On a crisp fall evening last year, California Sen. Kamala Harris, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, stood before a glamorously dressed crowd at a fundraising gala for the India-focused education nonprofit Pratham at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan.
The nonprofit’s New York chapter had brought together many of the region’s well-heeled and well-connected residents of Indian origin, including Wall Street high rollers, wealthy physicians, community leaders and media personalities. Over the years, the charity, which counts CNN's Fareed Zakaria as a board member, has hosted galas studded with boldface names such as comedian Hassan Minhaj, Google CEO Sundar Picahi and Chelsea Clinton.
Harris, who is the daughter of an Indian immigrant mother and a Jamaican immigrant father, was introduced as the “first senator of Indian American heritage in the history of the U.S. Senate” by Deepak Raj, the Pratham chairman.
For Kamala Vittal, of Scarsdale, New York, who not only shares the candidate’s first name but also hails from Chennai, Harris’ mother’s hometown in India, it was a proud moment.
“Finally, people are saying my name properly,” said Vittal, who sought out Harris and her saree-clad aunt after the speech. “If she wins, I’m going to be trumpeting the fact that she’s Indian everywhere.”
In the growing field of Democrats seeking the nomination to run for president in 2020, Harris shares one thing in common with another woman vying for the party nod: A Hindu first name.
The other is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, a presidential contender who is the first Hindu member of Congress to take her oath on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text. Hinduism is practiced by 80% of Indians.
Tulsi translates to “holy basil” in Sanskrit. Kamala means “lotus."
The rise of Indian American candidates to national prominence is a natural progression for a community that has more than doubled from 2000 to 2017, experts say. At more than 700,000 strong, the New York City region is home to the largest Indian American population among metropolitan areas, according to the 2013-2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey.
New Jersey and New York, at 4.1% and 1.9% respectively, have the highest numbers of Indian Americans as a percentage of the states’ population in the nation.
The Cipriani event raised more than $3.6 million that September evening for Pratham. The next day, the nonprofit’s L.A. chapter gala was headlined by another 2020 presidential hopeful, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and raised $2.5 million.
For Harris and other politicians, like Nikki Haley, who is the former Republican governor of South Carolina and who headlined the event in 2016, it is the perfect place to hobnob with potential high-dollar donors.
Based on their income, Indian Americans have the potential to give $3 billion to $5 billion for charitable causes, according to a survey by Indiaspora, a nonprofit leadership group of Indian Americans. A 2018 study by Indiaspora also found that since 2000, people of Indian origin had donated $1.2 billion to U.S. universities.
“You can also say that some of that money can go to politics and other causes,” said M.R. Rangaswami, co-founder of Sand Hill Group, one of the earliest “angel” investment firms who established Indiaspora in 2012. “So the pool of money available is very large.”
Khyati Joshi, author of "New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America," and co-chair of the New Jersey Democratic Committee's South Asian caucus, said having Gabbard and Harris run would increase political engagement among South Asians.
"Names like Tulsi and Kamala will increase awareness, especially among South Asian women, who are constantly discounted. When I do voter outreach, I'm always trying to target the baas (grandmas) and maasis (aunts) because they are smart women who make things happen," said Joshi. "Regardless of their policies, the names make me happy. Growing up with a name like Khyati in the 1980s in Atlanta, Georgia, was hell."
For Asian Indians, one of the country’s wealthiest subgroups, political engagement had largely meant writing checks to candidates who looked nothing like them.
So for Bijal Jani, of Nanuet, New York, the importance of her 19-year-old son watching two female candidates of Indian and Hindu heritage run for the highest office in the land can not be overstated.
"When I was growing up, straight, white males basically controlled everything," said Jani, an attorney. "And now my son is watching these ladies on social media and it is fantastic because he is being influenced by seeing women of color, women of diverse backgrounds rise up in the political arena."
Indian Americans in politics
Between 1992 and 2012, campaign contributions by Asian Indians increased by more than seven times, according to a demographic study on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders conducted by the University of California at Riverside. During the same time, census data show the Indian American population had grown by less than half that rate.
Dinyar Devitre, who works in finance, has donated $340,287 to political candidates since 2002, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Devitre, a former chairman of Pratham, described himself as “party agnostic.”
“I look at the individual. Someone who speaks sensibly and is a moderate candidate. I don’t like anyone on either extreme,” said Devitre. “Indians running for office obviously energizes Indians to contribute more. You want to participate in the democratic process and you can participate in many ways by voting, volunteering. In my case it is by writing checks.”
A Journal News/lohud analysis of the federal election filings from both presidential campaigns’ financial reports found that Gabbard relied more on the financial support of Indian Americans than Harris does.
Of Gabbard’s top 50 individual donors, 37 had an Indian name.
For Harris, only two of her top 50 individual donations came from someone with an Indian name.
More Indian Americans running for office can lead to what Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California at Riverside, who oversees the AAPI survey data, called a “virtuous circle.”
