Indian Americans Go Up the (Capitol) Hill

With the victory of five Indian Americans, the community, which is roughly 1% of the population, got about 1% representation in the US Congress.

From the left: Pramila Jayapal, Rohit "Ro" Khanna, Kamala Harris, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Ami Bera. All five Democrat Indian Americans have been sworn into the US congress.

From the left: Pramila Jayapal, Rohit “Ro” Khanna, Kamala Harris, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Ami Bera. All five Democrat Indian Americans have been sworn into the US congress.

Washington DC: Indian Americans have marked a significant presence in the US Congress with a record five members at a time when the idea of the US as an open, embracing, multi-ethnic society is under stress.
The five, including the first two Indian American women, took their oath on Tuesday, some on the Gita, some on the US constitution, flanked by parents and partners. That they are all Democrats is noteworthy and that they managed to win against a Republican wave, even more so.
In an election that showed the US’s dark side with overtly racist rhetoric and taunts of “go back home” thrown at minorities, the victory of the five brought up the bright side. Pramila Jayapal, Kamla Harris, Rohit “Ro” Khanna, Raja Krishnamoorthi – all first timers – and Ami Bera, who won his third term, could become the newest power group on Capitol Hill.
Their achievement is important not only for the 3-million strong Indian American community but for the country as a whole. This election has driven a dagger through the carefully crafted construct of American exceptionalism, shattering it in a thousand directions. The distortions of politics on display were a sobering reminder that democracy can be very tough business.
No surprise that the five are committed to working for the ideals that made them believe in the American ideals in the first place – inclusiveness, tolerance and safety for all American tribes. They emphasised those values as they were honoured at the ‘Indiaspora’ gala. With their victory, Indian Americans, who make up roughly 1% of the population got about 1% representation in the Congress.
While the positives about the Indian American community are well-known, M.R. Rangaswamy, Indiapsora’s organiser, used the occasion to remind everyone that an estimated 250,000 Indian Americans live below the poverty line and an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants are Indian American.
These are the issues – immigration reform and affordable healthcare and education – that will become even more salient as the five political reps work in a Republican-majority Congress. It’s an opportunity for them to make a mark and rise in the national consciousness.
It won’t be easy. With the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, getting anything done against the majority’s wishes would be near impossible.
Chennai-born Jayapal, who received the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, already has a formidable record in progressive politics in Seattle, including fighting for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and supporting labour unions. She came to the US at the age of 16 for higher studies and got involved in progressive causes after 9/11. There was much to fight for as the country hyperventilated against Muslim Americans.
Khanna, a lawyer by training, comes in from the other side, representing the heart of Silicon Valley – Apple, Cisco, Tesla, Intel are all in his congressional district. It took him three tries to get elected but he kept pushing and finally succeeded. He is said to be the tech industry’s favourite.
Krishnamoorthi, whose last name caused some mirth and some confusion during the campaign, won from Illinois. In a conference call with Indian journalists after his victory he recalled taking his infant daughter to India so the aging grandparents could meet her.
Firmly grounded in reality, he talks easily about his family’s humble beginnings – how his family in India bought its first refrigerator, first TV and first car in the span of a generation. He didn’t grow up privileged like so many second generation Indian Americans who know little outside their suburban McMansions and Ivy League campuses.
The fourth in the line-up is third-term Congressman Ami Bera of California who has already spent four years on Capitol Hill and has enough experience to guide the new comers. He is the Democratic Party co-chair of the India Caucus, a grouping that could see some more life if the five together decide to take up the cause of Indo-US relations.
Last but not least is the first Indian American woman senator Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party’, who some are already projecting as a possible future presidential candidate. Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, Harris was California’s attorney general and is said to be a favorite of President Barack Obama.
It is unclear whether the five will informally work together or go their separate ways as they navigate the Byzantine corridors of power in the US Congress. A lot may depend on the committee assignments they get after the hard bargaining is over between the leaderships of the two parties. Since the Democrats are a minority, they will get fewer seats on committees.  
In the meantime, the Bera-Khanna-Jayapal-Krishnamoorthi-Harris club has begun functioning as a texting group.