Indian-Americans rising in political clout

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — There are no Indian-Americans in Congress, but Ami Bera hopes to change that.

Bera, a 44-year-old physician from suburban Sacramento, Calif., is one of six Indian-Americans who are running for Congress this year, a record high. Hauling in half of his contributions from Indian-Americans, Bera has raised $871,000, even more than Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, the eight-term incumbent he's trying to replace in California's 3rd Congressional District.

While Bera's parents and many other Indian-Americans of their generation focused mainly on getting good jobs and a good education for their children, today's generation is working its way into politics and public service.

"Politics is the natural transition," Bera said. "We actually have a chance to give back to the county that benefited us."

Their efforts are paying off.

President Barack Obama has appointed 20 Indian-Americans to his administration, another all-time high. His first state dinner in November honored Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Obama also was the first president to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in the White House.

"The focus has now changed. ... It's a maturing, a coming of age," said Yogi Chugh of Fremont, Calif., the president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education. "It's recognizing how this is so important, that you have to be involved, you have to be engaged. It's taking the bull by the horn and saying, 'I want to make public service a life service and a profession.' "

Chugh said the record number of congressional candidates this year came after Indian-Americans had worked to get elected to city councils and state offices and then naturally aspired to higher office.

"As more and more people have gotten involved locally, I think they're naturally feeding into the system for higher office," he said.

In 2008, a Minnesota Democrat was the only Indian-American to run for Congress, according to Bhavna Pandit, a Democratic fundraiser and the political director of the Indian American Leadership Initiative. This year, in addition to California, Indian-American Democratic candidates are running in Kansas, Louisiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"It probably just took our community a little longer than it took others to get there, but we're there now," Pandit said.

Pandit said that that many people were surprised to learn that there were no Indian-Americans in Congress because of the community's size and the number of Indian-Americans who'd excelled in professional fields.

She said that Indian-Americans wanted to use the Jewish community as a model for their political involvement.

"They're very well-known and very powerful," Pandit said.

According to census figures, Indian-Americans are among the fastest-growing minority groups in the nation. The population increased by more than 50 percent from 2000 to 2007, when it topped 2.5 million. California has the most Indian-Americans, followed by New York, New Jersey, Texas and Illinois.

Congress has been without an Indian-American since Republican Bobby Jindal left to become the governor of Louisiana. Jindal, who's often mentioned as a future presidential candidate, was the second person of Indian origin elected to the House of Representatives. The first was Democrat Dalip Singh Saund in 1956, who was born in India and elected as a California congressman.

Since Obama's election, many Indian-Americans say that the glass ceiling has disappeared and one of their own could go to the White House someday.

"I think that's always a possibility," Bera said. "This is America. And if you try, if you work hard enough, if you put yourself out there, it's possible. That's the core of the dream."

Bera, whose parents moved from India to the United States in the 1950s, said he was "the beneficiary of much of that hard work" done by his mother and father. He's a political newcomer who's spent his career in medicine, working as the chief medical officer for Sacramento County from 1999 to 2004 and then as the associate dean for admissions and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine.

Like Bera, the other congressional candidates who are running this year are relying heavily on donations from Indian-Americans. Chugh said Indian-Americans historically had donated to congressional campaigns but were targeting the money differently this year.

"In the past, we never had our own," he said. "Now that our own are running, it's just natural that we'd support the candidates."

In coming years, he predicts, there will be many more Indian-Americans to support.

"People who live in this country are saying, 'This is my home, and this is my country. I have to make it the best possible,' " he said.

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