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What political breakthrough?

January 15, 2003 11:14 IST

Come any election in the US or Canada and you hear the usual chatter about how the Indo-American community is on the verge of a political breakthrough. Unfortunately, the breakthrough, always round the corner, continues to be around the corner. It would be interesting to investigate if we can finally turn the corner in the near future.

Indeed, it isn't an exaggeration to state that significant political representation from the community in mainstream North American politics has eluded the North American Indian community more than a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

While NRIs share the themes of educational, financial and professional successes with other immigrant Asian communities (notably the Chinese community), it has not achieved the same level of political success. While the US has had Chinese and Arab senators, governors and federal cabinet members, Indians have had to content themselves with the odd state representative and cling to memories of the legendary Dalip Singh Saund.

While Canada has been more hospitable to the Indian community politically, it may be difficult for the community to sustain the attained level of success with a federal minister and a premier (the equivalent of an Indian chief minister) besides numerous representatives at the provincial and federal levels.

A decade ago, a couple of US towns elected Indian mayors and a couple of Indian state representatives. Since then, the number of state representatives have grudgingly gone up from two to four (with many other contenders falling by the way), and a few more towns have elected desi mayors. The confident prediction about desi representation at the national level has not materialized .

We are therefore left taking relief in small detail. We went gaga over Swati Dandekar's recent success in Iowa. 'The first Indian woman,' we screamed ecstatically, forgetting that Nimi McConigley achieved the same feat in Wyoming in 1996. (While Dandekar's achievement is significant, do we have to forget McConigley to make it look more significant?).

In the US, financial power and numerical clout pave the way to success.

For example, the significant Asian presence in Hawaii helped elect a Chinese senator more than 30 years ago; the impressive increase in the Chinese community's financial clout in the US have brought it to the next level in the power progression -- cabinet appointments with the appointment of Labour Secretary Elaine Chao in 2000.

Likewise, the significant numbers of Arab Americans in Michigan helped propel Spencer Abraham to a senatorship in the mid 1990s as well as elect half a dozen representatives (provincial and federal) in other states. The financial clout of the Lebanese-American community coupled with the looming importance of the Middle East in global affairs have resulted in a continued Arab presence at the cabinet level since 1988. George Bush Sr inducted John Sununu into his cabinet, Clinton appointed Donna Shalala his housing secretary and George W Bush continued the tradition by appointing Abraham his energy secretary.

Surprisingly, the Indo-American community has proved the exception to the above pattern. With the exception of Upendra Chivukula, the Indian community's impressive financial and numerical clout in New York, New Jersey and California propelled many politicians into power, all of them non-Indian. It behoves the community to investigate the reasons behind this phenomenon, address it and increase desi representation among elected politicians.

The financial clout of Indian doctors helped sow seeds of the so-called Indian Caucus in the House of Representatives. The patronage of  the Indian medical community was significantly augmented in the 1990s through the emergence of e-commerce and information technology entrepreneurs, resulting in the Caucus boasting 130 members and Indian involvement in Presidential elections. Indeed, the driving force behind the Caucus is debatable: access to campaign funds or any genuine love for India. Despite patronage and political appointments being synonymous, no Indians have been appointed even at the zenith of their economic influence.

Since e-commerce and information technology have taken significant hits due to the recent recession and 9/11, it would be reasonable to conclude that the influence of the entrepreneur group has been considerably diminished. The reduced financial clout and past track record indicate that in all probability there will be no Indian-American appointments to positions of influence

While American policy can be influenced towards India through a judicious combination of supporting and lobbying politicians showing genuine commitment to India's interests, the diminished financial clout and inability to capitalize on numbers translate into continuation of  the status quo: No significant increase in representation in mainstream politics.

Canada presents a different kind of challenge in terms of providing political access to Indians.

Desi participation in Canadian politics has been driven completely by numerical strength. While South Asians (the oft used expression for Indians) have made significant strides, the invariable desi tendency to divide and sub-divide into oblivion threatens to significantly erode any progress made over the last decade.

In British Columbia, the significant numbers of Indo-Canadians have helped elect umpteen ministers at the provincial level followed by Ujjal Singh Dosanjh's appointment as premier. The New Democratic Party's unpopular policies resulted in it being trounced in the last election bringing down Dosanjh and three other ministers of desi origin. The Indo-Canadian flag is presently held by Herb Dhaliwal, federal minister for fisheries, though not much longer.

When Dhaliwal jetted off to Punjab late last year fishing for personal glory and recognition, a bunch of disgruntled desis (who else?) staged an internal coup at the constituency level and are set to boot Dhaliwal out at the next election. Losing the nomination automatically precludes being elected an MP, which in turn precludes ministership.

Dhaliwal is all set to become an emperor minus an empire.

The significant numbers of Indians in urban areas have helped elect as many as seven South Asian MPs since 1993. What has impeded further progress (and reduced existing numbers) is the desi tendency to shoot oneself in the foot. One Toronto MP exaggerated his educational qualifications, was expelled from his party upon getting caught and lost his seat in the next election. Another rising star in the Opposition made the mistake of getting an assistant to impersonate him on a radio show and has been relegated to the back benches since.

While Indo-Canadians should be proud of their Indian roots, they should refrain from applying desi tactics in mainstream politics since it results in grief and little else. One can hardly be surprised when parties mumble compliments about Indo-Canadian achievement but shy away from taking on more desi representatives.

An interesting feature of Indo-Canadian politics is the community's not converting financial clout into political influence. Despite a formidable South Asian presence in financial affairs, the last five years have seen the appointment of just one senator, Mobina Jaffer of British Columbia.

Thus, the expatriate Indian community continues to find itself in the position of having immense 'potential' for political success but unable to convert the potential into significant results. Unless the community finds effective techniques through utilizing its strengths and prudent management, political success will continue to be a mirage, always round the corner and beyond the next dune.

S Gopikrishna writes on India and India related affairs from Toronto. He welcomes feedback at