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Proud, political and American

Meet a rare breed of Asian Indians -- those who are not afraid of politics.

By Angshuman Das

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Most immigrants "put public service further along the agenda."
Professor Rita Simon, American University
Vani Singhal found mostly engineers and doctors among her Asian Indian family friends as she was growing up. Yet, she chose law school.
Today, at 25, she is not only a lawyer, in Tulsa, Okla., but also an executive officer in the Young Democrats of America, which is part of the Democratic National Committee. She is also a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the DNC. To her, law and politics go together.
Born of first-generation Asian Indian parents, she is an epitome of a new breed of Asian Indians: people not shy of wetting their feet in American politics.
Singhal marks a departure from the Asian Indian stereotype of technology or science geek. She has ventured to tread a path few choose. Among the relatively few politicians in America of Asian Indian descent, she shines as a young beacon.
Few Asian Indian parents want their children to test the uncertain waters of politics. Nor do many parents revere politicians. "They think politicians are all crooks," Singhal says.


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"When we were growing up, politics was not thought important. But, politics affects our life everyday. Politics affects what goes around you. Politics is a means to serve your country. Politics is an honorable profession."
Ashok Khare,caucus chairman, Warren, Penn.
Ashok Khare That impression is what 47-year-old Ashok Khare, chairman of the Northwest Caucus of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, eagerly wants to demolish. "When we were growing up politics was never thought important. But, politics affects our life everyday. Politics affects what goes around you. Politics is a means to serve your country. Politics is an honorable profession,"says this metallurgical engineer from Warren, Penn.
Gopal Khanna, an active player in local politics in Minnesota, says apathy to politics in Asian Indian youngsters is "unwanted behavior"among the many good traits their parents taught. "Our children are good because we taught them,"says Khanna, to whom Asian Indian excellence in academics is a "learned behavior."
Nimi McConigley, one of the most successful of Asian Indian leaders, concurs. Parents' emphasis on education, she says, "doesn't leave much room for flirting with politics."
At numerous meetings of Asian Indians, she has seen scores of doctors and engineers and financial analysts but few budding politicians.
To Rita Simon, a professor at American University, that rarity is not unusual. Professor Simon, who has studied immigrants and transracial issues, says most immigrants "put public service further along the agenda."
Their primary objective is to carve out a successful career, and they want their children to do as well as they do in a career, she says.
These "golden immigrants,"part of Asian America, are smart, says Simon. "Their children score higher on the SAT than white and black children."
But, the glitter can transcend academics. It can be in community service. That's what McConigley chose. She ended her job as a representative in Wyoming's legislature last August on completion of her term. She ran in the primaries last year for the U.S. Senate to step into the shoes of retiring Sen. Alan Simpson, but lost. However, she sees a tinge of glory in her defeat. In a pool of nine hopefuls, she beat four in spite of a "double whammy of being an Asian Indian and a woman."

Ashok Khare is a "political junkie." As a caucus leader in the Republican Party, he gathers grassroots support.

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"I am a Wyoming citizen. I'm running because I am a citizen. I ran for mainstream white Americans. I care about crime. I ran like anybody else. We've to think beyond ethnicity and national origin, run as an American."
Nimi McConigley, former state representative

