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An American election in Little India!

Last updated on: February 07, 2008 00:02 IST

As I step off the train and on to the platform, a group of fast-striding Indians in business suits brush past me, conversing in Gujarati. In the nearby spiral staircase, I pass faded Om Shanti Om posters and offers for Bollywood-inspired ring tones.

Out on the street, a Sikh gentleman, speaking in Punjabi and wearing a  light blue turban, argues animatedly over a mobile phone. After angrily ending the call, he enters a store named  'Raj Jewellers' and peruses the wares on display.

The dozen restaurant signs around me promise Andhra biriyani, pau bhaji, Tandoori chicken, Idli/dosa and more. And every hundred yards, there's either an Ayurvedic beauty spa or a place selling frozen paneer.

Wafting into my nostrils is a veritable cornucopia of scent: date chutney, mutton kebabs over flame, pungent pickles and various masalas.

"Apka community hai?" I ask Paresh, my co-worker. "Ha!" He responds. "Mera community hai. Mera community bahut acha hai!"

 "Will we be able to interview your friend's wife?" I ask.

 "I think so," Paresh responds. "But I'll have to translate; she doesn't really speak English, only Gujarati."

I nod, and pull the zip up on my hooded sweatshirt, lamenting my decision to leave the gloves at home. It's about 4 degrees in Iselin, New Jersey, USA. Today is 'Super Tuesday', and New Jersey is holding both its Republican and Democratic primaries.

I'm here to gauge the Indian community's sentiments on the election and its candidates. But at the moment, I'm sidetracked, wandering up and down the lane, looking at sarees on display in store windows and searching for the perfect sweet lassi.

"Am I in India?" I inquire jokingly. "No, Matthew," Paresh responds, laughing. "You're in Little India!"

Inside a local banker's office, I accept a cup of masala chai and sit down  to discuss the election with five Indian-American businessmen: three are  in real-estate, one in banking and the other in insurance. After swapping stories on Mumbai, the frosty weather and this past Sunday's Super Bowl, we begin the political conversation in earnest.

"We're Indians; politics is in our blood," says Jiby Thomas, the insurance man of the group.

"Yeah, that's a big difference between America and India," says Sachin  Shah, in an amazing accent that is neither Indian nor American.

"In India, even the common man knows what is happening, at least politically. In America, it seems most people don't know what their own government is doing."

All five of the men have voted today or plan to vote later. To a man, they describe themselves as politically active, ranging from moderately to heavily involved. When asked who is the biggest "politics junkie", four fingers immediately point at Samir Desai, who grins sheepishly and begins to speak.

"Yes, politics is very important to me, both local and national. Here, I attend town hall meetings, stay informed on the issues and make monetary contributions to candidates, campaigns and causes I believe in."

Though the other four men are Democrats - two Obama supporters and two Hillary supporters - Desai is a card-carrying Republican, who plans on voting for US Senator from Arizona, John McCain.

"I've always been a Nationalist," he says. "If I was in India, I'd vote  for the Bharatiya Janata Party every time. So why should I change that here, just because I'm a minority?"

When asked the most important issue, he doesn't hesitate. "National security," without a doubt. "Another terrorist attack like 9/11 will sink our economy. Islamic terrorists are the single biggest threat to world peace."

This launches a conversation over the Kashmir issue, with Sachin using the  Internet to bring up various maps of the battle-torn region.

"You see what they're doing?" He says exasperatedly, pointing at the image and turning his monitor around so that all can see. "They took the crown of India! When we were in elementary school, that crown was a signature feature of India's silhouette."

"That's why we need McCain's experience. He's dealt with terrorists his whole life," Desai reminds the group. "Only India, Russia and the United States are capable and willing to fight the war on terrorism."

"But Hillary's very pro-India," Thomas replies. "She won't sit back and  watch them attack us."

"This country doesn't need a Buy One - Get One Free President," says Desai. "Let's be honest: Hillary is only in this position because of her  husband."

Fifteen minutes later, Paresh and I make our exit, while the five businessmen continue to iron out the minutiae of each issue. For all I know, they may still be there, sipping chai and talking politics.

