Politics & Policy

Pioneers! Rangers! Indians!

A flourishing American ethnic group gets a little political.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the December 27, 2004, issue of National Review.

They may be the most prosperous ethnic group in America. By any measure, they are among the most successful. And they are waking up to politics, which portends big things ahead. Republicans, in particular, have reason to be excited. An Indian-American moment may be coming.

This community–we’re talking South Asia, not “Native American”–numbers about 2 million, and they are the fastest-growing such community in the nation. Their median income is $60,000 (as against the general American one, about $39,000). They boast something like 200,000 millionaires. They are extraordinarily educated, leaders in many professions. They include about 40,000 doctors–a staggering figure–to which you can add about 12,000 medical students and interns. Famous small-business owners, Indian Americans preside over nearly 40 percent of hotels in the United States. In short, this is a group of American superachievers.

And Republicans think–and hope–that this group is ripe for their party. The thinking goes like this: “Indian Americans are entrepreneurial, hard-working, striving, traditionalist, family-oriented, religious, assimilationist, patriotic–what could be better?” And what are their “issues”? Tax reform and regulation, particularly as they affect small businesses; free trade, which includes a robust defense of outsourcing; and perhaps more than anything else, tort reform–Indian Americans are a community of doctors, not plaintiffs’ attorneys, and their political activity has been fueled by a desire to rein in medical liability. Affirmative action is an issue, too, for as Michael Barone points out, many Indian Americans had nasty experiences with preferential policy back in their homeland. This community as a whole–to indulge in some (further) stereotyping–is exceptionally merit-minded.

There is a point to be made in the foreign-policy realm as well: The administration of George W. Bush is fighting a war against Islamist terror, a cause that Indians can appreciate. And he is promoting democracy, another cause dear to Indian hearts: We hear frequently that the homeland is “the world’s largest democracy.”

None of this is to say that Indian Americans are in the Republican pocket. They form a diverse group, with plenty of Democrats and leftists, in addition to libertarians and other species. In short, they are Americans, spangled politically and otherwise. But as Neil Dhillon–for many years a Democratic policy hand, and now with Financial Dynamics–says, Indian Americans are undergoing a “dramatic shift,” in the Republican direction. And this is especially true of the young.


You might say that the history of Indians in American politics begins in 1956, when Dilip Singh Saund was elected to Congress from California. A Democrat, he walked door to door, in his turban–and won. A second Indian American was elected this November. That would be the Reaganite Republican Bobby Jindal, and he won in Louisiana–with 78 percent of the vote. In an area that used to be the province of David Duke, the Klansman. As Thomas Sowell says, Jindal’s election would once have been fanciful. “I would have bet you dollars to doughnuts” against it. But the idea that “things are fixed in concrete” is destroyed by America, perhaps most dramatically in the South.

Congressman Saund may have been elected in 1956, but Indians really didn’t start coming to the United States until the 1960s, when President Kennedy sparked changes in immigration law. This contributed to making Indian Americans largely, and gratefully, Democratic. When Nixon tilted to Pakistan, they became all the more Democratic. But Indian Americans didn’t participate much in politics, instead educating themselves and their children, working like dogs, and prospering, prospering. Only recently have Indian Americans turned to politics. Neil Dhillon reports that, when he went to work as a congressional aide in 1983, he was the only one–the only Indian American. Now such faces are not uncommon. Before, parents insisted that their kids become doctors or engineers–a college major in political science would have been disapproved. That is loosening.

The historian Stephan Thernstrom points out that immigrant groups do not follow an inevitable pattern in American politics: The Irish, for instance, immersed themselves in politics right away. Other groups sort of keep their heads down, not going out on limbs, before establishing themselves, gaining confidence, and stepping forth.

Bill Clinton was adored by Indian Americans, as by Indians, in large part because he traveled to the mother country. The current president has yet to do that, as Indian Americans note. But he has made huge inroads, as the Indian American Republican Council (IARC)–formed in 2001–will be happy to tell you. He has appointed a “record number” of Indian Americans (although it is unlikely that this president or his men would do so terribly consciously). He was the first president to meet with a Hindu leader in the Oval Office, and the first to hold an event honoring Sikhs. Also, his team hosted the first-ever Diwali event at the White House. (This is the Hindu festival of lights.)

In politics, as in life, little things mean a lot, as illustrated by the following example: In a 2003 speech, Bush touted his faith-based initiative, saying that “where we find Hindus and Jews and Christians and Muslims” we find “decency and compassion.” A member of the IARC board remarked, in a letter to the editor, “Not only did Bush mention Hindus, he spoke of them first!”

