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California and the West

Indo-Americans Begin to Flex Political Muscle

Influence: Immigrants from the subcontinent gain dominance in many professional areas and donate to presidential campaigns.


Americans of Indian ancestry are making a big political splash this election year as more and more immigrants have grown at ease in business and community circles.

Nowhere is it more evident than in Silicon Valley, the center of Indian American entrepreneurial power, where about 40% of all start-up companies include Indian Americans on staff.

Wealthy Indian Americans are making significant contributions, especially to the Democratic Party, and in return they are getting access and recognition.

On Sept. 23, President Clinton attended two fund-raisers hosted by Indian Americans in the Silicon Valley that netted $1.4 million. At one, a supporter suggested to the president that the White House acknowledge Diwali, the ancient Festival of Lights, as it does Christmas, Easter, Passover and other important religious holidays.

A month later, Clinton took the unprecedented action of issuing a proclamation acknowledging this important Hindu holiday which, like Christmas in the West, is also observed by non-Hindus in India. This year Diwali fell on Oct. 26 but, like the lunar new year, the date varies from year to year.

"A romance is going on between India and the U.S. and Clinton accentuated that," said Los Angeles attorney Shan Thever, among a handful of Indian Americans whose activism in California politics goes back a quarter-century.

He said Clinton has unleashed goodwill and excitement among Indian Americans by becoming the first U.S. president to visit India in more than two decades, and then receiving Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for a state visit last month.

"India is no longer seen in the context of Pakistan, but in the context of the global economy," he said.

To high-tech executives who gave more than $50,000 each at the Sept. 23 luncheon, the president's Diwali proclamation is a milestone in their century-old history in America.

"It's a good beginning," said Vish Akella, a billionaire and head of Ample Communications, who helped organize the $1-million fund-raiser; it was the largest amount ever raised at an Indian American political event.

Between April and September, Indian Americans contributed almost $3 million to the Democratic Party, according to Dinesh Sastry, a longtime Democratic Party activist and fund-raiser who accompanied Clinton on his India trip in March.

Not to be outdone, Indian Americans affiliated with the Republican Party have raised large sums too, but the amount is unknown because donations are not categorized by ethnic communities.

"They are making a concerted effort to become a political force," said Rep. Edward Royce, R-Fullerton, whose 39th Congressional District is home to many Indian Americans.

Royce, vice chairman of the House Asian and Pacific subcommittee, said the Indo-American community "has arrived" in medicine, the arts, business and politics.

The nation's 1.2 million Indian American community--more than 200,000 in Southern California--is one of the best educated and most affluent Asian American groups and is the fastest growing.

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, whose affinity with the Indian American community goes back to the 1970s when he was California governor, says Indo-Americans have everything going for them to be leaders.

"They have the brains and they have the wealth, and they're strategically positioned and interested in shaping American politics," he said.

The terms Indian American and Indo-American are used interchangeably, the latter being more prevalent on the West Coast.

"What you're seeing this year is the epiphany of the new generation of the community that recognizes that they are Americans first and foremost," said Brandon Shamim, president of Nexus Forum, the Los Angeles-based civic education group, and a longtime activist in the Democratic Party.

Veteran politics watchers believe Indo-Americans have a considerable advantage over other immigrants from Asia because of their experience with democracy and exposure to the West and proficiency in English.

Indian Americans are also more forthcoming than East Asians, who tend to be reticent, a trait subject to misinterpretation in American culture, which emphasizes verbal communication. Unlike many East Asian political contributors who shy away from the news media, Indian Americans are at ease with reporters and seem to relish encounters with them.

One of the most politically active Indo-Americans is Jessie Singh, a 42-year-old agricultural engineer, who immigrated to America in 1986 from his native Punjab with only $20 in his pocket. He went on to build BJS Electronics Inc. in Milpitas into a software empire that does $150 million in annual sales worldwide.

In April, Singh hosted a $1,000-per-person luncheon for Vice President Al Gore at his home that netted $100,000. Last month, Clinton attended another fund-raiser that Singh hosted--this one for congressional candidate Mike Honda of San Jose--that raised nearly $400,000.

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