"They (Asian Indians) have no agenda. They have not fought any struggle. . . They benefited from the Civil Rights movement. They don't know what America was like before the 60s."
Dr. Madhulika Khandelwal, Queens College, New York
My own Community
McConigley, 57, barely pauses for breath as an anticipated 30-minute interview rolls over to an hour. At 7 o'clock in the morning, her words emanate with so much vigor and grace it would be hard to keep pace without the kick of caffeine. But, then words have always been her business.
From her broadcaster's job in India she made the leap to America more than 25 years ago when she married an American Peace Corps volunteer in India. After earning a degree in journalism from the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she became the news director at the CBS affiliate in Casper, Wyo.
Twenty years ago, when she settled in this heart of the Rockies with her husband, she found herself "on the edge of nowhere."But she came to terms with her new environment. An aficionado of movies, she started a film society with a grant from the public library in Casper, a town of 60,000. Every Friday, townsfolk got to see movies of the kind they had never seen before. They saw foreign movies including those by Indian moviemaker Satyajit Ray, counted among the world's best directors. She started a hospice out of concern for the elderly. "We were taught to value family," she says.
Today, she's a citizen. "I am a Wyoming citizen. I'm running because I am a citizen," McConigley says. "I ran for mainstream White Americans. I care about crime. I ran like anybody else. We've to think beyond ethnicity and national origin, run as an American."
To "establish credibility," Asian Indians should ponder mainstream issues, like balancing the budget, she says. If they think about immigration only, they will seem "self-serving."
Over the issue of mainstreaming, all these voices converge -- younger and older, Republican and Democratic, men and women. Born in America, Singhal's generation doesn't identify much with issues of immigration and U.S.-India relations anyway. "We are Americans. To our parents, India is the motherland. To us, immigration is an important issue, yes, generally, but that's not the main,"Singhal says.
"If you talk about immigration,"says Khare, "the white man will walk away. All politics is local."Khanna says the "burden"of improving ties between India and the United States lies with the Indian government.
Dr. Madhulika Khandelwal, who teaches South Asian Diaspora at Queens College in New York, calls such politics "home-based."
"Even after 20-30 years after they (Asian Indian immigrants) came to America, they harp on diplomatic relations between India and the United States,"she says. "It (such politics) will be there, it can't go away completely, but I say keep it balanced. Home-based politics can't be carried over here."
Singhal says that by expanding the agenda to mainstream issues Asian Indians will win more support. By being clannish, Asian Indians will miss out on political opportunities. By reaching out to the general public and delving into broader issues like Social Security, education and civil liberties, Asian Indians can offer something to their own community.
And, yet, low political participation seems to thwart their contribution. McConigley wonders: "Why don't we have a better voice? Why don't we protect our own interests? If we don't participate, we will only have ourselves to blame."
To boost the low number of Asian Indians in politics, Khanna wants to "send a message across to the people: participate." On this late Sunday afternoon, his voice carries excitement over the telephone: "Come to terms with this new reality: You are an American first." To him, it's imperative to participate in the political system to be a "full member of the society." It's especially important for a new wave of immigrants to participate because if they don't they will continue to be outsiders.
To enhance participation, the Asian Indian American Republican Affiliate -- of which he is a member -- has charted out a four-pronged strategy:
to encourage Asian Indians to participate in local politics.
to groom second-generation Asian Indians for leadership in Congressional office.
to involve Asian Indians in domestic policy-making.
to get them to vote.
Khanna's zeal for politics in America has shown since his graduate school days at the University of Maine, where he earned his M.B.A. While in school, he brushed shoulders with policymakers as a member of the Maine Public Interest Research Group. Later, in 1982, he helped motivate Asian Indians into 7,000 signatures against an immigration proposal. He fought for family reunification in the immigration policy, something he sees as part of the family values ethic. Business school prepared him to be an entrepreneur, but deep down he has remained a politician. "Politics is dear to my heart,"says Khanna, who owns a software consultancy in Minneapolis.

