While Americans elected their president and members of Congress on November 6, the voters of California’s 7th Congressional District had to wait a few more days to find out who they had sent to the House of Representatives. Among those on tenterhooks was Ami Bera, a physician from Elk Grove, California, and the candidate of the Democratic Party, who had posed a spirited challenge to a long-tenured Republican, Dan Lungren.
After a lengthy counting process, Bera was declared the winner on November 15, finally reaching Capitol Hill on his second attempt, after a loss to Lungren in 2010. Bera will represent a district that includes the suburbs of Sacramento, the state’s capital. And come January, he will be the only Indian American member of the U.S. Congress.
The son of immigrants from Gujarat also becomes only the third Indian-American ever to be elected to the House of Representatives; nobody from the community has been elected to Capitol Hill’s upper house, the U.S. Senate. Bera follows in the footsteps of Dalip Singh Saund, another Democrat from California elected in 1956; and Louisiana Republican Bobby Jindal, who served one term from 2004 to 2006 before becoming Governor of his southern state.
Speaking to Business Standard from Washington, DC in the midst of rushing from one meeting to another, the newly-elected lawmaker said, “If by being elected I can inspire the next generation, then we’ll have accomplished something.”
Even though Bera was the only one among six congressional candidates from the community to win this year, observers are convinced he is at the vanguard of a coming wave of Indian-Americans in political offices. Upendra Chivukula, Manan Trivedi, Jack Uppal and Syed Taj, all Democrats, lost to their Republican opponents, while Republican Ricky Gill was held off by a Democratic incumbent this year.
Four years ago, Ashwin Madia, a Democrat from Minnesota was the only serious Indian-American candidate for Congress. In 2010, there were six, the same as this year. There are also a growing number of Indian-Americans running, and winning, local and state level races. And of course, there are two governors — Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, both regarded as future contenders for the biggest prize of them all, the White House.
Among the high-profile campaigners for Bera was former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who called him a “product of the American Dream”. The fact that national Democrats dedicated a lot of resources to help Bera win showed it was an important seat for them and that they had enough confidence that the candidate would pull off a victory.
Sanjay Puri, Chairman of USINPAC, a Washington, DC-based group that supports Indian-American candidates and stronger India-US ties, believes Bera’s win sends a strong signal to the American political establishment. “Indian-Americans are strong, viable candidates because they have a lot to offer in terms of expertise and skills. I think it sends a message to both parties that they should be recruiting more Indian-Americans because they do win,” says Puri.
The 47-year-old Bera is a second generation American, born and raised in California. He is a physician who has taught medicine and also served as Chief Medical Officer of Sacramento County. His wife Janine is African-American and also a physician, and they have a teenage daughter Sydra. The family last visited India six years ago, and while Bera understands his native tongue, he admits, “I would embarrass my mom if I tried to speak Gujarati.”
But he is keen to promote ties between India and the US. Bera says, “I think the trading relationship between the two countries should grow as also the strategic partnership. The Obama administration has continued to strengthen those ties. They are the world’s two leading democracies, so it’s a natural partnership.” He adds that increasing representation for the community will further strengthen those ties.
As with other Indian American candidates, Bera drew support from the community across the US, even if they don’t have a large presence in his district. “We had a lot of individuals volunteering on the campaign, a lot of high-school students and just folks who, watching someone from the community run, got excited and wanted to engage,” recalls Bera.
Indian Americans are estimated to account for about one per cent of the U.S. population. While they are over-represented in several skilled professions, making up between seven and eight per cent of doctors and technology workers in America, for example, they are clearly under-represented in the 435-member House of Representatives, not to mention their absence in the entire history of the 100-seat Senate.
Bera believes this is a natural progression for the immigrant community. “The first generation that came here focused on getting their education, getting established. Now you’re seeing the next generation really wanting to give back to America. Among those who are in their 20s and 30s, we’ll see many more running for office and many more people getting elected,” says Bera.
The low representation is especially surprising for a community that emigrated from a democracy and would presumably be familiar with the process of elections. According to Puri, that in fact may have been the problem. “The first generation had some bad memories of politics from the home country because politics is practised very differently in India than it’s practised here. So the message they gave to their children was: be a doctor, be an engineer, don’t ever be a politician,” says Puri. But that’s changing with the new generation, he adds: “With people like Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley and now Ami Bera blazing a trail, they’re showing that it’s OK, it’s cool to be in politics, there’s no shame in that, it’s a matter of pride actually.”
In another quirk, the House will also get its first ever Hindu member when Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard is sworn in, but she is not of Indian origin. None of the three Indian-American members has been a Hindu — Saund was a Sikh; Jindal converted to Christianity; and Bera describes himself as a Unitarian Universalist, a liberal philosophy drawing members from various faiths. “We were raised in a culturally Indian household. Our parents raised us to accept all faiths and explore all faith traditions. And as I went into adulthood I found in many ways that Unitarian Universalists are accepting of all faiths,” is how Bera explains his choice.
Many political experts have noted that Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign outsmarted Mitt Romney by clever targetting of various ethnic and demographic groups. According to Puri, such a trend could strengthen the influence of the Indian-American community, especially in traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida where they are present in large numbers. He describes the community as being largely fiscally conservative and socially liberal, giving both the Republican and Democratic parties reason for hope, even though Indian-Americans have mostly given their votes to Democrats so far. It’s already a community that enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes among ethnic groups. Now with success stories like Bera’s, Indian-Americans are poised to play an ever bigger role in the American political game.