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From Political Apathy to Activism

October 2002
From Political Apathy to Activism

There was a time not too far in history when the Indian subcontinent was a collection of numerous kingly states. These kingdoms were the poster-boys of autocratic rule. The status of the king was supremely unchallenged. Their royalty was so deeply established that even the masses on which they ruled believed that they were divinely ordained to do so. Under such a system, the concept of masses affecting the affairs of the state was as distant as two-headed aliens from far off galaxies.

Today, the modern democracy of India has given this scenario a complete about-face. The Prime Minister, who is the supreme head of the government, is under the constant gun of public opinion; and is often questioned, criticized, and even ridiculed by the media and the masses. For all its challenges, India, today, holds the unique distinction of being the world?s largest democracy, and a vibrant one too.

It is therefore lamentable that the Indian American community has so far managed to exhibit mostly apathy towards this marvelous process in its adopted country. To be sure, it has come a long ways in many aspects in a short span. According to the year 2000 census, at a median household income of $60,093, Indian Americans ranked at the very top amongst all groups ? including Caucasians! Comparing that to the national median household income of $38,885 gives the true comprehension of this remarkable feat. Such flattering statistics abound in various sectors such as hospitality and healthcare industries, as well as in small business in general.


Despite such success, Indians have only recently begun to participate in the political process to the extent representative of its numbers and strength. For a community close to two million strong, there are only three elected officials at state level, and none at the national level.

The masses of Indian Americans have shown little interest in political involvement, let alone activism. Only about 30% of Indian immigrants are registered to vote. ?Most first generation Indians came here with short-term and career objectives, many believing that they would be going back. With that mindset, the first generation was certainly not inclined towards politics,? says Mohinder Bajaj of Indo-American Democrats of Georgia, commenting on this phenomenon.

Economic betterment is one of the main objectives of many immigrants in this land of opportunity. Indians are no different in this matter. The energy consumed by this goal of financial stability is a key reason for the political apathy of many Indians. Sunny Amin, a convenience store owner in the Atlanta area mirrors the experience of many of us who are far removed from the political process. ?I work twelve to fourteen hours a day. Plus, I am not a citizen. I must admit that political participation is the last thing on my mind. Even if I were interested I wouldn?t know where to begin, as I am not familiar with issues and candidates, and even the details of the political process.?

Unlike many other immigrants, Indians come from a democracy itself, leading one to believe that they would be more inclined towards the system. Unfortunately it is not so. ?The political system in India has been historically corrupt, hence many Indians tend to avoid associating with politics, ? observes Narsi Narasimhan, one among a group of Indians who have been credited as having played a part in the recent victory of Congresswoman-elect Denise Majette over incumbent Cynthia Mckinney in Georgia?s 4th District. The corruption and cronyism in Indian politics has caused many Indians to be jaded. Far from having faith in the system and the process, they believe an average citizen to be quite powerless in the democratic process.

The very little participation that there has been over the years has been limited primarily to irreverent fundraisers and a handful of concerned individuals doing what they could in their individual capacities. ?Even now we do not have enough policy analysts and think tank fellows addressing the Indian American and Indo-US issues,? observes Narsi.

Similarly, Mr. Anil Chowdhry, Minister of Public Affairs at the Embassy of India cites highly efficient and successful political machineries of groups such as the Jewish community, when talking of the ideal that we are yet to achieve. ?We are not bonded by any singular issue as the Jews are,? seconds Kapil Sharma, a veteran at Capital Hill who was also instrumental in starting the India Caucus along with Congressman Frank Pallone. Both, Chowdhry and Sharma cite this ability of the Jews to work in unison on broad national issues, as the key difference between their efforts and those of Indians? whose efforts are highly fragmented and often at odds with each other. ?It?s not that the Jewish community does not have differences or factions within themselves, but when it comes to matters pertaining to Israel, they are able to put those differences aside and work almost as a singular entity,? elaborates Sharma.

