Political Leaders, Activists, Celebrities Discuss U.S.-India Relations and Diversity in the Biden-Harris Administration
- Hosted by South Asians for America, the virtual event was held to celebrate India’s 75th Independence Day.
South Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing groups in the United States, increasing in population from 2.2 million to 5.4 million from 2000 to 2020. The community is increasingly becoming a critical voting bloc, changing electoral politics like never before. Roughly 1.8 Indian Americans were eligible to vote in the 2020 elections.
The Indian American community is making strides, in fields as diverse as politics and government, healthcare, science and technology, the arts, media and entertainment. Some of these political and thought leaders, celebrities, and activists came together at a virtual event on Aug. 19, hosted by South Asians for America (SAFA), to share their impressions on U.S.-India relations and the diversity in the Biden-Harris administration on the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day.
Launched in May, SAFA is a national, grassroots organization aiming to increase the civic engagement, political participation, and network of South Asians.
Most of the speakers at the event are trailblazers in their own right and have played a part in putting the South Asian community on the political map. Equally important are those working behind the scenes, like staffers, campaigners, attorneys, activists and volunteers. Most speakers also have the distinction of being the first Indian Americans from their respective states to win an elected office, whether at the federal, state or local level. They spoke about not seeing anyone who looks like them in public office while growing up. Several women also spoke about being inspired by Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, first South Asian American and first African American to be elected to this position. They acknowledged it was time the patriarchal model seen in politics was broken and urged more and more women to get engaged and run for office.
At the Aug. 19 event, attendees heard pre-recorded messages from Congressman Ro Khanna of California and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. Urging more Indian Americans to run for the U.S.Congress, Rep. Krishnamoorthi, who has coined the term ‘Samosa Causus’ for the four Indian Americans who are currently in the Congress, said “we need more samosas, and for that matter, we need more pakoras, idlis and vadas for the Congress to look like America.”
Khanna, in his speech, talked about his “personal connection” to India’s independence. His grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, “spent 15 years as part of [Mahatma] Gandhi’s independence movement, four of those years in jail, during the Quit India movement.” Khanna said he is “honored” by his grandfather’s legacy. “When I think of his sacrifices when I think of what he stood for, I think about democracy, about pluralism, about inclusion, those are the values that should define the United States-India relationship,” he said. “I speak out for those values all the time. I was born in Philadelphia, a bi-centennial baby, and my grandfather spent time in India’s independence movement. And that to me is symbolic of the bond our democracy shares.” He lauded SAFA for “strengthening those bonds rooted in progressive values. Let us mark this occasion to continue to push for liberal democracy as a model for the world.”
Elected lawmakers at the state level like New York State Sen. Kevin Thomas, North Carolina State Senator Jay Chaudhuri, Kentucky State Representative Nima Kulkarni, spoke at the event. The South Asian community “is growing in numbers and influence” in his state, Sen. Thomas noted. He highlighted the number of candidates from the South Asian American community who ran for office in the New York City council elections and won. “I am so proud of everyone and we couldn’t have imagined this just a decade ago,” he said, adding, “we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Rep. Kulkarni, an immigration and employment law attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, talked about her journey. She immigrated to the U.S. with her parents at age six from Jamshedpur, to seek special education opportunities for her brother. Last November, she was elected for a second term to the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Chaudhury spoke about the increase in civic engagement across the country and expressed his “thrill” to be serving in the state Senate with another Indian American — Mujtaba Mohammed, who was elected in 2018 to represent the state’s 38th District.
Avinder Chawla, the transportation commissioner for the City of Irvine in California and Jilly Gokalgandhi, a member of the Milwaukee Public Schools School Board, spoke about the importance of running for public office at the local level.
Noting that Wisconsin is a battleground state, Gokalgandhi said whatever we do in the state has ripple effects for the rest of the electorate, whether it’s on national, state, or local level. Before applying to the position she currently holds, Gokalgandhi said she paused and thought about it. “Local politics is hard to get into,” she explained. “It’s so hard to run for office if you haven’t established a name or don’t have a family that’s been present in that area for a long time,” she said. “I think that’s part of why it’s so important for South Asians to run for office, specifically at the local level.” She continued: “When I think of my job in the school board my identity is so important to the work that I do,” helping her become “part of the fabric of the local community.”
Chawla was inspired to get involved in the community, interfaith dialogue and run for office, post 9/11 when Sikh Americans faced a lot of hate crime. “We Sikhs have suffered verbal harassment, damage to property and even murders,” he said.
Sekhar Narasimhan, founder and chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund threw light on the politics of the South Asian American community and how they were instrumental in changing the political course of the country. “Four years ago, the Asian Americans, Indian Americans had the lowest voter participation rates of any group in the country,” he said. Noting that there was “a consensus around a reluctance to see this country go down the road that Donald Trump was taking us,” he said “in this short period of time, there has been a 13 percent increase in voter participation. We moved from being people who went to take pictures with others to the place where others want to take pictures with us.”
Moh Sharma, director of Member Services and Outreach and Policy Advisor for U.S Congress highlighted the unprecedented number of Indian Americans who hold positions in the current administration. There are currently over 70 South Asian Americans who are either nominated or appointed. As a longtime Hill staff member who has served in numerous leadership roles, Sharma noted how the visibility of the South Asian community has expanded significantly in the current administration, in politics, on the Hill and in the Hill-aligning companies and organizations. “It’s because our community has gotten more and more engaged,” she said, “which is important for our issues to be heard.”
Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora spoke about the engagement of the Indian American community in helping India deal with its devastating second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Entrepreneur and organizer Away Bhutoria is a longtime supporter of Biden. Calling Biden “a long-time friend of India, Bhutoria noted that the president, who called U.S.-India ties the “defining relationship” of the 21st century, “will look to deepen ties with India.”
Others who addressed the event were entrepreneur and organizer Ajay Bhutoria; Dr. Sion Roy, candidate for California State Assembly, California Council Member Ali Sajjad Taj, and Anurima Bhargava, president of Anthem of U.S. and Commissioner on U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Indian American artists also shared messages, including film producer Megha Kadakia, actress and writer Meera Simhan, Indian classical and cross-over artist Roopa Mahadevan and enjoyed performances by Navatman and emPOWERED Kuchipudi Dance Group.
But the most inspiring message came from the 2020 National Youth Poet Laureate, Meera Dasgupta, 17, who explained what it means to be a South Asian American youth today. Sharing that her 9-year-self had aspirations of becoming the president of the United States one day, Dasgupta noted how Harris’ election has made that possibility a reality. “It’s interesting to see how far we have come since then, and how far we have to go.” She noted that when she was appointed the National Youth Poet Laureate at age 16, to be the youngest, as well as the first Asian American and first South Asian American person to earn the title, she knew that “whenever I walk to to the stage, I continue to never walk alone because I continue to bring these voices with me.” Dasgupta continued: “We need these voices in order to create sustainable solutions for the next century; intersectional, intergenerational voices. We need South Asian voices, we need indigenous voices, female voices, women voices and BIPOC voices with our positions of leadership and in the political sectors as well. Because they are the future and representation really does matter because, some youth, some South Asian girl might as well be the best president. She is the future, she is our future and we need to acknowledge that, not only as a country but within ourselves.”