A detailed tour of the beauty salons, saree shops, jewellers and Indian grocers in the surrounding area yields some three dozen desis, but only two are citizens, and they aren't willing to be interviewed.

We hop in Paresh's car and cruise to nearby Edison, New Jersey, where we visit the company headquarters of CyGate (Software and Consultancy), owned by entrepreneur Nilesh Dasondi. The bold blue "Vote for Hillary" sign in the lobby leaves no question where Nilesh's allegiance lies.

He is rushed, but enthused about politics in general and this election in particular; so he agrees to interrupt his busy day and answer a few questions. Just two years ago, Nilesh ran for City Councilman of Edison,  the first ever Indian do so, though Indians comprise roughly 40% of the  community. He didn't win, but remains undeterred. "One day," he says, "I will devote myself to politics full time."

At present, his business ventures consume the majority of his hours and  energy, but that doesn't stop him from involving himself in any way possible.

"I'm supporting Hillary however I can, getting the message out and helping people to register to vote. Her campaign staff contacted me about drumming up support in the Indian-American community here in New Jersey. But it's my wife, Sejal, who does a lot of the actual groundwork.

For the last few years, she's volunteered to bring senior citizens to the  booths, so that they can cast their votes. You should go meet her," he says.

And so we do.

Sejal welcomes us into her Edison-home with consummate Gujarati grace, and  the scent of sweet dal invades my nose and clouds my thinking.

Two children, 7-year-old Dev and his older sister Parthi, 9, alternatively play the electronic keyboard and work on their studies. Sejal sits on the drawing's room wrap-around couch, watching election coverage on both television and her laptop.

"I've just gotten back from my third trip to the polling centres. It's pretty busy there; I've never seen such a turn-out for a primary election.  The senior citizens I've taken are so enthusiastic and excited, telling one another, "Be careful, don't make mistakes!" and "Every vote counts!"she says.

 "From what I've heard, talking to people today, I'd say 90% of the Indian community is pro-Hillary," she continues.

"She is going to win New Jersey."

"Hillary is the best!" quips young Parthi, flashing an impish grin. "I  want Hillary to win, because she will be the first woman President. If  this happens, one day, I can be President too!"

Her mother laughs, and then tells the kids to bundle up and get into the car. We're going to the election centre with more senior citizens, who all  live in the Dasondi's neighbourhood.

One gentleman climbs into our car, as there isn't enough space in Sejal's minivan, and informs me that he too once lived in Santa Cruz in Mumbai. We talk about chaat wallahs and subzi markets on the way to the centre, before discussing the election.

"Barack," he says to me, when he's sure no one is listening. But as we exit the car and approach the group of 60 and 70 something men, his story changes.

"Go Hillary!" He says enthusiastically, posing for photos with the rest of the desi crowd. I'm unsure if it was an honest mistake or a slip of the tongue.

Inside the Edison Municipal Complex, we meet election workers, who have only the nicest things to say about our group.

One elderly lady tells me, in a thick Italian-New Jersey accent, that she "loves these guys! They vote every election. They're active in our senior  citizen meetings. And most importantly, they're some of the nicest people in Edison".

"You're pretty young at heart, yourself," jokes Dilsukh Chitalia, and everyone laughs.

A steady stream of desis pour into the building to cast their votes, just an hour before the polls close.

Though most express pro-Hillary  sentiments, I'm surprised to meet a retired couple who are both fervently pro-Barack. Mr Vijay Shah and his wife Nayana tell me that, "We believe in Obama. Hillary will only bring four more years of the same."

After the votes have all been cast, we say our goodbyes and part ways with  Sejal, her children and the group of senior citizens. Everyone seems a little jubilant, a little excited. "Voting always does this to me," Vijay says.

"Isn't it great to live in a democracy?"

I mull over his comments while feasting on paneer makhani and butter naan at a nearby Mughlai restaurant. It strikes me that, if nothing else, America and India are the world's two largest, most vibrant democracies.

This alone suggests our fates are intertwined: socially, economically and militarily.

Now, it's time for mainstream America to make that little bit of extra effort to understand India; because with her, we'll always have an ally we can depend on.

Matthew Schneeberger