- Rife with idealism, nurturing dreams of creating a better world, many South Asian American Millennials are willing to make sacrifices to realize their vision.
An unmistakable trend over the past decade has been the rise of the left, coinciding with the deepening polarization of the country with the election of the first Black president of the United States and the rise of the populist right and Donald Trump. While the election of Joe Biden, a moderate centrist, seemingly at the expense of the progressive left forces within the Democratic Party, is deemed as a return to normalcy, as it were, there is no denying that there is a left insurgency in the intellectual and ideological spaces of the country, if not necessarily in the electoral arena. The most important evidence of the specter that is haunting America is de-stigmatization of the notion of socialism, particularly among the Millennials.
Even more significant is the fact that in this rising left movement, people of South Asian descent appear to be playing an outsized role both as intellectual vanguard and grassroots activists. Young South Asian Americans born in this country and even some who were naturalized are becoming a force to reckon with. Rife with idealism, nurturing dreams of creating a better world, they are willing to make sacrifices to realize their vision. They present a contrast to the image of a typical upwardly mobile South Asian American, lured to this country by lucre, amassing wealth en route to climbing the corporate ladder, running businesses and even running for political office.
Vivek Chibber, professor of sociology at New York University, and editor of the left wing publication “The Catalyst: A journal of Theory and Strategy,” says, “Most Indian immigrants to the U.S. are not on the left. They are liberal or neoliberal centrists. As they form the richest ethnic group coming from professional classes with a background in engineering or business, it is not a demographic that is going to throw up a lot of socialists.” However, he adds, “It is noteworthy and a very welcome sight to see so many Indian Americans become visible in the American left movement. A sign that at least some of them are getting some moral depth.”
Among those Millennials who are at the forefront of the socialist insurgency are Bhaskar Sunkara, founder and editor of Jacobin, a sprightly left journal, Faiz Shakir, former campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, Saikat Chakraborti, a key figure behind Justice Democrats; members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) such as Nithya Raman, the newly elected city councillor in Los Angeles, Nikil Saval elected to city council in Pennsylvania, Zohran Mamdani newly elected New York State Representative and Jeevan Sobrinho Wheeler, city councillor at large for Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2019.
DSA is the largest socialist organization in the U.S., with about 80,000 members and professes to be a political and activist organization, not a political party. Abdullah Yuonus, a Pakistani American is one of the 16 members of the national political committee of DSA. Other South Asian members like Fatima Iqbal-Zubair (Sri Lankan origin) and Nabilah Islam of Bangladeshi descent may have lost their electoral battles for state legislatures (California and Georgia), but have laid the groundwork future endeavors.
One of the first Indian American socialist who caught the attention of the national media, Kshama Sawant, who has been elected to the Seattle City Council on a socialist platform since 2013. A member of Socialist Alternative, Sawant has run into trouble for her efforts to take on the mighty Jeff Bezos with an Amazon tax to pay for the city metro, affordable housing, etc. She is currently facing a recall effort that is now pending at the Washington State Supreme Court. Chibber recounts her achievements, saying, “five years ago, she was the only one pushing for economic rights. Now there are hundreds of them. She is no longer alone; there are a large number of officials today who stand up for people’s rights.”
Sawant came to the U.S. from Pune, India, to work in computer science but went on to study and teach economics. A member of the Marxist Socialist Alternative party, the U.S. wing of the Trotskyist International Socialist Organization, she first came to limelight as an organizer in the local Occupy movement. She advocates nationalization of large Washington-based corporations like Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon. Yet she does not advocate Soviet style command economy but calls for an end to the two-party system, refusing to join the Democratic Party. She did, however, support and campaign for Bernie Sanders.
For Seema Singh Perez, elected as city councillor for Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2017, listening to Bernie Sanders’ speeches proved life changing. Although progressive, she did not know she was a socialist before his presidential campaign. Born in Varanasi, India, raised in Tennessee, and working as a medical social worker, she described her exposure to Bernie Sanders saying, “He spoke the truth in ways I hadn’t heard …honestly, I cried.” She felt she had to do something and the best way was to run for office and be in the government, which she did after joining the DSA.
Sobrinho-Wheeler, 28, whose father is from Goa and mother from Idaho, says he has always been on the left of the ideological spectrum. In a conversation with American Kahani, he said, “I have seen how corporations have so much power in the U.S. public education, universities and health are grossly underfunded. In 2008, big corporations were bailed out and faced little accountability.” He says he always wanted to do something and he had been part of Barack Obama’s electoral campaign. He feels that socialism is a growing movement in the U.S. especially as issues like protection of workers and medicare for all acquire new depth in the pandemic. He sees the Biden presidency as a stepping stone to achieving the goals, although he concedes that a lot of work still needs to be done.
Urban planner and activist Nithya Raman ran for office motivated as she was to fight homelessness and climate change. Born in Kerala, she came to the U.S. at age 6, studied at Harvard and MIT and even returned to India to work on urban development issues in Chennai. Upon her return, she founded and headed a homelessness non-profit in Los Angeles and also worked at Time’s Up Entertainment that helps defend women against sexual harassment. She has signed the Participatory Budget Pledge, an initiative of the Black Lives Matter, to hold a participatory budgeting process each budget cycle while she holds office.