When not bogged down by factions and differences, it is general ineptness and lack of education of the process that hinders us. This, combined with the fact that the community is so well to do as a whole, results in a unique phenomenon ? that of throwing money at campaigns and candidates with no apparent design. The pundits that we interviewed for this article were all unanimous in their criticism of this futile practice of ?fundraisers for photo-ops.? ?Just because? seems to be the answer more often than not, as to why a particular fundraiser was held for the candidate in question. No energies are spent in studying the positions of the candidate; no issues are discussed; no follow through mechanism is in place!

The results of such unsophisticated pandering of politicians are often funny, if not tragic. Narender Reddy, President of the Atlanta Chapter of Indo Americans for Political Education (IAFPE), recounts an incident. ?At a time, some of our community members were consistently contributing funds to a particular Congressman. Unknown to them, this person was consistently voting anti-India as well as against Indian-American issues! However, after we brought this to their attention, the funds stopped flowing into his coffer!

This is in striking contrast to the political savvy of the Jewish lobby. In an open forum between three of their leading lobbyists from the American Jewish Council (AJC) and American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) with the ?Indian American Center for Political Awareness?, the lobbyist elaborated on their modus operandi. They explained that the AIPAC is the central lobbying group for the American-Jewish community. It does not give money to any congressman or candidates, but simply lobbies for the singular issue that unites the Jewish community ? Israel.

Further explaining the process they said that they begin by building grassroots support within their community. This they say is vital to their cause. They actually begin building relationships with Congresspersons in the early stages when the candidates have just decided to run for an office. Local Jewish organizations begin building databases of politically active Jews in the U.S. The purpose of the database is to simplify contacting and mobilizing the community about important issues. Mass mailings are sent out to each of the members urging them to write about their concerns to their local representatives.

Along with such letter-writing and email campaigns, the local community members or organizations donate money to candidates, but they always make the candidate aware of their issues before they give their money. Finally many of these active community members visit the local offices of their representative to see if their congressperson is working on the Jewish issue.

They also place significant importance to involving their youth, through political internships or jobs either in Washington, D.C. or locally. The most important aspect about the Jewish lobby is the fact that they educate their community on political awareness. They make sure everyone knows about the issues and why it is important for everyone in the community to become politically active.


Why does the Jewish community spend such massive efforts in the political process? Certainly they have had superior bottom-line results. In fact, their influence on American politics as well as foreign policy is legendary. They have demonstrated that political activism has direct and measurable results on how our American lives will shape up.

To illustrate, reflect on the following. At the supermarket, would you pay for your merchandise, but not bring home the merchandise? This is about what political apathy amounts to; only it is a much, much larger chunk of our money at the government?s cash register. The Jewish community has successfully insisted on receiving the merchandise at government checkouts, while the Indian community like many others have cared less and walked out.

?Elected officials not only control our money, they are also influential in affecting our personal lives as law makers. Therefore, we cannot afford to be indifferent,? opines Narsi Narasimhan. But besides just the monetary aspect, ?In a democratic society, the political parties play a vital role in laying our social agenda and affecting our lifestyles,? observes Narender Reddy. ?If we do not participate in the system by registering to vote and casting our votes, how could we complain later if a law is passed that could adversely affect us??

There are many issues such as immigration laws that have a direct bearing on us. Similarly, issues that affect small business are very important to the community. The 8(a) program under the Small Business Administration, that grants minority owned companies a chance to compete for government contracts, is in jeopardy. There are over 166,000 Asian-Indian owned businesses in the U.S. If this program is phased out, many Indian-Americans will be affected.

Even more pressing is the issue of hate crimes against South Asians. From the early 1990?s in New Jersey where a gang called the ?Dotbusters? (reference to the bindi adorned by many Indian women on their forehead) that terrorized Indian-Americans, to the more recent post 9-11 reaction, Indians along with other South Asians have been vulnerable to such crimes. The week after the attack, 645 incidents of hate crimes were reported, 80% of which were against person of South Asian decent. Congress attempted to pass a National Hate Crimes legislation but failed by a narrow margin.

