However, with almost half the community still not naturalized, it has “a long way to go,” says Sangay Mishra Drew University professor and author of “Desis Divided”.
That the Indian American presence in US politics is on the rise can be noticed in the current presidential cycle. While we do have a prominent candidate with an Indian lineage, there are also several Indian American political operatives working for various campaigns from behind the scenes.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, Indian Americans have contributed more than $3 million to various candidates in the current presidential cycle. Considering that it is still very early in the primary season and given the relatively small size of the community, that figure is significant.
“$3 million is a significant number particularly for a community that is not known for campaign contributions,” says Sangay Mishra, author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans and a professor of American politics and cultural diversity at Drew University. “However, it is a small part of approximately 400 million that have been contributed in the primary process so far. It is just to contextualize but I do agree that it is highly significant that the community is so involved with the primary process and has this level of contribution. As we know, Primaries generally do not attract higher level of participation.”
Indian Americans have increasingly become a force in American politics. The 2016 election cycle saw an unprecedented number of Indian American candidates.
Mishra adds, “This has been developing over the last few election cycles and we have seen an outsize role of Indian American ‘bundlers’ in presidential elections. These are affluent Indian Americans with connections, organizing large scale fundraising for presidential candidates.”
Mishra attributes the greater participation of the community to a number of factors. “There are multiple factors behind increased contributions — some of it is natural progression but part of it is also the fact that political candidates now see Indian Americans as a possible donor base due to their economic profile and there is a concerted attempt to reach out to the community for this purpose,” he says. “We have also seen Indian American organizations such as AAPI (American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin), AAHOA (the Asian American Hotel Owners Association) and others having a ‘capital day’ where there reach out to members of Congress and law makers on their policy demands. Such mobilizing has created a relationship between political candidates and community members laying the groundwork for campaign contributions at local as well as national level.”
The academic says a greater number of Indian Americans contesting for offices at different levels “is also bringing community into the political process leading to possible openness to campaign contributions.”
While the community may be increasing its political presence, Mishra does see the many roadblocks that may be preventing the community from an even greater participation. One such roadblock is the green card backlog, or the long immigration waits, which play a role in limiting a greater Indian political participation.
“The community has a long way to go,” he says. “Given the fact that a large segment of the community (almost half) at this point is not naturalized and there are all kinds of barriers (long wait for Green Card is one) to naturalization leading to only a partial section of the community being able to engage with the political process. Any conversation on emerging power of the community has to keep these barriers in mind since a large segment of the population is not able to engage politically.”
Mishra acknowledges that shared identities may be the reason Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Tulsi Gabbad received the most money from the Indian American community, he says that may not be the only deciding factor.
“That (shared identity) is a big part of the story in this election cycle,” he says. “Both Harris and Gabbard have deep connections within the community and they also have appeal among the community members and they are benefiting from that. Their presence is mobilizing the community in the primaries and they are part of the reason we are seeing the numbers that are being reported by the LA times. For a different reason, Corey Booker is also playing a similar role- he has deep connections with Indian American community in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, etc. and he is reaching out to them. This is how newer groups get mobilized.”
He adds, “However, it would be a mistake to attribute this level of contribution only due to presence of certain candidates. My research indicates that Indian Americans — particularly very affluent ones — have started playing an important role in presidential elections in the last few cycles through bundling contributions (termed as bundlers) and this money has gone mostly to Democratic candidates.”
Tulsi Gabbard outraises Kamala Harris among Indian American donors (April 20, 2019)
List of Indian Americans running for Congress in 2018 (January 10, 2018)