By The SATimes News Service
Comment by Deepak Raj and Neil Makhija
On Nov. 4, 2001, Upendra Chivukula became the first Indian American elected to the New Jersey General Assembly. In the two decades since, the Garden State has led the nation in its embrace – socially and electorally – of Indian Americans.
Today, New Jersey — home to more Indian Americans per capita than any other state — also boasts the most Indian American public officials. Trailblazers like Chivukula have paved the way for leaders like Vin Gopal, who became New Jersey’s first Indian American state senator in 2018, and Assembly Majority Whip Raj Mukerji. In total, more than 80 Indian Americans presently serve in public office in our state, as mayors, legislators, city councilors, and school board members.
New Jersey’s highest-ranking officials have been close allies of the Indian American community. Gov. Phil Murphy appointed Gurbir Grewal as state attorney general, the first Sikh to achieve the post in our nation’s history, and he led a historic trade delegation to India last year. Senator Bob Menendez led a similar delegation as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker has built deep relationships with Indian American charitable and civic groups and has hired several Indian Americans in his office, where a portrait of Gandhi hangs behind his desk. These leaders know that embracing the Indian American community isn’t just good politics; it’s good policy. The New Jersey India Center — founded a year ago this month — has boosted international investment in the state and helped create 1,200 new jobs last year.
But New Jersey isn’t the only state embracing South Asians this election year. In November, Pennsylvania is poised to elect Nikil Saval as its first Indian American state senator, while the New York State Assembly will likely welcome its first South Asian woman, Jenifer Rajkumar. Meanwhile, New Jerseyans will have the chance to break ground once more, by electing Rupande Mehta the first Indian American woman in the General Assembly.
And, of course, our entire nation will have the opportunity this November to make history by electing the first Indian American vice president of the United States, Kamala Devi Harris.
Harris is the first South Asian American on a major party ticket, and she could therefore be instrumental in delivering her running mate, Joe Biden, a significant — and growing — voting bloc.
Indian Americans register and vote at high rates. There are projected to be 1.4 million Indian American voters in this year’s election. More important, their numbers are growing in critical states. According to data from APIA Vote, which works to increase political participation among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, there will be an increase of roughly 12% in eligible Indian American voters in swing states from 2018 to this year. This year, the group says, there will be 193,000 eligible Indian American voters in Florida (where Donald Trump won in 2016 by 113,000), 156,000 in Pennsylvania (Trump by 44,000), 150,000 in Georgia (Trump by 211,000), and 125,000 in Michigan (Trump by 11,000).
In the 2016 presidential election, 77% of Indian Americans voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump thinks he can persuade Indian Americans to vote Republican this fall. His reelection campaign has been running social media ads targeting Indian voters, praising Indian Americans as business and technology leaders and touting Trump’s budget-busting tax cuts.
But Indian Americans, largely recent immigrants and their families, with a globalized outlook and commitment to social justice, are more sympathetic to Democratic positions. Seeing Harris, a fellow Indian American, on the ticket will cement that alliance.
Equally important, her presence on the ticket will help Democrats in down-ballot races. Having Harris on the ballot may help congressional candidates like Sri Kulkarni in Texas and Hiral Tipirneni in Arizona. There is also evidence that Asian American voters may have played a key role in turning the suburbs blue. Many traditional Democratic blocks are concentrated in urban areas — notably Black voters and young voters, but the Asian American vote is increasingly in the suburbs. In 2016, it was suburban districts that created the “blue wave” that turned the House of Representatives to Democratic control in 2018. Harris will help motivate those voters, too.
To be clear, this isn’t a question of tokenism. Kamala Harris is a qualified, accomplished leader and dedicated public official. She will make the United States a more inclusive, more equitable country that can meet the challenges that all of us collectively face. As she said in her speech at the Democratic Convention, she is running to advance a “vision of our nation as a beloved community.”
But as Indian Americans, we can’t ignore the pride we feel in seeing Harris at the forefront of our national stage, and hearing her story — and our story — told around the world.
We’ll be proud to cast our votes for the Biden-Harris ticket. Many, many other Indian Americans and Asian Americans will, too.
- Deepak Raj of Princeton is the founder of Raj Associates, chairman of Pratham USA and the co-founder of IMPACT, a civic organization that helps recruit, train, and elect Indian Americans at all levels of government.
- Neil Makhija is the executive director of IMPACT and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.