Special Report: Not behind the scenes, Indian-Americans shine on campaign trail
For his presidential campaign, United States Senator Cory Booker recruited an Indian-American to lead his national media outreach. This is just the latest critical campaign position an Indian-American has been appointed to.
No longer ‘behind-the-scenes’ players, rather, a new batch of Indian-Americans is playing key roles in election campaigns and Congressional offices.
Sen. Booker’s National Press Secretary Sabrina Singh, is a seasoned political hand. She is part of the changing landscape of Indian-American influence that encompasses not just candidates running for office from the federal to local level, but backroom political operatives, public spokespersons, and a host of other positions, that make them almost ubiquitous.
Kunoor Ojha became the deputy national organizing director in Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign team “a while ago,” as she says on Twitter.
Saikat Chakrabarti is chief of staff in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez office. He used to be her campaign manager.
Gautam Raghavan is chief of staff to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, after having served in the Obama White House, heading the Gill Foundation, and being the executive director of Indian-American Impact Fund.
Rohini Kosoglu is chief of staff to Sen. Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential race, in which Maya Harris, the Senator’s sister is the campaign chair.
Ven Neralla is chief of staff to Rep. Andy Levin, D-Michigan,
Republican Adi Sathi, 28, is the Republican National Committee’s director of Asian Pacific American Engagement and goes around the country training conservative activists to join election campaiging at the grassroots for the GOP’s 2020 races.
And Ohio State Rep. Niraj Antani, a Republican who is running for State Senate, told News India Times he has yet to put together his campaign team, but already has a number of Indian-American volunteers on his door-knocking campaign, which has reached some 10,000 households so far.
“The fact that there are 3 AAPI candidates and 20 AAPI members of Congress,” explains the rise in Indian-American activists in the top tier, according to Shekar Narasimhan, a businessman in Greater Washington, D.C., and founder of AAPI Victory Fund. (He was referring to Presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris, venture capitalist and philanthropist Andrew Yang, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard).
Plus, the Obama campaign for President threw up a new generation of leaders trained in the political craft, “And we continue to build on the bench,” Narasimhan said.
These are just a few of numerous activists in electioneering strategy and tactics, ranging from people like Seema Nanda, the CEO of the Democratic National Committee, to fundraising organizations like AAPI Victory Fund and Indian American Impact Fund, to community-specific groups like South Asians for America, and New American Leaders.
Singh called it “incredible” that so many Indian-Americans were in high places behind the scenes.
The unprecedented and unparalleled accumulation of experience in policy and election strategy within the community is also a result of greater engagement with Indian-Americans on the part of mainstream America as well, Singh told Desi Talk in an interview.
It is also the result of the community demanding more in return from public officials they helped catapult to power, holding their feet to the fire more than in the early years when photo-ops ruled.
As the Cory 2020 National Press Secretary, Singh says, she loves interacting with media day-to-day, in a fast-paced environment that demands her being on the job 24/7. “It is important to let people know who Cory is and what he is fighting for and why people should vote for him,” said Singh who was most recently the Democratic National Committee’s deputy communications director, overseeing the states and coalitions communications programs.
“Cory is the only Senator who lives in a low-income community, the same area where he was as Mayor (of Newark). It is important for me to work for someone who matches my values,” Singh said. And most of all, Booker, she said does not discount any minority, including the Indian-American. “You have to feel that you have leaders who are looking after your interests,” she adds.
Diversifying his campaign team was important for Booker, contends Singh. “You can’t campaign wrong and yet govern right,” is something her current boss says about making his team inclusive. “How you campaign should be how you govern. So he has made sure we represent different communities,” Singh said.
So far Booker has attracted attention more for his low popularity figures and the less than impressive fundraising, in the ever-growing field of two dozen Democratic candidates for President, and counting.
Singh’s family history is worth recounting, because that throws into relief the relationship between United States and India, and the struggle on race, citizenship and immigration issues that her forefathers struggled with.
The activism of her famous grandfather Jagjit (J.J.) Singh has remained an inspiration for her, and especially so in a time when those anti-immigrant sentiments may be rearing their head.
Jagjit (J.J.) Singh, is described in scholarly studies as “a successful merchant, Manhattan socialite, Indian nationalist and the President of the Indian League of America.” (Abstract of the thesis by Neilah Shah of Haverford College, entitled – TheLuce-Celler Act of 1946: White Nationalism, Indian Nationalism and the Cosmopolitan Elite).
Singh’s grandfather played a crucial role in a national campaign to pressure then President Harry Truman to sign the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which allowed for the first time, a quota of 100 Indians and 100 Filipinos to immigrate to the U.S. annually.
In 1959, J.J. Singh returned to India but his reputation in the U.S. was large – featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications, as an ‘unofficial ambassador’ of India to the U.S. (See Robert Shaffer’s 2012 paper, “J.J. Singh and the India League of America, 1945-1959: Pressing at the Margins of the Cold War Consensus).
The Los Angeles-born Sabrina Singh has built a credible reputation of her own, serving as a regional communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, the deputy communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, and numerous other important positions.
Singh best embodies that new generation that has built on the gains of an older generation, and in her case, an ancestry that goes back to the 1940s activism of Indian-Americans in this country.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, whose scheduler on Capitol Hill is Amol Shalia, says he foresaw this surge.
“Now it is happening and accelerating,” he told News India Times. “Some of the best talent is in this community, and the challenge is to build this talent further,” Krishnamoorthi contended.
Where the older generations of Indian-Americans had built the financial stability and security, “This generation has taken the baton and is running with it,” said the Congressman. “Like I always repeat this saying, ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you are on the menu’.”