Mike Patel, a leading Hotelier who has also served on the President?s Advisory Commission on Asian American affairs, believes that activism is very important to the community not just for such hate crimes, but also for special needs of the small business community, because, ?if it means one less gas station or motel owner killed by having a police patrol in that area because the local commission listened to our voice, it?s worth it!?

Aside from the above issues, there is also the constructive aspect of political activism. According to Reddy, ?It is also our civic obligation to contribute to the society we live in, by subscribing our time, ideas, and financial resources.? Citizenship is both, a privilege and a responsibility. It is lack of such attitude and involvement that resulted in ouster of Indian immigrants in Idi Amin?s Uganda, and their disenfranchisement more recently in Fiji.

That brings us to the most pressing need for not only individual participation but also a collective activism ? to ensure our safety and liberty as an ethnic minority. The mature and evolved political system in the U.S. is certainly stable enough where events such as what happened in Uganda or Fiji are not constitutionally possible. However, the nation?s history is not without blemish when it comes to infringement of civil liberties and human rights violations. The most notorious incident to date was the State?s roundup and containment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps in 1942 in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. This blatant abuse of State power was not only a sacrilegious defiance of the US Constitution, but also carried hints of the infamous Russian Red Army at the peak of its communist worst.

Such concerns have again resurfaced in the aftermath of 9-11. To be fair, the government has an awesome responsibility of public safety in its fight against profoundly ruthless terrorists. Isolated and borderline incidents of infringement may perhaps be unavoidable in such times of duress. What has many concerned, however, is the increasing police powers that are progressively being vested to the recently created Homeland Security branch of the government?s anti-terrorism efforts. Combine that with an administration that has shown considerable disregard for both, public opinion as well as international consensus on such matters, and there is significant potential for widespread abuses of State powers.

In an interview in the current issue of Reader?s Digest, the distinguished news anchorman, Peter Jennings, said, ?If people are not interested in government, then government is likely to do a lot that will make people sorry.?



It is therefore pressing upon Indian Americans to take interest in government. One major obstacle, however, is lack of education. This holds back an otherwise willing community to participate more. We interviewed many individuals who are at the forefront of the political processes who all seemed to agree that the place to start is at the individual level. Not much happens until the community is interested and informed at the grassroots level. For that, it follows that we must have at least a working knowledge of government, at local to federal levels; we must know our elected representatives; and we must have some familiarity with national and local issues.

For an immigrant community such as ours, the price of entry into the process is legal citizenship. ?Anyone who has made a decision to make the U.S. their home, should work towards becoming a citizen at the earliest. Then, they should also register to vote at the earliest to begin participating in the political process,? advises Narender Reddy. Forming a large enough voting bloc, according to him, is the most viable way to be recognized as a political entity.

This is not to suggest that permanent residents (non-citizens) have no place in the process. While it is true that politicians are more tuned to registered voters, they also do entertain relations and certainly financial contributions from other concerned residents as well. There is nothing to stop permanent residents from establishing relations and educating their local representatives on issues important to the community. At the peak of the IT boom, some of the largest contributors to California politicians were non-citizen Indian entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley ? who had substantial sway not only on outcomes of elections, but also on policy formation.

Such political contribution by Indians, however, is not the norm. Except those few who are amongst politically elite, contributing towards political causes is simply not ingrained into Indians, leaving them out of a very significant component of political influence. Money plays a large factor in politics. As per year 2000 Census data, only about 10% of Indian Americans donate to political campaigns or causes. Mike Patel criticizes this aspect, ?the community is very shy in donating, everyone wants a free meal, and so very few donate.? When we donate, we have the candidates attention, at that point we must tell them about issues that are prevalent to our community and what that candidate will do about that issue.

Talking about other forms of grassroots activism, Congresswoman-elect Denise Majette advises going to city council meetings, or even initiating such meetings with representatives on the local, state, or national level. ?Having positions on issues that you can articulate and have a dialogue on, is important? according to her. Such dialogue, it follows, can come from increased interest and participation in the mainstream.

