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Feature

The Bacha Party

A new generation of South Asian American politics emerges

By Rohina Phadnis


Four years ago, South Asians were few and far between in the political arena.

Fast forward to October 2004, a month before the next presidential election, and the landscape is vastly different.

“I’ve just noticed more involvement among South Asians in general now than compared to 2000,” says Baber Ali, a California member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The voice of South Asians is becoming increasingly strong as this, often well-off and well-educated community, is flexing its political muscle. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 2.5 million South Asians in the United States. And with its size, South Asians also bring a considerable amount of money to the table. The median income of Indian-American families in 2000, for example, was $60,093 compared to the $38,885 median income of all American families. South Asians, more and more, are taking their big numbers and big money, not just to the polls, but to the political table as well.

The Issues

When it comes to the issues, immigration, outsourcing and civil rights are the buzz words.

Photo by Suraj Shetty

Raymond Vickery, senior advisor to the Kerry campaign, answers a question during Desi Decision 2004, a debate held at The George Washington University on Sept. 23. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) joined Vickery in debating on the better presidential candidate for South Asians in regards to health care, jobs, immigration and civil rights.


Immigration and civil rights are at the forefront for many South Asian activists. The Patriot Act and its impact on immigration has raised a collective eyebrow in the community.

“Once they’re effective for a while, they become the norm,” says Palash Pandya, the Project IMPACT New York and New Jersey Chapter Lead about the act and the dangers of its continuance.

The Players: Fundraising, Voting, and Community Involvement

Forget the smart, yet silent generation of your parents. South Asians are now becoming savvy on the political spectrum.

Numerous non-profit groups are connecting people who identify with the subcontinent to American politics and to each other. Here are a few:

Indian American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA)

Indian-American Republican Council (IARC)

Indo-American Democratic Organization (IADO)

Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)

Project IMPACT

South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY)

South Asians for John Kerry in 2004 (SAKI)

USINPAC


Megha Chokshi says that hate crimes, terrorism and homeland security, visa complications, and medical malpractice top the list at USINPAC. She adds that support for Indian-American small businesses and aid to India to curb the HIV/AIDS crisis are important as well.

“It is at this point, if we don’t take care of this in India, it’s going to be catastrophic,” she says of the epidemic.

Choski also cites better ties between the U.S. and India and the possibility of India becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council as key issues for Indian-Americans.

Mekhail Anwar, Boston Chair of South Asians for John Kerry in 2004, says that many South Asians are scared away by Kerry’s stance on outsourcing. He tells them that Kerry is not anti-outsourcing as the Bush campaign has said he is; Kerry just wants to eliminate tax breaks for companies sending jobs overseas. Kerry’s camp says that the Bush administration has encouraged outsourcing, thus stripping jobs from American workers. “ Because of George Bush's wrong choices, this country is continuing to ship good jobs overseas jobs with good wages and good benefits," Kerry said at a town hall meeting in North Carolina in September. While the Bush administration has not directly countered Kerry’s stance, they do say that his claims are based on faulty economics. The Bush campaign responded to Kerry’s remarks by providing a list of 40 companies that support Kerry but outsource goods and services, including executives from Citigroup, Cisco Systems, and Anheuser-Busch.

According to the Washington Post, the Bush campaign has not advocated outsourcing jobs, however administration officials have talked about how outsourcing can be good for the U.S. economy.


Republicans vs. Democrats: Who has the South Asian vote?

In August, New York City was flooded with protesters and politicians. In the mix, were South Asians who showed their support for the elephant-themed Grand Old Party. The Indian-American Republican Council was a prominent part of the Republican National Convention. IARC held a reception at Shaan of India in Manhattan which was attended by 165 people, including Congresswoman Katherine Harris.

Although the IARC cannot privately raise money for a particular candidate, many of its individual members can. So educational outreach is the main goal of the group.

“We wanted to be seen not just as a funding machine,” says Jack Hession of IARC.

IARC works to develop chapter affiliates throughout the nation and assist them in their own grassroots organization which in turn encourages Indian-Americans to become politically active within the Republican Party at the local and national levels. Although the main headquarters is in Washington D.C., there are chapters in Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Southern California.

IARC is domestically focused. Hession says that some first and second generation Indian-Americans lean toward Republican beliefs. He says many Indian-Americans believe in conservative politics and family values—hallmarks of the Republican Party, adding that many are entrepreneurs whose beliefs also jive with Republican philosophies.

Former president Bill Clinton’s party has not been neglected, though. Democrats have a South Asian following as well. South Asians for John Kerry in 2004 (SAKI) raises funds and campaigns for the Massachusetts senator. The group raised almost $30,000 at a fundraiser at Mantra, an Indian restaurant in Boston, Anwar says.

On July 10, SAKI held a breakfast fundraiser for the Kerry/Edwards campaign at Pier 92 in Manhattan in conjunction with Kerry Victory 2004. Both John Kerry and John Edwards were present, and the group raised close to $1 million.

In between Democrats and Republicans lie non-partisan South Asians. USINPAC, a group recognized by the Federal Election Commission, tries to fill this void. The funds it generates are distributed according to issues found to be most important to Indian-Americans through grassroots surveys. USINPAC gives to both Republicans and Democrats, and Chokshi says they give fairly equally between both parties.

“Any candidate who supports our issues in the community is who we work with,” Chokshi said.

Baber Ali’s organization, The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), also does not endorse either presidential candidate. Rather, it is an issue-based group that provides information on both candidates. The group holds informational meetings in the community and addresses issues with Congress. Recently, MPAC gave testimony to the 9/11 Commission on behalf of Muslim Americans.

The Future: Looking Past November 2nd

The true test of South Asian political clout will be the maintenance of political engagement and momentum once the election is over.

“You only become active in something if you think it’s important,” Pandya says, adding that people need to realize that political involvement is always important. “That comes from realizing that all things are affecting us.”

South Asians are not always involved in local politics. Ali personally believes that local politics are the best place to begin civic engagement.

“Find an issue that you’re passionate about,” Ali says. “A lot of the issues we’re concerned about are local. All politics are local, and [politicians] have to respond to the local politics eventually.”

Chokshi echoes that sentiment: “Be more involved with the issues that you think are important to you and voice those issues.” She adds that if you have contributed to a political campaign and do not see action, you should follow up.

While many South Asians came to America in search of the American dream, “a lot of South Asians are concerned about their children growing up and being able to find a good job,” Anwar says. “A lot of them want an even better dream for the next generation.

While it was Mahatma Gandhi, of the last generation who said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” decades later, with the empowerment of money and numbers, many South Asians of the next generation have taken that message to a different continent and made it their creed.

 



Rohina Phadnis is a third-year journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park.


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