In recent years, some Indian-American Democratic friends of mine have adopted the UPS tagline “What Can Brown Do for You” in describing our community’s heightened visibility in the Democratic Party. Indian-Americans continue to raise record amounts of money for Democratic candidates. Last year, two young Indian-Americans were elected to state Houses in Kansas and Ohio, almost doubling our numbers as state legislators. And recently, more than 150 active Indian-American Democrats convened in Washington, D.C., for the first time to discuss public policy and politics and heard from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Reps. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).
But the statements of some Democratic presidential candidates and their staff suggest more of this tagline: “What Can We Do to Brown?” In 2004, during a fundraiser for a Missouri Senate candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) introduced a quote from Mahatma Gandhi by saying, “He ran a gas station down in St. Louis.” In 2006, Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) had to explain his remarks that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” Earlier this summer, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign issued a memo suggesting that Clinton’s close personal and financial ties to India and Indian-Americans were un-American. That led one writer of the popular Indian-American blog Sepia Mutiny to write that “Obama Just Got Less ‘Brown’ Friendly.”
Granted, in all these instances, the candidates issued an appropriate apology or an explanation. But is the Democratic Party taking Indian-Americans for granted? I hope not.
Two studies should give Democrats pause about our community’s assumed party affiliation. First, a 1996 Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government survey of Indian-Americans — the only survey done of the community to date — found that “although more Indian-Americans are Democrats than Republicans, few Indian-Americans are strong supporters of either party.” The Harvard study stated that a critical factor to the lack of partisan preference was the fact that 50 percent of Indian-American respondents identified themselves as moderates compared to liberals or conservatives. Second, a 2005 study of Indian-American financial contributions published in American Politics Research reached a similar conclusion: Indian-Americans show less of an attachment to the Democratic Party compared to African-Americans and Hispanics. In other words, the Indian-American community is still up for grabs.
Republicans such as South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson have courted Indian-Americans because they believe our community’s interests naturally align with the GOP. Tort reform appeals to the 42,000 Indian-American physicians. The small-business agenda interests Indian-American hotel owners, who represent nearly 40 percent of all hotel properties in the United States. Conservative Grover Norquist told The New Republic that Indian-Americans may be “natural Republicans” because there are so many small-business owners. On foreign policy, President Bush’s war on terror also may hold favor with Indian-Americans. According to the Pew Research Center’s July 2006 survey of 15 nations, India’s 56 percent confidence rating in Bush was the highest of all the countries, including the United States. Though not entirely reflective of the Indian-American community, that figure stands in stark contrast to Europe’s low level of confidence in Bush, which ranges between 7 percent and 30 percent.
But the biggest elephant the GOP will unleash on Indian-Americans is Rep. Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Louisiana Congressman who seems to have a sure shot at winning the governor’s mansion this fall. Current polling shows Jindal with an overwhelming lead over both his Republican primary opponent and Democratic opposition. At the young age of 36, the likely future governor Jindal will be, by far and away, the most prominent Indian-American elected official. His election as an Indian-American in the Deep South would make him an instant rock star in a party that desperately seeks diversity. Arguably, he could become Republicans’ Obama. In that powerful position, Jindal could move Indian-Americans into becoming more reliable Republicans by influencing a new generation of Indian-Americans.
Democrats need to give serious and thoughtful consideration about how to bring Indian-Americans into the fold outside of fundraising. Similar to the New Democratic Network’s Hispanic Strategy, Democrats need to better understand what issues are important to Indian-Americans, particularly in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. Aside from the 1996 Harvard study, there has been no substantive polling done on Indian-Americans and their public policy concerns. This kind of polling data can help Democrats craft a message to persuade a small but growing electorate, which can make a difference in swing states such as Ohio and Florida.
In addition, Democrats should pay close attention to elected officials who are elected from districts where Indian-Americans make up a handful of the voting population. Democrats should listen to how Raj Goyle defeated a three-term Republican in a Kansas state House district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1. At 31, Goyle won a seat that has never been held by a Democrat. He ran on what he calls “common sense, non- ideological mainstream values” and enjoyed the support of many area Republicans. Democrats should also hear from Jay Goyal, who at 26 is the youngest member of the Ohio state House. Goyal also won in a district that is heavily Republican with a strong manufacturing base. A small-business owner himself, Goyal’s campaign co-chairman was another business owner who described himself to The Columbus Dispatch as “pretty much a Republican guy.” Goyal defeated his opponent in a landslide.
While many elected officials see green in a community of brown faces, they may soon be seeing red without a real strategy. My Democratic Indian-American friends and I want to continue to use that catchy UPS tagline, but Democrats need to deliver, and soon.
Jay Chaudhuri is president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, an organization that seeks to connect, promote and invest in Indian-American Democrats.