Upendra Chivukula, a State Representative from New Jersey, and one of the only three national-level office holders, recommends that our community engage in the mainstream by actions such as volunteering at blood drives or participating at local PTA?s. He feels such participation in the mainstream will stamp out apathy.

What gives more power and direction to such integral grassroots efforts is the organized and institutional activism. As our networks and organizations develop, we have increasing resources at our hands to educate our selves on issues and candidates voting on the same; and we are better able to communicate and mobilize our efforts through such organizations.

Aneesh Chopra, a member of the Political Advisory Council at the newly formed Indian American Policy Institute, serves as an example of the increasing political savvy of Indian Americans. Chopra, who has a Masters Degree in Public Policy from Harvard, shared some insights that defies widely held criticisms surrounding Indian American political activism ? and in the process outlines effective mechanisms for the same. One such criticism is that the community ?throws? money on politicians that do not support us or work for our causes. This, according to Chopra is not only not a problem, but sometimes necessary. Funding a candidate who sits on the other side of the fence is only a problem if it is done in ignorance or without a specific design. ?Funding should not be strictly tied to reciprocity. Political relationship building is not about ?buying? a candidate?s loyalty. It should always be our goal to build long-term friendships with those at the Capitol Hill who matter ? regardless of their stance on specific issues. Alienating influential Congressman just because we do not agree on issues prevents us from ever being able to change their stance.?

As proof, Chopra cited the experience of North Carolina based Swadesh Chatterjee, a past President of IAFPE who was instrumental in transforming Senator Jesse Helm, Chairman of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from an India-basher to a friend and an ally. Earlier, when Helms was a highly vocal critic of India?s nuclear testing, it would have been tempting to dismiss him as an adversary not worthy of our contributions or friendship. But Chatterjee recognized Helms? important role in the Senate and went about educating him on why India is a strategic partner to the U.S., and why India?s nuclear testing was critical for its ?strategic autonomy?. Chatterjee?s work in this relationship building, and his general contribution towards Indo-US relationships even earned him a Padmabhushan Award from the Indian government. Thus political contributions, according to Chopra, should be viewed more as part of long-term and broad relationship building rather than narrow, issue-based agenda only.

Another persistent criticism that the community is often saddled with is that it is fragmented rather than singular in its political efforts. Chopra doesn?t necessarily see this as negative. ?All politics is local,? he points out. For a diverse community such as ours, it is natural to have many parallel efforts and issues. He even challenges the myth that all Jewish activism is channeled only through singular machinery. According to him, they too have many dozens of organizations often split in different directions. He does, however, grant that they are united and singular in the one broad cause ? that of Israel. ?But that is because Israel?s security is hugely dependent on the U.S. India, on the other hand, is not so dramatically dependent on the U.S. for any issue.?

?What matters is not that there is fragmentation, but that there are integral resources of knowledge bases and think tanks that each of these efforts can reference and benefit from. What also helps is networking and healthy communication between these entities. I call it the ?sharing of best practices?. For example, there is no reason why the success Atlanta Indians have had in getting a Gandhi statue at a national monument, or in the recent Majette victory, cannot be duplicated elsewhere.?

This brings us to the practice of coalition building ? another important function in political activism. The art of coalition building is a major step in political influence. The Jewish community has many sub-organizations and divisions as well, but the leaders of these organizations get together on broad issues that affect them collectively. A coalition gives legitimacy to the cause of the community, as well as increases the shear numbers of supporters of a cause. Besides inter-community coalitions, cross community coalition building has also yielded powerful results, as was the case with the coalition between Jewish Americans and African Americans during the ?60s and ?70s, which empowered both communities.



The encouraging trend that is emerging is the rise in the interest in government among Indian Americans. Individual and institutional efforts are gaining not only in numbers, but also in sophistication and know-how ? a trend that would have made Dilip Singh Saund proud. Saund was the first Indian American elected to Congress way back in the 1950s. Congressman Saund has been credited as the key person responsible for paving the way for Indian immigration.

