PIOs rapidly climb political ranks in US

In 2013, the House of Representatives had a single Indian American member. Fewer than 10 Indian Americans were serving in state legislatures. None had been elected to the Senate. None had run for president. Despite being one of the largest immigrant groups in the US, 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. Vice-President Kamala Harris is 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 newly announced candidacy makes it the first cycle with two. In parts of the government, “we’ve gone literally from having no one to getting close to parity,” said Neil Makhija, executive director of Impact, an Indian American advocacy group. Most Indian American voters are Democrats, and it is an open question how much of their support Haley might muster. In the past, when Indian Americans have run as Republicans, they have rarely talked much about their family histories, but Haley is emphasising her background.
Activists, analysts, and current and former elected officials, including four of the five Indian Americans in Congress, described an array of forces that have bolstered the political influence of Indian Americans. A range of factors, such as the relative wealth of Indian immigrants and high education levels, has propelled a rapid political ascent for the second and third generations. Advocacy groups – including Impact and the AAPI Victory Fund – have mobilised to recruit and support them, and to direct politicians’ attention to the electoral heft of Indian Americans, whose populations in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas are large enough to help sway local, state and federal races. “It’s really all working in tandem,” said Raj Goyle, a former state lawmaker in Kansas who co-founded Impact. “There’s a natural trend, society is more accepting, and there is deliberate political strategy to make it happen.” When Goyle ran for the Kansas House in 2006 as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent, he was told that the incumbent’s reaction to learning she had a challenger had been “Who is Rod Doyle?” “It was inconceivable that someone named Raj Goyle – let alone Rajeev Goyle – would run for office in Wichita,” he said. Today, “the average voter’s a lot more familiar with an Indian American face on TV, in their examining room, in their classroom, at their university, leading their company.”
In retrospect, the watershed appears to have been 2016, just after then-Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana became the first Indian American to run for president. That was also the year 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 House members – who call themselves the Samosa Caucus – were joined by Rep. Shri Thanedar of Michigan.
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 quite a different kind of phenomenon than what we often are seeing 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. “It 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 eased their movement into politics.
Immigrants from India are often highly educated and, often speak English, “which lowers barriers to civic engagement,” Ramakrishnan said. India is also a democracy, which Ramakrishnan’s research has shown means Indian Americans are more likely to engage in the American democratic system. By and large, Indian Americans have been elected on the Democratic side of the aisle. All five Indian Americans in Congress, and almost all state legislators, are Democrats. Haley’s candidacy could be a case study in whether an embrace of Indian immigrant heritage can resonate among Republicans, too. Raman Dhillon, CEO 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 city he is, Punjab, where a significant portion of truckers in Canada and the US trace their roots.

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