Kamala Harris is on the brink of making history. She won’t just be the first woman to occupy the second-highest office in America, she will also be the first person of colour to do so. While her mixed heritage is being celebrated in both Jamaica and India, she is part of a group of trail-blazing Indian Americans who have risen to prominence in American public life: The ‘Samosa Caucus’.
The ‘caucus’ is a group of four other Democrats in Congress who have been re-elected in 2020. Congressmen Ami Bera and Ro Khanna from California, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorti of Illinois, and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington State.
They have fascinating, sometimes painful, personal histories. They share heritage, but more importantly, values. They are formidable opponents of the Trump cult, and are happy to destroy the Tea Party.
Jayapal’s family moved to the US in 1982, Jayapal lost her green card because of the premature birth of her child when on a visit to native Chennai — and she was unable to return on time to meet the requirements for permanent residents. She eventually became a US citizen in 2000.
During a house judiciary committee hearing on the Equality Act, legislation that aimed to prevent discrimination against the LGBTQ, Jayapal delivered a moving speech in support of the bill. She knew intimately the burdens society placed on the group, said Jayapal — she was the mother of a gender non-binary child.
Jayapal wiped her tears as she spoke, but she made her point.
At other times, like her interrogation of William Barr, Trump’s Attorney General, she displayed her ability to shred the slipperiest of customers. Barr seethed through the hearing as he was schooled and scolded. At one point, tired of his shameless attempts to interrupt her questions, she came back with a simple assertion that had connotations well beyond the limited context of that hearing: “Excuse me, Mr Barr, this is my time, and I will control it.”
Others in the caucus have impressive track records of combating the corruption that Trump has infected institutions with. Some of the issues they have dealt with are relevant at this very moment. Trump’s attempts to put sabotage the postal system to benefit in the elections was surgically exposed by Rep Krishna last year.
As for Khanna, he’s Silicon Valley’s congressman. He advocates policy that keeps a check on big tech, fighting for the rights of people gain more knowledge and control of their data. Another part of his job is to educate Congressmen. The tech illiteracy of the very people who have to pass the laws is “appalling”, according to Khanna. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before a committee, a Congressmen kept holding up his iPhone and accusingly asking Pichai if he could crack it. Pichai had to patiently explain to the gentleman, that Google wasn’t Apple.
While this bunch of Congressmen has gained prominence nationally, they have fellow travellers down ballot.
Indian-American women seem to be doing particularly well — a win in more than one way. Led by Kamala Harris, they’re piling up firsts. Jennifer Rajkumar is the first South Asian woman elected to the New York State Assembly. While Padma Kuppa is the first Indian-origin woman in the Michigan Assembly.
More than half a dozen men were also elected in various parts of the country.
One race that got a lot of media attention in India was in Texas, where Sri Preston Kulkarni was running for national Congress. Kulkarni lost by a moderate margin, but the fight might have been closer if he didn’t have to deal with the ‘Desi Dilemma’ (Desis include Pakistanis and Bangladeshis).
Kulkarni’s congressional district is in the diverse greater Houston area. Houston is where the triumphant ‘Howdy Modi’ event was held, but his constituency also has a fair number of Muslims.
During the campaign it emerged that RSS-backed organisations and individuals had donated to Kulkarni’s campaign. Muslims in Texas have their own democratic caucus, and a member told me: “That put our whole community off”.
Whether that would have made a difference to the outcome is difficult to tell. But even though they have little to do with what is at stake, issues like Kashmir subdivide ‘desis’ when they compete in smaller elections costing them wins.
At a national level, the minimum cost is being trolled. As Jayapal, a fervent human rights advocate, was because of her ‘anti-national, anti-Modi’ stand on Article 370.
Jayapal survived, and has thrived. As have other Indian-Americans entering public life. Maybe their time has come, and they are, as Jayapal put it, beginning to control it.