Indian-Americans are building an institutional infrastructure to take political participation to the next level

By Ela Dutt

Twenty two years ago, in 1995, when Raj Goyle was just 20, he became an intern at the Democratic National Committee. There were virtually no Desi faces around, he remembers. Years later, Goyle got elected to the Kansas state legislature, for two terms, in a Republican leaning district. But 1995 was a signal year in many ways as it came after a long dry spell from 1957, when a determined Dalip Singh Saund, broke all barriers to become a Congressman from California. The mid- 1990s saw Kumar Barve began get elected delegate in the Maryland General Assembly later becoming House Majority Leader. He is still there, one of very few if any, who were successful in the year that the Bill Clinton wave was sweeping America, and a slew of Indian-American candidates ran on his coat-tails. Ram Uppuluri, Neil Dhillon, come to mind. Soon after however, Satveer Chaudhary got elected to the Minnesota House and later the state Senate. serving from 1996 to 2010. In 2003, Swati Dandekar was elected to the Iowa state assembly, and later to the state senate.

The 1990s were also the year when some Indian-Americans took to learning the craft behind government, breaking the stereotype of doctor, engineer, scientist, etc. The mid-1990s onwards was the time when a germ was planted of the need to help aspiring Indian-American candidates run and win in campaigns. But it was not an organized effort with an infrastructure to push it along. The Washington Leadership Program was launched by publisher Gopal Raju in 1996, placing Indian- American youth in Congressional offices. The Indian American Leadership Initiative took off. Meanwhile, there were Indian- Americans around the country making individual efforts to get elected to school boards, city councils, etc.

Impact Project Board Member Priya Dayananda with former U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Verma. (Courtesy: IMPACT)

Today, WLP continues in the hands of alumni like Harin Contractor, and has expanded and is supported by publisher of News India Times Dr. Sudhir Parikh, who took over the mantle from Raju.

Fast forward to 2016 — five Indian-Americans are in Congress, after the Obama wave, and a host of candidates are running. As of January 2018, five Indian Americans currently serve in the United States Congress: Senator Kamala Harris, D-California; and Representatives Ami Bera, D-California, Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, Ro Khanna, D-California, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois.

The Indian American Impact Project (Impact Project) and the Indian American Impact Fund (Impact Fund) (collectively referred to in rest of article as Impact) launched formally Jan. 17, lists some 60 Indian-Americans vying in local, state and federal races. In terms of man/woman hours of political and policy experience, this group is significantly different from previous ones, with policy-wonks and people schooled in the the science of campaigning. Impact is led by President Obama’s liaison for the Pentagon, Gautam Raghavan.

Impact Co-founder and former Kansas State Representative Raj Goyle, with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington. (Courtesy: IMPACT)

A class of “political professionals” has emerged, and it is about time, say those interviewed.

The Impact Project Board of Directors includes Priya Dayananda, managing director of Federal Government Affairs for KPMG LLP, Vinai Thummalapally, former U.S. Ambassador to Belize and former executive director of SelectUSA, and Mini Timmaraju, executive director of External Affairs at Comcast and former National Women’s Vote Director for Hillary for America. The Impact Fund Board of Directors includes Ravi Akhoury, former chairman and CEO of MacKay Shields LLC, and Raghu Devaguptapu, partner at Left Hook Strategies and former political director for the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). Vikas Raj, managing director of Accion Venture Lab, will serve as a non-voting observer on both boards.)

The Impact Project, a 501 C3 organization, is the research, education, and training arm. The work of Impact as a whole, is to provide education and training as well as to craft a winning message, build a campaign team, to build the backbone for races. And their focus is on U.S. issues – not foreign policy or bilateral relations with India as such, organizers clarified.

Aakash Patel, a Republican running for Hillsborough County Commission in Florida; Democrat Kesha Ram, former member of the Vermont State House; and Harry Arora, Republican candidate from Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, at the
June Impact Fund summit. (Courtesy: Facebook)

Resting on a not insignificant history of political awareness raising, Impact, and the host of existing organizations, are behind the growing effort to catapult Indian Americans to the “next level” of political engagement – among them, to name just a few — older organizations like WLP, IALI, South Asian Americans Leading Together; and the more recent ones – AAPIVictory Fund, NJLead, South Asian Registration Initiative, SARI; and even some in the making like Aseem Chipalkatti’s fledgling campaign consultancy effort in Seattle

