'And we said to him, "What will you do for us if we jump in early?"'
'His answer was very simple: "I'm going to have the most diverse cabinet and administration in the history of the US".'
'"You can expect that you will have a seat at the table, okay? Number one. So influence if I win".'
'"Number two, you should fully expect that we will focus on the issues that you care about: Immigration".'
Shekar Narasimhan is co-chair of the Democratic National Committee's Indo American Council.
"We own this election. We helped make it happen. We were part of a larger coalition, but we made it happen. We, therefore, have expectations -- of how our community will be treated, and what will happen for our community," Narasimhan, a senior and long-time Indian American activist in the Democratic party, tells Rediff.com Senior US Contributor P Rajendran in the first part of an exclusive interview.
How do Indian Americans -- or South Asians, or other Asians and Pacific Islanders -- view the Biden administration? What do they expect of it?
So let's start with expectation setting. February 24, 2019, we convened a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders from around the country -- about 22 people.
And the basic discussion was, look, we're a fast-growing community. We donate money. We have a lot of young people in politics. But we don't have any real organised clout. Okay. So how do we engage in this election?
So we made a decision that day -- and the weeks that followed -- that we were going to be involved in the presidential primary, which the Asian American Pacific Islander community has never done -- directly.
I'm talking not about you deciding you want to support so-and so-and I deciding [on someone else], but together.
So we did a presidential forum in Costa Mesa, California, in September . We did a presidential round table in Washington [DC].
We basically met seven of the candidates directly, face-to-face, had a chance to talk, ask questions: 'What will you do for us if you get elected? Why are you running?'
Anybody in particular?
Bernie Sanders. Amy Klobuchar. Julian Castro. Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang. The last one was in January . [There were] a variety of circumstances, including a poll that we had done in battleground states.
What we learned from the poll was, you know, all the issues aside, the number one priority was getting rid of Trump.
That is what came through loud and clear. All the other things yes I want better immigration reform I want this, I want that, but [this was] number one.
First, you guys have to organize, get rid of Trump. Based on that, we looked at the slate of candidates. And we made a decision collectively.
Seven of us coming from seven different ethnic communities had to make a decision unanimously.
It said, there's only one person who can defeat Donald Trump under most scenarios, and our judgment was that was Joe Biden.
So we went and met him, and spent an hour just talking to him in January. Five days later we chose to endorse him. And we did it in The Wall Street Journal.
So [this was the] first time a major national Asian American Pacific Islander organization has ever done anything like that.
But there was a process. He made commitments to us. So, when you ask what are they expecting, he made commitments we asked him.
He was at a [critical] stage in that campaign, you remember? He was going into Iowa, New Hampshire, as the underdog. They thought he may [come] close but not win.
We said we can't help you in those two states, but we can help you in Nevada, because there is a significant Asian-American population.
Of course, you know, the rumors were: If he doesn't do well in Nevada, if he doesn't win South Carolina, it's over. We said no, no, no. [He's] still the best guy for the job. The most empathetic. The most experienced.
The highest probability of defeating Trump. That was our criteria. Simple. So we made the call. Got involved. And we said to him, 'What will you do for us if we jump in early?'
His answer was very simple: 'I'm going to have the most diverse cabinet and administration in the history of the US. You can expect that you will have a seat at the table, okay? Number one. So influence if I win.'
'Number two, you should fully expect that we will focus on the issues that you care about: Immigration.'
And there are many subsequent issues in immigration: The aging out of young children, you know, which affects the Indian American community, the H1 and H4 visa situation. So all of this we have talked to his staff about.
We've also talked about issues that really affect Filipino Americans. It takes 18 years to get a visa to bring a family, you know, family reunification. So we've talked about these issues.
We have ideas, but he said, 'Look, you can believe me, it's on my list of things to do. I want to do it early, and then we will do comprehensive immigration reform.'
We said even the last time this was talked about we were not at the table. He said, 'You will be at the table.'
So, that was what we asked for, basically, among a nicer conversation about how can we help you and what we can do.
So what were the options?
What did we do is the next question. We did over a dozen events. We did events during the primary itself in Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan. Then COVID hits.
After that, the good news was that he won South Carolina big, got a lot of momentum. And obviously, even in Michigan when we were there helping working for him, the bottom line was it was not over yet...
We started to work with this campaign saying, how do we get people who look like us in your campaign -- and they had one of the most diverse campaigns.
There were Indians at every level, you know, and Asians in all the aspects of coalitions, politics, political fundraising.
So, we had a lot of optimism. This guy actually does what he says. We said we need our people, qualified competent people. He's doing it.
Then the election finally comes to a conclusion. And what have we done? We delivered our votes. He has received more votes than any candidate in US history.
But of that, in Georgia alone, [of the] Asian American Pacific Islanders, 91% more voted in 2020 than 2016 -- almost double the vote. And well over 70% have voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. OK?
So, drop back when they were in the process of selecting a vice president. He had a screening committee.
We made a point of letting them know that both Tammy Duckworth and Kamala Harris are AAPI.
We want to see that happen. But, you know, we knew he's going to make the decision, he's going to make it based on his judgment.
So when he picked Kamala Harris, there was a moment of great ecstasy for our community.
This is a person who our daughters can look up to now and say this is possible. Mein bhi kar sakti hoon. I can be there.
You can imagine that had an impetus. I started to get calls from people I've never heard from before, saying, 'How do I engage? What can I do?'
Well, you can start getting on phone banks, doing text banks. So 5,000 people in the community became volunteers.
New organizations were spawned that helped them engage in the campaign. So we have ownership of this. You see the difference.
Raj, we own this election. We helped make it happen. We were part of a larger coalition, but we made it happen.
We, therefore, have expectations -- of how our community will be treated, and what will happen for our community. This is what the evolution was.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com