Indian-Americans are making a dent in New Jersey politics but will they break through as a formidable force on Nov. 7, is up for debate
For Indian-Americans, the Nov. 7 elections in New Jersey that go down-ballot from the governor to township councils, is a test watched keenly by the community nationwide as an example of whether they can make a breakthrough as a formidable force future politicians have to deal with. While they may be “flexing their muscle” as a New York Times report contends, even some politically active Indian-Americans rail about low voter turnout and lack of interest among sections of this community, are the Achilles heel of what is considered the most educated and highest income-earning group in the country, often touted as the ‘model minority’.
According to rough estimates by people involved in number-crunching for candidates, like Ritesh Shah, co-founder of South Asian Registration Initiative, there are some 370,000 Indian-Americans living in New Jersey, the highest of any state, up from the nearly 300,000 (292,000) in the 2010 Census. He is committed to making them more visible on the ballot in his county.
When his SARI activists fanned out to households in Montgomery County’s District 11, he found the numbers of Indian-Americans living there was much higher than the Census count or what the organization had earlier estimated. “We thought we had some 1,800 Indian-Americans, but we registered 30 percent more,” he told News India Times. That could make a difference to an important race being fought in District 11, involving an Indian-American candidate.
That’s the district of Vin Gopal, a rising star on the Democratic Party pantheon, a small businessman who has risen through party ranks and staked a claim to the State Senate seat in a swing district where few Indian-Americans live, and which is held by a Republican for some time now.
But Gopal contends it’s a ’50-50′ (Democratic and Republican) district and he has a chance of defeating incumbent Republican Jennifer Beck whose coffers may be heavy, but in a district that turned two Assembly seats from red to blue, he could be the one to switch the seat in the upper house.
And that is not without precedent. Historically, Indian-American candidates have done well in districts around the country where the population is majority white – the earliest of them all, Kumar Barve in Maryland who continues to represent Montgomery County in the House of Delegates since 1990; Satveer Chaudhary who first won his seat to the Minnesota House of Representatives (2001-2003) and then to the state Senate (2003-2011); Swati Dandekar in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2003-2009 and the state Senate from 2009-2011; The same goes for state races like former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, and former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Not least of all, the significant victories at the national level in 2016, that catapulted one Indian-American, Kamala Harris, to the U.S. Senate, and four to the U.S. House – Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois; Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; Ro Khanna, D-California; and Ami Bera, D-California.
Gopal also has the benefit of riding the coattails of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy who is also from Monmouth County, and has vigorously courted Indian-Americans. Gopal told News India Times he was doing well, raising money, and he has some 1,000 volunteers at his beck and call. Even at 9 pm, some 30 were operating phone banks at his campaign office as he spoke to this correspondent.
Amit Jani, director of Asian American outreach for Murphy, says there’s a lot of excitement in the Indian-American community to bring about a change of guard at the state level, and Murphy’s focus on the economy, the tech sector, and job creation appeals to it. “There are a lot of folks in their 20s and 30s who are drawn to politics this campaign season, So are older Indian-Americans, ” Jani says, not least because of candidates fielded up and down the ballot. “They are putting in time at the grassroots level and I hope they will come out in force November 7,” he said. “We are seeing more Indian-Americans run for office- maybe the highest number to date,” hazards Gopal.
Raj Mukherji, the only Indian-American in the New Jersey legislature after former Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula lost a Congressional election in 2014, seems certain, Gopal ‘my best friend in the world’ will win. Mukherji is expected to win re-election from District 33, Hudson County.
Long Way Off
“But Vin’s victory will merely double the number of Indian-Americans in the State legislature,” Mukherji says. A far cry from the right number according to his math. “There are about 350,000 Indian-Americans in New Jersey out of a population of 8.9 million. So that’s 4 percent of the state. If you round that up with the number of legislators – 40 Senators and 80 Assembly members – We should have at least 5 Indian-American legislators in New Jersey,” Mukherji said.
“So while we may be flexing our muscle, we have a long way to go from the minimum appropriate representation,” Mukherji added emphasizing his key words. Yes, he conceded there are a number of other local races that Indian-Americans have won and are running for – viz. Hoboken Councilman Ravi Bhalla running for Mayor; Sangeeta Doshi for Cherry Hill township council; Sapna Shah who is on the Edison City Council but not running for re-election; Rupande Mehta for Denville City Council; Middlesex County Freeholder Shanti Narra; and Ayesha Krishnan Hamilton for West Windsor City Council; and Vibhadra Patel on the Woodbridge Township Council, among others.
“So we are rising at the municipal and county level, but we are nowhere close at the state level,” Mukherji insists. “But I am sad that not even one of the five Indian-American lawmakers elected to the U.S. Congress is from the state with the highest percentage of Indian-Americans,” mourns Mukherji.
He is looking to Indian-Americans bringing out the vote in the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. “The Indian-American community has a chance to prove itself. We need to show our turnout can match our population because that is what parties track.”
Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times, and a recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, who has consistently encouraged the rise of Millennials in politics, has a longer range view of the evolution of the Indian-American electorate in the country. “We have come a long way from the 1990s. Even organizations like the Washington Leadership Program, that he has supported, which sends interns every Summer to Capitol Hill offices, has produced political activists at local and state levels. And he argues, even if the 4 percent of Indian-Americans do not have matching elected representatives, “Candidates of every ethnicity or race have to take stock of this community.”
Yet, Parikh admits, some Indian-Americans don’t exercise their franchise. “They are so self-absorbed. It is a sad story,” Parikh bemoans. “But I am very optimistic of the younger generation.”
Ritesh Shah of SARI also concedes it is hard to get Indian-Americans to the ballot box. “They have salaries in six figures and are doctors and business persons,” says Shah. Yet every Saturday when SARI makes calls to the Indian-American homes in District 11 in Monmouth County, N.J., “We get responses like – ‘I’m not interested,’ even though there is an Indian-American running as State Senator from here,” he says with some frustration in his voice urging everyone to get active by finding out where every cent of their taxpayer money goes, if for no other reason.
Assemblyman Mukherji echoes Shah’s disappointment with the low voter turnout. “While I appreciate the attention to the community (in news media), no one should be celebrating – because our voter turnout lags behind other communities,” he says. “If we don’t wake up to secure our place at the table, we are going to be on the menu,” Mukherji portends.