The Year of the Indian-American Candidate

The Year of the Indian-American Candidate

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Listen to an audio report about Indian Americans running for political office.


WICHITA, Kan.—If he wins on November 2, Raj Goyle would make history as the first-ever Indian American elected to Congress from Kansas. But Goyle doesn’t want to focus on that.

Making history, he says, would just be a “happy by-product.” He’d rather talk about the economy. If you press him about his heritage, he says simply, “My story is a very Kansas story. Wichita is in my blood.”

Goyle (shown above with his wife Monica and daughter Ana) is one of a half-dozen Indian Americans running for Congress this year. But while that number—a record—is a source of pride for the Indian-American community and a sign of its political coming of age, the candidates themselves are engaged in a tricky balancing act between ethnicity and viability.

It makes sense. Wichita, Kansas; rural Louisiana, the Sacramento suburbs—these are not the obvious launching pads for Indian Americans in politics. Goyle, a two-term state representative, jokes that when he first ran for state office, someone asked how many Indian Americans were in his district.

“Ten,” he said.

They said, “Ten percent—that’s not bad.”

“I said, ‘No ten people.’”

Shekar Narasimhan, co-chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Indo-American Council and a longtime fundraiser for the Democratic Party, is not surprised that candidates from Goyle to Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal have found political success in communities with very few Indian Americans.

“We aren’t seen as black or white,” he says. “It means we are not immediately typecast.”

Photo-Op Uncles to Political Candidates

Narasimhan remembers trying persuade Indian Americans to donate to Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. “I was extremely unsuccessful. I found it difficult to convince the community it was worth their time.”

As Indian Americans grew more affluent, they became involved in politics. But they were dismissed as “photo-op uncles”: come to an event, take a photo, write a check. Sanjay Puri, chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee, remembers his frustration at an Indian-American fundraiser for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002. “The whole exercise in that two-and-a-half hour event was to get her to wear a sari.”

Puri credits the “Bobby Jindal factor” for how far the current crop of candidates has come. Although Jindal is a conservative Republican and most Indian Americans are Democrats, “when an Indian-American kid looks at Bobby Jindal, they see the chance they can also do something.”

Democratic political consultant Toby Chaudhuri thinks the 2008 election was a bigger factor. “Obama opened the door for a lot of folks,” he says.

A New Level of Professionalism

What is different this election cycle is not just the number of candidates running, but the infrastructure behind them and the professionalism of the campaigns.

There are now Indian-American lobbyists, fundraisers, campaign consultants. In the days when South Asian candidates for office were few and far between, the Indian American Leadership Initiative (IALI) used to be bipartisan. Now it supports Democratic candidates, and there is an Indian American Republican Council as well.

The IALI’s vice president, Anurag Varma, often lobbies on behalf of the predominantly Indian Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA). “Seven to 10 years ago, they used to do a lot of photo-op events. Now they are more concerned about how many congressional offices they have meetings with.”

Varma says the country has changed as well. “Names played a much larger role 15 to 20 years ago. Are there voters who will vote against Raj Goyle because of his last name? Maybe. But far more will vote against Raj because he has got a D [for Democrat] next to his name.”

That might be true, especially in this election cycle. The candidates, after all, are all children of immigrants, not immigrants themselves. Political consultant Anil Mammen says the second generation has the advantage of being locally rooted. “It’s an easier case to make when you have a life story that’s very similar to people in your electorate,” he says.

Goyle, for example, talks about his best friends being from second and fourth grades. He played trombone and wore his football team’s number 67. While his opponent might try to paint him as “the other,” his debate coach sees Goyle’s campaign as being about the native son coming home. “We feel there has been a brain drain in Kansas,” says Dana Hinsley. “I was never more proud of Raj than when he decided to come back to Kansas and get involved in politics here.”

Macaca to Turban Topper

Native son or not, Goyle has faced his share of ugly stereotyping. One poster seen around Wichita reads: “Remember 9/11. No to mosque in Manhattan. No to Raj Goyle.”

South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) just issued a report tracking xenophobia since 9/11 though the 2010 campaigns. “There is an attempt to paint South Asians as the perpetual foreigner,” policy director Priya Murthy says. Goyle has been called a “turban topper” and Nikki Haley, the GOP candidate for South Carolina governor, a raghead. Pennsylvania’s Manan Trivedi, another House candidate, has seen his opponent try to make an issue about his Indian-American donors.

Shekar Narasimhan says even those Indian-American candidates with perfect American accents are deluding themselves if they think ethnicity does not matter. “For heaven’s sake, let’s grow up and understand being brown in a predominantly white culture means we are different,” he says.

That point was driven home to Narasimhan in 2006—his son Sidarth was the young Indian-American called a “macaca” by Republican Senator George Allen. The incident was a “huge wake-up call,” Narasimhan says. “It established that no matter what we do or how we feel, we are different.”

The trick for Indian-American candidates, he says, is to realize that being different “doesn’t mean our issues are different or we cannot represent everybody.”

But on the flip side, the Indian-American community can place a lot of demands on its candidates. Haley has faced many questions about her Indian-ness, which Ajay Kuntamukkala of the Indian American Republican Council says is unfair.

“We have to be careful we don’t paint her as a purely Indian-American candidate where the Indian comes first and the American second,” he says.

The Purse Strings

Yet Indian-American candidates need their community, especially in the early stages of a campaign. This will present a new challenge as the bench of candidates deepens.

When Ashwin Madia ran for Congress from Minnesota’s Third District in 2008 (and lost), “he was the only game in town,” says Bhavna Pandit, a political fundraising consultant. “When you have six people, you aren’t going to write big checks to all of them.”

The bigger challenge will be what happens if Indian-American candidates sustain big losses on November 2. Only Hansen Clarke in Michigan is regarded as a shoo-in for Congress. The rest are all in uphill races, even if some have been designated red-to-blue seats by the Democratic Party.

Democratic consultant Toby Chaudhuri says that whatever happens, this has been a bellwether year. “The candidates are running with a political sophistication we have not seen before,” he says. “There is institutional capacity that candidates in the future will be able to rely upon. I don’t think that is something that will wash away with the election results.”

IALI is feeling optimistic enough to open another chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area, its first outside D.C. Anurag Varma doesn’t really want to contemplate the worst-case scenario—where no Indian Americans win. “We only have a best-case scenario,” he says. “The worst-case scenario would be no one running for office.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Asian American Media.