New Jersey state legislator Upendra Chivukula has seen some progress since the Indian-baiting Dotbusters in the 1980s to the energised community on view now. But he still felt the community had problems to address, goals to accomplish.
At the Indian American Forum for Political Education convention it was a trip down memory lane for Chivukula, who reminisced about his decades-long association with the Forum, going back to the time he was the secretary of the IAFPE chapter in New Jersey.
Chivukula said the IAFPE founded by Joy Cherian, was "the first Indian American political organisation that provided education as to why we should as a community get involved in the political process." Cherian had gone on to become the first Indian American to hold a sub-cabinet level position in the Ronald Reagan administration as a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Chivukula, the lead panelist on a session on the experiences of Indian-American lawmakers and candidates told an audience that comprised several dozens of students from Harvard, Boston University, MIT and other local colleges in the greater Boston area, how "we should not let names stop us, or our appearance stop us, or our accents stop us." He recalled the sacrifices of the first generation of Indian Americans and the sacrifices they made to get to where they are today."
He said "as a first-generation immigrant, a Telugu accent didn't stop me. I have not lost my identity. People respect you when you retain your identity. I am a practicing Hindu. I am a vegetarian."
Chivukula said it was his grassroots activism and his interest in working with people that stood him in good stead in a political career that now spans more than a decade and a half.
"There are no short cuts to running and winning. It's not simply going around the country collecting money from the Indian-American community," he said, asserting, "You don't abandon your community even though sometimes it hurts when you don't get much money from your own community."
Chivukula also pointed out that not all Indian Americans are affluent, pointing out that in Edison, New Jersey -- a district with perhaps one of the highest concentrations of Indians in the US -- there were several issues to be discussed, including undocumented immigrants, and how the police treats them.
He said it's also imperative to address the long-term care issues of senior citizens "and also the health disparities" as it affects indigent South Asians in these areas.
"This is how we have to energise the community," Chivukula said. "It's nice to have nice homes and nice cars, but we need to think about people who don't have them, and not only in the Indian-American community The idea here is to make a difference."
Ramesh Advani, who was recently re-elected Selectman in the small town of Norfolk, Massachusetts, for a second three-year term, echoed Chivukula's sentiments, saying, "Don't think all Indian Americans are rich. There are a lot of Indian Americans who are not investment bankers, doctors, engineers. There are a lot of Indian Americans driving cabs and they need your help." Advani made history in 2003 by becoming the first non-white to be elected in the conservative, white-collar community 25 miles southeast of Boston with a population of about 11,000.
He spoke of the "rich culture and heritage" Indian Americans bring to the table and exhorted the audience, particularly the second generation, "Don't ever be apologetic. You've got to mingle and meld and be out there as leaders."
Like Chivukula, Advani too provided insights into how his involvement in politics. He leavened his speech with humor, discussing how one beefy man stopped in his pick-up truck and, looking at the 'Vote for Advani,' campaign signs being put up, said, 'Advani. You're Italian, aren't you? I like Italian Americans, I am going to vote for you." A Selectman is a small-town equivalent of a mayor.
Jay Chaudhuri, president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, who is also the senior counsel in the Office of the Attorney General of North Carolina, underscored what both Chivukula and Advani had said -- that there is no substitute to being at the table.
"How we define success is not by the number of Indian Americans who run for Congress, but by the number of local and state representatives we have," he said.
"Community roots are important," he said, adding that a candidates' success did not depend on how long they were in the country.
He also said endorsements did not make much of a difference, pointing out how Subodh Chandra, who was running for attorney general in Ohio, and Shyam Reddy, running for secretary of state in Georgia,, lost, despite endorsements from major newspapers.
Chaudhuri, who has run and worked in several campaigns, said, "Money can help level the playing field," and emphasised that "the money we put in at the local level can make a big difference."
He pointed out that Rajiv Goyle had won because he had the funds to out-spend his opponent in a media blitz.