This Jan. 23, WLP tweeted, “Wow – we are overwhelmed by the record applications this year to #WLP2018 – there is so much energy in the community to get involved. We wish we had the ability to take more scholars. The pool is so tremendously talented this year. The future is bright for our community #Leaders

Gautam Raghavan, former senior Obama Administration official, now head of GR Strategic LLC, working with Indian American Impact Project and Impact Fund. (Courtesy: Department of Labor)

Impact, which launched its two branches Jan. 17, describes its leadership as made up of Indian-American philanthropists, community leaders, and political operatives gearing up to win at the ballot box this November. The Impact Project (a 501 C3 organization) “builds Indian American political power by investing in leaders who catalyze change.” And the The Impact Fund, the PAC, “is a new initiative to help talented and patriotic Indian Americans run, win, and lead,” organizers say. – The goals of Impact Project are to “convene Indian American leaders in policy, politics, and government; Recruit and train emerging leaders to run for office; Endorse viable candidates who reflect our values; Fund candidates early and often to build momentum and win.; and build power to fight back against regressive policies.”

While most of the organizers are Democrats, they told this correspondent the two organizations are distinct in their goals. “The IAIP (C3) cannot do any political work and that is a bright line we will never cross,” says Goyle.

“It gives us the flexibility to cover candidates at all levels,” Raghavan notes about having two distinct entities. At local levels candidates do not have to have a party affiliation. Half of the candidates Impact is tracking around the country, are not affiliated. “That’s how we build a bench of talent for public office and elected office.”

Aftab Pureval, candidate for the U.S. House from Ohio District 1, with Congresswoman Grace Meng,
D-New York. (Courtesy: Twitter)

The need for such organizations was felt years ago, and individuals have come forward to fill some of the gaps. “Other communities have this infrastructure. We have needed it for years,” says Raghavan.

But this is just the beginning. “Many aspects of the community are still untapped. A growth area for the organization (Impact) is to get out to other population areas such as Houston, Bay Area, Illinois etc.,” says Goyle.

“This is our time,” Raj, founder of the Raj Center on Indian Economic Policies at Columbia University, is quoted saying in a press release. “Across the country, a record number of Indian Americans are running for office. We can’t leave it to chance that they will win on their own. We owe them our support — and we have a plan to help them run, win, and lead,” he adds.

People like Contractor and Nisha Jain, both from WLP, and IALI which was very active from 2006-2010, could be considered the early building blocks for Impact, as would several other organizations which have worked over the last 15 years and more to raise awareness within the community.

 

Harin Contractor (Courtesy: Twitter)

As Contractor said, the strength of WLP lies in identifying these students early on, introducing them to mentors, and watching that mentorship work, long after the internships in Washington, D.C. He points to people like Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, or Neil Patel, who was an advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney, and long-time conservative political activist Kapil Sharma, all Republicans, as well as Democrats like Barve, Sam Arora, former Maryland state delegate, and numerous others, who continue to keep contact with graduates of WLP.

“We were successful in placing people in both the Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaigns,” Contractor says. Graduates of WLP have gone on to win state level political office, such as Arora, and Niraj Antani, current Republican state representative in Ohio. Another graduate, Aakash Patel, a Republican, is running for the County Commission in Tampa, Florida.

“From WLP’s perspective, even if there is no formal organization, we see a new energy based on our applications alone,” contends Contractor. Another interesting development Contractor points to is that in more recent years, the pool of applicants and those selected has been “overwhelmingly” women.

Shekhar Narasimhan (Courtesy: aapivictoryfund.com)

Puneet Ahluwalia, the 10th district representative on the Virginia Republican State Central Committee, who served on President Trump’s Asian Pacific Advisory Committee, told this writer, that at this time in the Indian-American Republican field, there are some individual efforts at supporting Republican candidates, but the efforts are “divisive” whereas, “Politics is about winning and bringing together.”

As for Impact, Ahluwalia sees it as meant mainly for Democrats. “The good news is we (Republicans) are planning something similar and robust,” he said, an organization that would be launched in the “next few months.” According to him, there is a “large pool” of talent in the Republican National Committee, waiting to help and guide candidates, something he hopes to tap for Indian-American candidates. He details his goals on his LinkedIn profile as follows – “elect Republicans at every level of office; promote free market, limited government, low tax & pro-business policies; and create greater opportunities for S Asians & minorities in the Party.”

Padma Kuppa