“With each election cycle, you have more Indian American candidates running and then they attract more Indian donors and so you have a bigger Indian donor base and when you have some of the candidates win, you have more candidates say ‘Hey I could (do) that too,’” Ramakrishnan said. “So success breeds success.”
Dr. Hetal Gor, a gynecologist who lives in Tenafly, New Jersey, has raised funds for many political candidates over the years, including Gov. Phil Murphy and Booker. A fundraiser she held at her home for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign, where Clinton schmoozed with guests for two hours, raised about $100,000.
“The community is very excited, and they want to be supportive,” said Gor. “But finally, it will depend on what they bring to the table.”
Gor, who is a Hindu married to a Muslim, said she’d met Gabbard a few times and heard her talk about Hindu philosophy. The fact that Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, is a proponent of vegetarianism is something she believes will also resonate with the Hindu community.
For Bella and Haresh Sheth, of Chappaqua, New York, holding on to their Hindu and Indian culture has been important.
“It’s more cultural than religious for me,” said Bella Sheth, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the '70s and '80s. Theirs was the only family of color in the neighborhood.
“We were the darkest people on the block. It was a very Irish Catholic neighborhood, where every Friday, they had fish and were very observant,” she said, elaborating on the couple's decision to send their kids to a two-week Hindu heritage camp every summer.
Raghu Rao, a tech entrepreneur who moved to the United States in 1984, said Indian Americans seeking elected office was a step in the right direction.
“We are only 1% of the population, but if you look at STEM fields or the corporate world, we have an outsize presence,” said Rao. “But politics is one area where we need to step up and give back. Part of giving back is to participate in the political process.”
Indian campaign donations don't necessarily pour in just because someone is of Indian heritage, according to Ramakrishnan, of the University of California at Riverside.
Case in point: Bobby Jindal, who sought the Republican nomination to run for president in 2016.
“There were a few things going against him. One, he was a Republican and most Indian Americans in the U.S. are Democrats. On top of that, he was very conservative on a range of issues,” Ramakrishnan said. “If someone like Nikki Haley had run, she might have had more support because she’s a moderate Republican.”
But the biggest impediment might have been Jindal’s distancing himself from his Indian American identity.
“It’s not that he converted to another religion but that he actively tried to deny his Indian American or racial identity,” said Ramakrishnan. “And so most donors and voters thought he was ashamed of his Indian heritage.”
The fact that neither candidate had sought to westernize their names, (unlike Jindal, whose first name is Piyush, and Haley, whose first name is Nimrata) was brought up time and time again in the more than 20 interviews conducted for this article. Most took it as a sign that Harris and Gabbard were taking pride in their culture.
Haresh Sheth, who works in finance, said watching Jindal and Haley change their names and convert their religion always made him wonder about their authenticity.
“I always look at that as ‘how true are you to your culture and your beliefs? You are so easily swayed that you give up on something for political expediency to get elected,’” said Sheth. “I think staying true to who you are is important. This is a nation that accepts all people.”
Last year, Raj, Pratham chairman and founder of the New Jersey-based investment firm Raj Associates, and Raj Goyle, a former two-term member of the Kansas State Assembly, founded the Indian American Impact Project, a nonprofit initiative aimed at increasing political participation in the community.
The initiative also has a separate political action committee — the Indian American Impact Fund — focused on getting more Indian Americans elected through training, recruitment and help with fundraising. Together, the two entities are known as IMPACT.
“The IMPACT organization looks at candidates that are progressive, pluralistic and represent our values. There’s no doubt that our organization is very excited about Sen. Harris’s candidacy,” said Aruna Miller, executive director of IMPACT.
In a statement released on Wednesday, IMPACT announced they were endorsing Harris.
“In a large, talented, and diverse field, Senator Kamala Harris is our best choice for President of the United States," said Raj. "She is a tested leader who has demonstrated throughout her career a strong commitment to our community’s progressives and pluralistic values."
When M.R. Rangaswami founded Indiaspora in 2012, the community had no representation in Congress.
While as a nonprofit the group couldn’t make political contributions, the network of individuals rallied around and raised funds for Indian American candidates running throughout the country.
Two election cycles later, in 2017, when five Indian Americans were sworn into Congress, Indiaspora organized a gala in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the occasion. For the first time in the nation’s history, Indian Americans, who at 3.6 million constitute 1% of the U.S. population, had proportional representation in Congress.
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“In 2018, we had 100 people running for office at all levels of government throughout the country. Each step builds on itself. We have lots of Republican Indian Americans serving in the current administration,” said Rangaswami. “What you are seeing now is the acceptance of this small minority in high places, on both the Democratic and Republican side.”
For politicians looking for support from Indian Americans, their stance on issues such as higher education, comprehensive immigration reform and U.S.-India relations are key, said Rangaswami, who has attended town halls and rallies of both Gabbard and Harris.
“We’d like to see candidates from both parties come to the community for endorsement, the way both parties now go to AIPAC or other Jewish organizations for their support,” said Rangaswami. “We would love for them to say, ‘You have our unequivocal support for you and all that you stand for.'”
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris symbolizes Indian Americans' growing political power