After Saund, the community?s stint in congress lay dormant with no elect officials for over forty years. 1994 marked the resurgence of such a presence, as that year three Indian-Americans ran simultaneously for Congress. Neil Dhillon, Ram Uppuluri, and Peter Mathews ran very tough and close races but all ended in defeat. Despite the loss, the three men ignited a political spark in the community. Besides the fact that three Indian-Americans ran in the same year, they drew a lot of attention by the immense amount of money they raised for their respective campaigns.

As ?success begets success?, this trend of increased office holders from the community, further encourages others in the community, according to Neil Dhillon. He believes that when one of us runs for office, it inspires the community to mobilize and get active. ?The community?s main fault was that no one followed up Dilip Singh Saund after 1956, but the community as a whole, has been more involved and active than when I was on the Hill twenty years ago.?

Currently there are three Indian-Americans following in Saund footsteps: State Representatives Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey and Kumar Barve in Maryland, and one State Senator in Minnesota named Satveer Chaudhary. Kumar has been in the House for over 10 years and is one of the most respected representatives in Maryland. When Satveer was elected, he became the youngest state senator in Minnesota history. The community now has an unprecedented number of persons running for office, from Dr. Ven Challa who ran for the Republican seat for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, to Renu Lobo who seeks a seat in the New York City Council.

The community also has others at high political offices. Bobby Jindal is the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services and Neil Patel is staff secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Besides appointments and offices, our resources are also developing. There are now national organizations dedicated to Indian American political causes, such as Indian Americans for Political Education (IAFPE) [www.iafpe.org] which has chapters in 23 states, and Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACFPA) [www.iacfpa.org]. Both play a significant role in education and awareness, of Indian Americans towards the political process, as well as of politicians towards our causes. IACFPA also conducts a comprehensive internship program that offers Indian American students an opportunity in Washington, D.C. Recently a group called the Indian-American Leadership Incubator (IALI) [www.ialipac.org] was formed for the purpose of electing Indian-Americans to office. The goal of the organization is to help elect 10 Indian-Americans by 2010.

Indo-American relations constitute a significant aspect of our political activism. Resources such as a popular website have proven quite invaluable in keeping interested parties updated on latest issues. A highly referenced email broadcast is also conducted to about 12,000 subscribers nationwide, out of which a core of about 2000 subscribers consisting of office holders and grassroots activists, get more frequent updates.

Besides these effective resources, the community will now have a Political Action Committee (PAC) in early 2003. The purpose of a PAC is to advocate issues and effectively lobby members of congress to support issues that concern the community. Every power group in the U.S. has an effective lobby to support it. This new PAC is called the Indian-American Policy Institute (IAPI) and will primarily begin as a think tank or an awareness group before gaining the support it needs to become an advocacy group.

Like many other special interest groups, the community too has a Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans (India Caucus). Its objective is to push the Indian-American community?s agenda on the Hill. It presently has over 100 members with Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Ed Royce (R-CA) as Co-Chairmen. The Caucus was founded in 1993 by Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Bill McCollum (R-FL), who served as Cochairmen until October 1998. They were succeeded by Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and James Greenwood (R-PA).

Indians, like the mainstream, are not immune to special interest. As such, activism through professional trade associations also plays an integral part, and in fact, has been very effective for Indian Americans. Two groups that spring up as benchmarks in this area are: Asian American Hoteliers Association (AAHOA) and American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI). Both commend considerable respect as the cream of their industries ? hospitality and medicine. Both have pronounced legislative initiatives and political clout.

All these initiatives and developments are encouraging. However, the path is not without hurdles. Compared to other ethnic communities, Indian Americans are still marginal in mainstream politics. Despite the recent surge, our elected officials are few, and our voting bloc small. Our hope lies in building upon our recent successes as we move from political apathy to activism.

[Next month: Round up of local, Atlanta based political activism]

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