But big things mean a lot, too, and the president’s overall agenda strikes a chord among Indian Americans. Last August, the Bush-Cheney campaign made a bold appeal to this community, saying–about outsourcing–that “the Bush Administration believes the best way to help dislocated workers is through worker assistance, not by erecting barriers to trade and investment.” Indian Americans contributed generously to the Republican campaign. Among the president’s “Rangers” and “Pioneers”–his top donors–were several Indian-American doctors. And an IARC leader points out that you simply have to ask: In 2000, a San Francisco Bay-area CEO–known to be a moderate Republican–gave Al Gore a million bucks. Why? he was asked. “Because Gore called me, and nobody else had.”

Republicans will probably not be asleep at the Indian-American switch again: This year, the Republican National Committee had over 7,000 Indian-American “Team Leaders,” whipping up the grass roots. The IARC–not affiliated with the RNC–is doing its part. Its members hosted many candidate events, including “chai chats.” What are they? Chai is an Indian tea, and these homely events are reminiscent of the famous gatherings that propelled JFK in Massachusetts. (You remember that Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. blamed his loss to Kennedy on “those damned tea parties.”)


An important Indian-American political moment occurred in 2002, when the U.S. India Political Action Committee–USINPAC–was formed. These citizens have taken as their model the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, founded in the 1950s (and more than once have Indian Americans been likened to Jewish Americans, for myriad reasons). USINPAC’s goal is to boost Indian Americans and advance their concerns, regardless of party. They cheer every sign of Indian-American involvement and success: “USINPAC Congratulates Dr. Dinesh Patel on His Appointment as Co-Chair of the Transition Committee of Utah Governor-elect Jon Huntsman Jr.”! They hold fundraisers, briefings, breakfasts, lunches, training sessions, seminars. They keep close watch on the India caucuses in the House and Senate. (These are not caucuses of Indian-American members–Jindal would be pretty lonely–but rather of members interested in linking themselves to the Indian-American community, and all matters Indian.) The Senate caucus was formed only last April; its Democratic cochairman is Hillary Clinton.

Nonpartisan groups besides USINPAC include the Indian American Center for Political Awareness and the Indian American Leadership Incubator. (The goal of the latter is “10 in 10″–ten Indian-American congressmen by 2010.) In August, the Democratic National Committee launched the Indo-American Leadership Council. And there are some left-wing groups, including SAAVY, which stands for “South Asian American Voting Youth.” Left-wing Indian Americans are of a piece with the Left at large. They identify themselves as Asians, they favor affirmative action, they have joined the grievance culture. They view themselves as “minorities.” They tend to be frustrated that other Indian Americans do not regard themselves as victims, as strangers in a hostile land.

Of Indian Americans who run for office, about half are Democrats and half Republicans–although, two years ago, Rahul Mahajan ran for governor of Texas on the Green ticket. (He came up short.) The senior Indian-American officeholder in the country is Kumar Barve, a Democrat who is majority leader of the Maryland house. Another Democrat, Swati Dandekar, serves in the Iowa house.

Republicans, for their part, are pleased not only with the election of Jindal but with the election of Nikki Randhawa-Haley, to the South Carolina house. She is chairman of the freshman class. It’s a safe bet that we will see ever more Indian Americans in the future, as they succeed in politics the way they have succeeded everywhere else. One obstacle for Republicans to overcome, say Indian-American conservatives, is the leftwing press–not the general American press, but the Indian-American in particular (not to mention the Indian). “They are based in New York and totally soaked in blue-state culture,” says one conservative. “They are very liberal, very hostile to Republicans. The first question I get is, ‘Why are you a Republican? You seem reasonably intelligent.’” A common story, across ethnic lines.

And Indian-American Republicans feel a special conflict: Like other Republicans, they dislike groupthink, and identity politics in general. They wish to transcend race and ethnicity. But they hear a call to inform and rouse Indian Americans–and to wean those they regard as “natural” Republicans from the Democrats. Politicians such as Jindal constantly stress that they are American, embodiments of the American spirit. (Some Democrats emphasize the same.) When Jindal won, his relatives in Punjab danced in the streets and handed out sweets–but, in many ways, he is as Louisiana as crawfish. Nikki Randhawa-Haley has said, “The best way I know to honor Indian Americans is to be good at my job. I don’t want to have labels.” The executive director of the Indian American Republican Council is decidedly a non-Indian: Jack Hession.

And that is emblematic, says an IARC board member who is also an administration appointee (and an Indian Muslim, as it happens). His testimony: “I became a Republican when I was 17, at Berkeley, of all places. This was in the ’80s, and the number-one issue on campus was affirmative action. I had gone to a high school where there were kids of every stripe and color, and race was never an issue. When I got to Berkeley, I thought I was in the Balkans, because everyone hated each other. I couldn’t stand the racial fixations. That’s what drove me to the Republican party.”

This is the type of thinking that should have Republicans licking their chops (and Democrats tightening their jaws, or reconsidering). But no matter what happens, Americans will see their Indian brethren, not just in white coats or behind hotel desks, but at political rostrums. So too, every kind of politician will be stopping in at India festivals, looking for votes–and campaign contributions. Thus does the American dance continue.


The Latest