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Indian Americans Battle Invisibility, Bias in Halls of Power

Number of congressional aides has grown from 3 in 1990 to 32 today, but their voice remains muted. The community works toward winning a House seat.


WASHINGTON — Amit Bose, a young congressional staffer whose family came to this country from India, was working in his office half-listening to what passes for Muzak on Capitol Hill--C-SPAN coverage of floor proceedings--when he heard a remark that stung his ears like a schoolyard taunt.

A Republican congressman was railing against President Clinton over foreign aid. Why, Clinton would rob Social Security to help someone "with a turban on his head," the congressman charged. Next time he had to lobby the president on behalf of taxpaying Americans, he went on, "I am going to walk in the Oval Office with [a] turban on my head."

Immediately, Bose, 27, was on the phone to an Indian American staffer in another congressional office. "It was pretty offensive," Bose said. Bose and his colleague understood immediately that the remark was a racial slur against Indian Sikhs, who wear turbans. But there was little they could do.

Over more than three generations, Indian immigrants and their American-born children have put down roots from California to New Jersey and succeeded as farmers, doctors, hotel owners, scientists, professors, engineers and, most recently, entrepreneurs.

And President Clinton, who will place a wreath today at the Gandhi Memorial in their ancestral homeland, has extolled the economic success and high educational achievement of Indian Americans.

But still something is missing: representation in the U.S. Congress.

"There is no substitute for that," said Kris Kolluri, 31, an aide to House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and the highest-ranking Indian American staffer in Congress. "It's the real thing."

Now, Indian Americans are laying the groundwork for a political coming out.

"Certainly, there will be a breakthrough soon," said Karen Leonard, a UC Irvine professor of social sciences who studies South Asian immigrants. "There is money. There is interest. And candidates are out there."

Across the country, Indian Americans are contributing to political campaigns as never before, with an estimated $7.7 million in donations to federal candidates in the last three elections, $1.2 million of that from Californians.

Younger generations seem especially enticed by politics. Their interest shows in the rising number of Indian American legislative aides on Capitol Hill, up from three in 1990 to 32 today. Of these, 22 are women, including three tax lawyers. Indian American college students are applying in record numbers for summer internships in congressional offices.

"We're pioneers," said Priya Dayananda, 29, a staff aide to Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). She helped set up a network for Indian American women on the Hill, named "Radha's List" after a Hindu goddess. "Our responsibility is to usher people into the legislative system and guide them."

The ability of Indian Americans to rise in politics may well be tied to their success in making ethnicity a footnote. Despite population pockets in New York and New Jersey, in California cities such as Artesia, and in Ohio and Illinois, the estimated 1 million Indian Americans are too dispersed to anchor a congressional district. As a minority, they need the votes of whites, blacks and Latinos to achieve political power.

Two Democratic state representatives--in Maryland and Minnesota--and a Republican City Council member from El Centro, in California's Imperial Valley, are viewed as future Indian American prospects for the U.S. House.

"When I first ran for office, the Indian American community wasn't prepared to believe that a person of Indian origin could win an election," said Kumar Barve, 41, an accountant born in Schenectady, N.Y., to an immigrant father and an Indian American mother. "There was an attitude that American voters weren't willing to vote for minorities."

What first got him elected to a mostly white, suburban district in Maryland, said Barve, was his support for abortion rights and his determination to knock on more doors than his competitors. "My ethnicity," he noted, "is almost a footnote."

In Minnesota, Satveer Chaudhary, a 30-year-old lawyer, is in his second term in the state Legislature, where he represents a white, blue-collar Minneapolis district.

When he first ran, the Minnesota-born Chaudhary (pronounced SHAWD--RAY) was uncertain of how voters would respond to his ethnicity. Local pundits scored it as a handicap.

Instinctively, Chaudhary decided to go with a Midwesterner's light humor. He printed a "Top 10" list of reasons to vote for him. Alternating with his stands on issues such as state aid for education were statements like: "You can pronounce Satveer Chaudhary to test your sobriety" and "You get an extra-long lawn sign with Satveer Chaudhary."

"I would have to admit that I had to work harder than a Caucasian would," Chaudhary said, "but my foreign-sounding name was actually an advantage in that it provided a kind of name recognition."

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