Nikil Saval was a co-founder of Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization that formed out of the Bernie Sanders 2016 election campaign. He was co-editor of n+1 as well as a contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker, covering architecture and design. He won the endorsement of Sanders in May 2020 and asked his campaign around a Green New Deal, prison reform, affordable housing and Medicare for All.
Zohran Mamdani has been described in the media as the rapper who wants to heal the sick, tax the rich, house the poor and build a socialist New York. One of the first two South Asian Americasn to be elected to New York State Assembly, he had worked as a housing counsellor for a non profit helping poorer citizens to fight eviction from their homes. He ran under the slogan of Roti and Roses in a district with a significant South Asian presence.
Faiz Shakir, son of Pakistani immigrants, was born and raised in Florida. A Harvard graduate and a Juris Doctor from Georgetown University, he had earlier worked as an aide to congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and was editor-in-chief of the ThinkProgress blog. He is a progressive liberal and an advocate for Muslim Americans.
Saikat Chakrabarti, 34, is one of the key persons who launched the political career of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and one of the principal architects of the Green New Deal. He quit Silicon Valley after making money there with his company Stripe and began working for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016. Donald Trump’s victory galvanized him into trying to overhaul the democratic process. He co-founded the political action group Brand New Congress (BNC), along with a few other members of the campaign, with the aim of recruiting congressional candidates into the Democratic Party who would fight elections with small, individual donors, the all- important goal being to curb the power of industrial lobbies. He was able to recruit 11, of whom only Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (AOC) went on to win. BNC later merged into Justice Democrats. He was briefly chief of staff for AOC and now runs The New Consensus, a think tank dedicated to working out the details of the Green New Deal, which calls for a sustainable economy on principles of justice, thus going beyond purely environmental concerns.
Waleed Shahid had also joined the Bernie Sanders campaign, disregarding his parents’ advice to stay away from politics after the demonization of Muslims that began post 9/11. His parents had come from Pakistan over 35 years ago. Following the Trump win, he co-founded AllOfUs, which later merged into Justice Democrats. This group has endorsed candidates Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressly as well as Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal as they passed the litmus test of declining money from corporate lobbyists and supporting Medicare for All. Shahid writes regularly for publications such as The Nation, pushing his progressive ideas.
Varshini Prakah, 27, is co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth organization that advocates political action on climate change. Incorporated in 2017, the group has played a pivotal role in bringing environmental issues to the center stage in Democratic Party politics and promotes the Green New Deal. It has been engaged in electing proponents of renewable energy in the 2018 midterm elections, first in the Democratic primaries and then in the general elections. She is also co-editor of the book the “Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can,” released last August.
Thirty-one-year old Bhaskara Sunkara whose Indian parents immigrated to the U.S. via Trinidad, was vice-chairman of DSA for several years until that position was abolished. He has been mentioned in Fortune in 40 under 40 of 2020, in the category of Most Influential people in Politics and Law. His magazine Jacobin, which the New York Times says “takes Marx into the mainstream,” launched in 2010 when he was just 21, has rapidly expanded its readership base, an indication of its growing influence among young readers, university students and trade unionists. Mainly concerned with empowering the working classes and getting them their dues and fighting income inequalities, he nevertheless, favors regulation rather than complete abolition of capitalism. He credits Bernie Sanders largely with making the term democratic socialism acceptable for many Americans.
In fact, as Chibber says, no one on the American left seeks to establish a Soviet style system with a centralized and planned economy and curbs on freedoms. “That is part of the scaremongering the right wing engaged in. Much of the 20th century left has done everything to fight the Soviet style totalitarian system.”
Not even the Trotskyite Socialist Equality Party, which is no more than a fringe group today wants that although it does dream of staging a workers’ revolution one day. 40-year-old Joseph Tanniru Kishore has been its national secretary since 2008. Kishore was even fielded as the party’s presidential candidate in the 2020 elections. He maintains his presence in the intellectual space through his writings on the World Socialist website.
Former McKinsey consultant turned New York Times correspondent and now bestselling author Anand Giridharadas, has emerged as an influential figure in the left movement after the publication of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” (2018), in which he argues that members of the global elite, though sometimes engaged in philanthropy, use their wealth and influence to preserve systems that concentrate wealth at the top at the expense of societal progress.
Chibber had launched “Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy,” with Robert Brenner, published by Jacobin magazine, in 2017. While Jacobin magazine relates and responds to current news developments, Catalyst looks at the long term and both share the socialist and Marxist ideology.
Other South Asian Americans on the editorial board of Catalyst are Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, and Ramaa Vasudevan, Professor of Economics at Colorado University, and one of the few economists in the movement. An academic background in social sciences and an exposure to progressive values in the family or social milieu, shapes their interest in socialism, says Chibber of people like himself.
A bowdlerized version of socialism, along the lines of what has been practiced for long in much of western or at least Scandinavian Europe is what these leftists are striving for. Most of their policy goals would not be considered radical left in Europe at all. Social welfare with regulation of capitalism to achieve justice and relative equality is the main aim. “Much of the U.S. left holds the Nordic countries as a very good model, as something to aspire toward and deepen,” said Chibber.
The millennials are clearly not buying into these fears as they seek to change the established order. As the pandemic-induced downturn of the economy is set to hit rock bottom, widening the gulf between rich and poor, change towards justice and equity seems inevitable. Even the Economist magazine concurred that now the corporates will pay heed to workers more than to shareholders.
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading Indian national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami.