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Back-stories and chitti tales: Indian Americans on the US election campaign trail

Though Indian Americans make up only one per cent of the US population, they make up at least two per cent of the roughly 600 officials on the campaign roster of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Harris.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | San Francisco | Updated: October 11, 2020 12:56:38 pm
Back-stories and chitti tales: Indian Americans on the US election campaign trail(Clockwise from top left) Sabrina Singh; Amit Jani with Joe Biden; Gautham Raghavan; Sampat Shivangi (left) and Shalabh Kumar.

The year was 1949. Introducing Jawaharlal Nehru to a New York gathering, J J Singh, president of the India League for America, a private organisation that worked to “further Indian causes in” the US, had called him the “rainbow, reaching from East to West”.

This was no Howdy! rally in scale or ambition, yet, as a 1951 issue of The New Yorker, featuring Singh as ‘The One-Man Lobby’ for India in the US, underlined, it was no mean feat either. Singh and his organisation were “largely responsible for the most significant period of Indian activity in the US” until then, providing a legal route for the 4,000 Indians in the US then to gain citizenship. (Follow US Election LIVE UPDATES here)

Some seven decades later and the community now 700-times stronger, as Singh’s grandaughter Sabrina Singh works as the first Indian American press secretary for Kamala Harris, the India-origin Democratic vice-presidential candidate, it’s in vastly different circumstances. Along with at least a dozen other Indian Americans working at Ground Zero of the 2020 elections, Sabrina is part of a generation that is flexing unprecedented political muscle, far removed from her grandfather’s days of a “one-man lobby”.

“He walked the very halls that I have worked in,” Singh told the Indian Express, referring to her early days when she worked as communications director for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “My grandfather was probably the only person like him in a room, and when I moved to DC, I was often the only Indian American in most of my jobs. That has slowly changed.”

The 33-year-old has held several political posts, all with the Democrats – regional communications director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, spokeswoman of the Democratic National Committee, and national spokesperson for both Senator Cory Booker and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaigns.

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Half a century after US President Lyndon B Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act, allowing Indians with technical degrees to enter the country, Singh says she is now seeing more Indian Americans choose careers in government and politics rather than pursuing the more traditional engineering and medical degrees.

Though Indian Americans make up only one per cent of the US population, they make up at least two per cent of the roughly 600 officials on the campaign roster of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate Harris.

President Donald Trump’s campaign team too has at least one listed Indian American — Kavya Ramagiri, Deputy Executive Director of Strategic Coalitions, who graduated from Baylor University in 2019 and interned at a conservative Washington DC think tank.

Among those in the blue corner is Amit Jani, head of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Outreach for the Biden-Harris campaign team. “My story really embodies what the Biden campaign is about,” he said in an April 2020 speech. “If you come to our headquarters in Philadelphia, you’ll see a lot of people just like me from the South Asian community… My dad was involved in community organising in Indian politics and that’s part of the reason I got into politics here. Some people say it’s in the blood.”

However, it’s this backstory that found the 30-year-old in a bind. Soon after Biden named Jani head of Muslim American Outreach, several progressive groups and civil rights organisations demanded his removal for his open support of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and over his late father’s role as former president of the Overseas Friends of BJP. Subsequent reports found that Biden eventually replaced Jani as his Muslim outreach coordinator while retaining him in his AAPI post. Jani refused to comment for this article.

Sonal Shah, who served as policy director for Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s run in the 2020 election and is now a member of one of Biden’s task forces, too, has been at the receiving end of progressives’ ire over her past association with the VHP’s US wing.

Several other lead officials readily embrace their ethnic identity. At a virtual Asian American outreach event, Biden’s Chief Financial Officer Saloni Multani said, “I cannot tell you the expression on my father’s face to see someone who looks like him on the ticket.”

At the same event, Biden’s Digital Chief of Staff Medha Raj, whose ancestry is from Tamil Nadu, drew on the fact that her grandmother’s name has “Kamala” in it. “Hearing chitti (aunt) not just from my family but from the television screen” was her moving moment, she said.

Other Indian Americans working with the Democratic campaign include assistant campaign manager Shreeya Panigrahi; Biden’s speech writer Vinay Reddy; former US Surgeon General and Biden-Harris task force member Vivek Murthy; and former civil rights chief at the US Department of Justice and task force member Vanita Gupta.

The only Indian American on Biden’s transition team, which lays the groundwork for a potential Biden administration, is Gautham Raghavan, former chief of staff for Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Jayapal was at the centre of a US Congress resolution against the removal of Kashmir’s special statehood.

While Ramagiri is at present one of the only Indian American working on the ground in the Trump campaign team, among those who were until recently associated with the party’s election run is Chicago businessman Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar. Kumar, co-founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition and once a major fundraiser for Trump, has since cooled off.

Another well-known face is Sampat Shivangi, member of Trump’s Coalition Advisory Board and a former Karnataka University student union president. “The Emergency happened. I was being watched,” he says, talking of his journey from Karnataka to the US, where he got a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. “I came with a Nehruvian, socialistic mind. That’s why all Indians are Democrats. That’s how we were raised.” Ultimately settling in the segregated southern state of Mississippi, he switched political parties and went on to receive several appointments on the board of key medical bodies.

Also close to the President’s family is fashion designer Mrinalini Kumar, who is co-chair of Indian Voices for Trump, and who often appears in the media relaying her story of building a business by simply “running into Ralph Lauren” in New York.

Other Indian Americans working with the Democratic campaign include Campaign Manager Assistant Shreeya Panigrahi, Biden’s speech writer Vinay Reddy, former U.S. Surgeon General and Biden-Harris task force member Vivek Murthy, and former civil rights chief at the US Department of Justice and task force member Vanita Gupta.

The only Indian American on Biden’s transition team, which lays the groundwork for a potential Biden administration, is Gautham Raghavan, the former chief of staff for Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. (Jayapal was the center of a Congress resolution against the removal of Kashmir’s special statehood).

In June, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Raghavan tweeted: “It’s long past time Indian & South Asian Americans own up to our collective past failings and commit to do better to combat racism and anti-Blackness.”

Raghavan earlier served as LGBTQ+ liason for Obama and has led major policy efforts for gay rights. “As is true for many gay folks deciding whether to come out and when, I arrived at a point where loneliness overcame all my hesitations and reservations,” he wrote in his book West Wingers. Upon his last days in the Obama White House, he told the President: “My story — of immigrants, coming out, marrying the person I love, and servicing the highest office in the land, not in spite of who I am, but because of who I am—that story is only possible in America.”

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