My own country
Is love for politics, then, the only prerequisite for participation? There seems to be another. There seems to be a need to raise what Khare calls the "comfort-level" with mainstream politicians. McConigley says, "We are a unique group of individuals. We tend to isolate ourselves."Khanna rues Asian Indians' "self-imposed segregation."He says, "We carry a certain baggage as Indians."
Other hurdles to political assimilation are "the burden of a new immigrant and not knowing the (political) process."
Ignorance, yes, says Khandelwal. "They don't know what is redistricting,"she says, giving an instance she recalls from the re-election of Congressman Stephen Solarz, whom Asian Indians supported as a friend of India.
But, lack of savoire faire? No, say Khandelwal and Simon both. "They think they don't need it (political participation)," Khandelwal says. To her, it's not inability to connect with the political process that keeps participation low.
"It's just lack of interest,"says Simon, who has just returned from a trip to India. "There are not many barriers, the kind of barriers that religion puts."
Why, then, this apathy? "They have no agenda,"Khandelwal says. "They have not fought any struggle."
Khandelwal says political behavior often indicates a desire for empowerment. But, because most Asian Indians came to the United States in the post-Civil Rights era, in the 1960s, they didn't have to undergo any major class struggle.
"They benefited from the Civil Rights movement," she says. "They don't know what America was like before the 60s."
But, there is need to merge with the pulse of America. There is need to connect with the community.
A Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon, Khandelwal studies communities of South Asian immigrants. She reserves her most "cynical" comment for the end of the interview. Her voice is one of knowing: "Asian Indians don't reach out to other groups."
"Grassroots politics is extremely important,"she says. "They (Asian Indians) are not uniting as a group. They don't move into the different layers of politics."When Asian Indians try to participate, "they shoot right up for the top people."
They mostly raise funds for these people. But, says Khandelwal, they should develop "political power from the base, not upper levels."Ignoring the base, she says, "will cost them representation."
Nowhere does the crescendo of agreement rise so high as on this issue. Get involved, get involved, get involved. Their refrain rises loud and clear.
Khare is an exemplar. "I am a political junkie," says Khare, who rose from the humblest ranks to chairman of the Northwest Caucus of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Every year, he raises a few thousand dollars for his party. Last year, he raised $150,000 for primaries and general elections. He has worked for voter registration and organized fund-raising dinners. In Warren County, with only six to eight Asian Indian families, he relies on mainstream support. "I went door-to-door,"he says. "I started at the grunt level."
From there he became an executive committee member of the party and then was elected a member of the state committee. He has hobnobbed with Gov. Tom Ridge.
"I am a party official,"he says with distinct pride. He fights for smaller government, less taxes, the basic tenets of party policy.
Khanna also stands for a simple and fair tax structure. A first-generation immigrant, he stakes his money and effort on education as a member of his precinct caucus in Minneapolis. He keeps his eyes focused on the future: the third generation.
In the future generation and the present, the advice to the aspiring politician is: Immerse yourself in service. "Forget about the big stuff,"says Khare. Singhal adds, "Don't get cocky."
She began in college, volunteering with the most mundane of tasks. "I even went door to door,"she says. "You don't have to run for office to participate."
To Singhal participation is paramount. Work at the grassroots level teaches the first lessons in politics. Participation means not only working for a party; even working in the government is a lesson on how politics works.
Asian Indian involvement in grassroots politics will grow as the generation of US-born Asian Indians grows, Singhal says. "Our kids will be even more into nontraditional careers,"she says.
"There are more (Asian Indians in politics) than you think,"Singhal says. "There are quite a few on the local, state and national levels. True, per capita, there are few, but, there are more than we think."
She has come across "quite a few"Asian Indians even in Tulsa -- her hometown -- pursuing "non-traditional" careers.
Hope glimmers in young, ascending stars. Satveer Chaudhary, 27, is the only Asian Indian in a state Legislature and the first Asian American in an elected office in Minnesota. This Democrat dismisses suggestions of apathy. Even if there is some, "it's dissipating." More and more are getting into grassroots politics, he says.
He began work in his party in high school. From his student government days to his present job in the northern suburb of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin cities area, he finds his work "absolutely thrilling."The "fluid dynamics" of political life fascinates him.

nimi mcconigley
The sari is no handicap. Says Nimi McConigley, former Wyoming state representative: "We don't have to look American to be credible."

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"This is my country. I am concerned about what debt I am leaving for our children. . . I don't want to leave the legacy of a bankrupt social security system. When I am gone, I am ready to have inscribed on my tombstone, 'I am American. I am an American Hindu.'"
Gopal Khanna, caucus leader in Minneapolis
Do I belong?
Chaudhary was raised in Minnesota. Being American comes naturally to him, although he thinks immigration is an important issue -- to him, domestic and community issues don't preclude immigration. To those naturalized in America, though, being American is less visceral.
When Khanna represented his state at the Republican National Convention in San Diego last year, he felt he truly belonged to America. "This is my country. I am concerned about what debt I am leaving for our children . . . I don't want to leave the legacy of a bankrupt social security system. When I am gone, I am ready to have inscribed on my tombstone, 'I am American. I am an American Hindu.'"
Up on the rocky terrain of Casper, Wyo., idols from the Hindu pantheon line McConigley's home, "an island of ethnicity."
In the Wild West, she became "a nine-day wonder.""With a bindi and sari, I had a lot of potential in Wyoming,"she says with wry humor."In the legislature, all along I sat wearing a sari. I was just me." She has attended conferences in Washington, D.C., clad in a sari. "You don't have to look American to be credible. We will never be white anyway.
"We are American citizens. It (America) has given a lot of good things. Those things that are not good, we can change by participating in politics."

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