Indian-Americans gaining political clout

Ashwin Madia

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Even though the financial markets are still a mess, a president's work is never done. President Bush hosted India's prime minister at the White House last night. I'd guess they probably chatted a bit about the state of economic affairs. But the main topic of discussion between the two countries is whether Congress is going to let the United States share civilian nuclear technology.

The potential deal says a lot about India's rise on the world stage. And about the growing political influence of Indian Americans. Aswini Anburajan has more.


ASWINI ANBURAJAN: Shekar Narasimhan has a long history of writing checks and saying, "Cheese!" At the office of his consulting firm in Northern Virginia, he points to a framed photo of himself, his wife and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Shekar Narasimhan: That picture is taken in the State Room of the White House and she's wearing a salwar kameez.

To get that picture with Mrs. Clinton in her bright red Indian dress, the Narasimhans gave thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates.

NARASIMHAN: A lot of the money-giving that was done was photo ops, and you put the photo up and you say I was with so and so -- and the association of power.

Two years ago, Narasimhan's fundraising muscle helped Democrat Jim Webb win Virginia's Senate seat. During the presidential primaries, Indian-American donors gave 5 million each to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and half a million to John McCain.

They've had some legislative successes, nudging Congress to fast-track the Indian civil nuclear treaty, and getting state governments to amend hate crime laws to include South Asians.

NEIL DHILLON: What's important is a seat at the table.

Neil Dhillon is a long-time political lobbyist.

DHILLON: As strong as we are, several million strong, we've never had a cabinet-level appointment. We've never had a deputy cabinet-level appointment.

And that's the real issue, says Narasimhan.

NARASIMHAN: So we need leadership, and we need to influence that leadership that wants to stand up for us.

In other words, more Indian-Americans in public office, like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

So Narasimhan and other donors have poured resources into a PAC, the Indian American Leadership Initiative.

The group had its coming-out party last month in Denver.

SPEAKER AT IALI CONVENTION: We have one political mission, and that is to elect Ashwin Madia to the United States Congress.

Candidates like Ashwin Madia, who's running for Congress in Minnesota, are reaping the benefit. The PAC connects Indian-American candidates to their community's donor base, provides volunteers for their campaigns, and advises on strategy. They've only operated at the state and local level so far, but now plan to have a national presence.

Neil Dhillon says 2008 is about shattering political barriers.

DHILLON: The sky's the limit. You know, glass ceilings are being broken. And Indian Americans need to help be part of that glass ceiling being broken.

The weight of all that cash could be enough to let them burst through.

In Washington, D.C., I'm Aswini Anburajan for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Our report was produced by Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, telling the stories of today's immigrants.

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