been re-elected. Dandekar was the first Indian-born American citizen to win a state legislature position, though not the first Indian-American, having been preceded by Democratic majority leader Kumar Barve of the Maryland state assembly.

Dandekar defeated her opponent Cory Crowley by 10 percentage points. "It feels good. It was a tight race in the sense that Sen. Charles Grassley (a Republican) had poured lots of money in my opponent's campaign. I'm glad I had a good war chest to have radio and TV ads," Dandekar has been quoted. "The last two and a half weeks my opponent attacked me negatively. He took my record in bits and spun it in a very negative way. But I think the District 36 people like positive campaigning and are highly educated and very progressive and they like you to be fair. They just sent a message that you can't do that," Dandekar added.

The Indian connection of the Indian-American candidates is for all to read. Haley, whose parents hail from Amritsar, with several family members still residing in the holy city of Punjab, was born and brought up in North Carolina. She has lived in Iowa for 30 years and has worked on education, children's welfare and immigrant issues. Haley and her sister and mother run Exotica Inc., an upscale clothing store of which Nikki has been chief financial officer.

Haley credits her victory to other Indian-Americans running in this election saying it was a special challenge when one is a minority American. "You really find yourself to be a dartboard for all things, and when you put yourself out there to do service for your district and country, it's something everyone should be appreciative about regardless of party," she has said.

A graduate of Nagpur University and Bombay University (in the state of Maharashtra), Dandekar is married to an Indian who runs his own business in America. She feels a sense of responsibility to Indian-Americans in the country as a whole. "Whenever you are part of a small group that does not have a lot of representation, the goal is to do a good job. So there's a weight on my shoulders that I represent my constituency well and then everybody benefits," Haley has said.

But, it is the victory of former Rhodes Scholar Jindal that has evoked the most interest. Jindal, born Piyush, is the son of Amar and Raj Jindal, residents of Malerkotla near the city of Jalandhar (in Punjab) who moved to the United States in the late 1960s to pursue their academic careers. Born, raised and schooled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a young Piyush adopted the name "Bobby" from a TV serial and converted to Christianity in his teens. At 23, Jindal gave up admission to Harvard and Yale medical and law schools for a career in politics. He was appointed Secretary of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals when he was only 25, and went on to become Assistant Secretary of Health in the Bush administration at 27. He resigned from the position in Washington last year to run for governor of Louisiana, lost an election that most think he should have won, but stuck on in his home state to run for Congress. Widely regarded as a rising star among young Republican politicians, whom Bush rates highly, Jindal has seldom expressed any India-specific interest. His views are very conservative and he has talked of protecting Louisiana's welfare as his first priority.

Whether they think about India or not, steeped as they are in domestic US issues, there is a sense of pride here that Indian-Americans have truly arrived in the USA.

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