Indian Americans are rapidly climbing political ranks
In 2013, the House of Representatives had a single Indian-American member. Fewer than 10 Indian Americans served in state legislatures. None had been elected to the Senate. No one had run for president. Despite being one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States, Americans of Indian descent were barely represented in politics.
Ten years later, the Congress sworn in last month includes five Indian Americans. Nearly 50 are in state legislatures. The Vice President is an Indian American. Nikki Haley’s campaign announcement this month makes 2024 the third consecutive cycle in which an Indian American has run for president, and Vivek Ramaswamy’s recently announced candidacy makes it the first cycle of two.
In parts of the government, “we’ve literally gone from having none to getting close to parity,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of Impact, an Indian American advocacy group.
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Most Indian American voters are Democrats, and it’s an open question how much of their support Haley can muster. In the past, when Indian Americans have run for office as Republicans, they have rarely talked much about their family history, but Haley emphasizes her background.
Activists, analysts, and current and former elected officials, including four of the five Indian Americans in Congress, described a number of forces that have strengthened Indian Americans’ political influence.
A number of factors, such as the relative wealth and high levels of education of Indian immigrants, have driven a rapid political rise for the second and third generations.
Advocacy groups — including Impact and the AAPI Victory Fund — have mobilized to recruit and support them, and to direct politicians’ attention to the voting power of Indian Americans, whose populations in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas are large enough to help influence local, state and federal races.
“It all really works together,” said Raj Goyle, a former Kansas state legislator who co-founded Impact. “There is a natural tendency, society is more accepting, and there is a deliberate political strategy to make it happen.”
When Goyle ran for the Kansas House in 2006 as a Democrat against a Republican representative, he was told that the incumbent’s reaction to learning she had a challenger had been “Who’s Rod Doyle?”
“It was unthinkable that someone named Raj Goyle — let alone Rajeev Goyle — would run for office in Wichita,” he said. Today, “the average voter is much more familiar with an Indian-American face on television, in their study room, in their classroom, at their university, running their business.”
In retrospect, the watershed appears to have been 2016, just after then-Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana became the first Indian American to run for president.
It was also the year that reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Ro Khanna of California and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois were elected, bringing the number of Indian Americans in the House from one – Rep. Ami Bera of California, elected in 2012 – to four. It was also the year Kamala Harris became the first Indian American elected to the Senate.
Since then, the number in state legislatures has more than tripled. Last month, the four members of Parliament – who call themselves the Samosa Caucus – were joined by Rep. Shri Thanedar of Michigan.
“Within the Indian American community, political involvement wasn’t really a high priority because I think people were much more focused on establishing themselves financially and supporting their community endeavors,” Krishnamoorthi said. “I think once they started seeing people like us getting elected and seeing why it was important, then political involvement became part of their civic hygiene.”
Notably, the increase in Indian American representation is not centered on districts where Indian Americans are a majority. Jayapal represents a Seattle-based district that is mostly white. Thanedar represents a district in and around Detroit, a majority black city, and defeated eight black candidates in a Democratic primary last year.
“This is a very different kind of phenomenon than what we often see from Latino and Black representation,” said Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College in Southern California and a senior researcher at AAPI Data, a group that provides information about Asian Americans. “That means they’re pulling a coalition of support behind them.”
She and Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and founder of AAPI Data, pointed to characteristics of Indian American communities that may have facilitated their movement into politics.
Immigrants from India are often highly educated and, because of the legacy of British colonization, often speak English, “which lowers the barriers to civic involvement,” Ramakrishnan said.
India is also a democracy, which Ramakrishnan’s research has shown means that Indian Americans are more likely to engage with the American democratic system than immigrants from autocratic countries.
By and large, Indian Americans have been elected on the Democratic side of the aisle. All five Indian Americans in Congress and nearly all state legislators are Democrats. Haley’s candidacy could be a case study in whether an embrace of Indian immigrant heritage can also resonate with Republicans.
Before Haley, the most prominent Indian American to seek office as a Republican was Jindal, who made a point of discussing his background as little as possible during his presidential run.
“My father and mother told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans, not Indian Americans,” Jindal said in a 2015 speech.
Ramaswamy, a multimillionaire entrepreneur, author and “anti-vigilante” activist, has so far taken a similar tack, but Haley has not. Since her time as governor of South Carolina, she has repeatedly invoked her life experience as the daughter of a man who wore a turban and a woman who wore a sari. In the first line of her campaign ad video, over images of her hometown of Bamberg, South Carolina, she told voters, “The railroad tracks divided the city by race. I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not black, not white. I was different.”
Calling it “smart politics,” Bera said Haley appeared to be tapping into a desire for upward mobility among immigrant communities.
It’s an approach Democrats have taken for some time.
“I ran as an immigrant, South Asian American woman,” Jayapal said of her first campaign. “I really rode on my history, I rode on my experience, and even though I represent a district that’s mostly white, I think that history is a big part of why people elected me.”
But whether Republican voters are interested is an open question, given the party’s criticism of discussions of race and ethnicity as “identity politics.”
Vikram Mansharamani, a New Hampshire Republican who ran for Senate last year and recently hosted an event for Haley, said Haley’s life story — being a child of working-class immigrants whose parents could never have imagined her success — reminded him of his own and that this drew him to her. But he did not see representation as a goal to strive for.
“To the extent that identity affects experience, it’s relevant, but I would never lead with identity,” he said.
Harmeet Dhillon, a former co-chairman of the anti-choice group Lawyers for Trump and a member of the Republican National Committee who recently lost a tough battle to lead the committee, emphasized that Haley would ride on her track record as a popular governor for her. home state and member of the Trump administration. “I think most Republican voters are not motivated by race or gender,” she said. Although Dhillon and her parents immigrated from India, she said she did not identify as Indian American.
Indian American voters are overwhelmingly Democratic: 74% voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, more than voters of other Asian backgrounds, according to a survey by AAPI Data, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. In primaries, that means fewer Indian American voters for Republicans to draw on. In general elections, that makes it harder for Republicans to tap into a base that is excited about advancing its own representation.
In a 2020 survey, nearly 60% of Indian Americans said they would be open to voting for an Indian American candidate “regardless of party affiliation.”
“Indian Americans really want to see more Indian Americans elected to office, and in the survey we conducted, that was true, even if it meant someone from a different party,” said Sadhwani, one of the 2020 survey’s authors. “My sense is that there will be a lot of excitement among Indian Americans to see Nikki Haley step into this role.”
But that will is not absolute — especially if Haley, to compete with former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, deploys more of their anti-immigration rhetoric.
Experts and politicians said that support for an easier immigration process and opposition to nativism and xenophobia were important factors in the political preferences of Indian Americans. Makhija said climate change and other scientific issues also resonated.
Raman Dhillon, executive director of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, said his interest in Haley had been piqued by the fact that her family is from the same town as his, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, where a significant portion of the truckers of Canada and the United States trace their roots.
But he had more important questions for politicians than questions of shared heritage: How will the government address a shortage of big-rig parking spaces along Highway 99, a major artery through California’s agricultural heartland? What policies will improve driver retention?
Ironically, the very increase in representation that Haley is a part of could make her ethnicity less compelling to voters unconvinced by her politics.
“I think the more diversity we have, the more the actual ideological views will matter,” Jayapal said. “When we’re not really impressed with the fact that there’s an Indian American woman running for whatever office it is, I think we’ll be able to focus more on the actual ideas. And that’s how it should be be.”
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