Indian American Leaders


with Gautam Raghavan, Executive Director of the Indian American Impact Project


May 04, 2018

Indian Americans, long underrepresented in elected office, hit a key milestone in the 2016 Congressional election, gaining three seats in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. With a total of five Indian Americans elected to Congress, parity has been achieved between the Indian American population and Congressional representation. Progress continued in the 2017 elections, with twenty-five Indian American candidates who were elected to various political offices across the country. Gautam Raghavan, Executive Director of the Indian American Impact Project joins Comcast Newsmakers to discuss the increase in ranks of Indian American representation.

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Traynham: Indian Americans, long underrepresented in politics, hit a key milestone in the 2016 congressional election -- achieving parity between population and congressional representation. And in 2017, additional gains were made in local and state elections. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Robert Traynham. Joining me to discuss the increase in the ranks of Indian-American representation is Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian American Impact Project. Gautam, welcome to the program.

Raghavan: Thank you for having me.

Traynham: And I should say, "Congratulations." I mean, if you take a look at it from proportional standpoint, the numbers that I just mentioned a few moments ago, are pretty good.

Raghavan: Yeah, they´re terrific. We´ve never seen this kind of progress in such a short period of time. So it´s very exciting.

Traynham: And do you attribute anything to this success?

Raghavan: You know, I think it´s probably a couple different factors. The first is, you know, certainly, with any community, once you have more folks running for office and being elected, it inspires others in the community to do the same. You know, the phrase is often, "If you can´t see it, you can´t be it."

Traynham: Right.

Raghavan: And so now, I think what we´re seeing is, with four members of the House of Representatives and one U.S. senator, and with about 60 other state and local elected officials. that more and more folks in the community think this is something that they can do. It´s an opportunity that´s open to them. I think that´s a big part of it.

Traynham: You know, this is an interesting question I´m gonna ask. So I apologize in advance...

Raghavan: Yeah.

Traynham:...if it comes out disjointed. But you hear this over and over and over again in the black community and women community and the Latino community, "We need to represent more. We need to have more representatives in Washington, D.C." And they´re trying, based on their pipeline and so forth. But it seems like your community has just leap-frogged that. What´s your secret sauce?

Raghavan: I don´t know if there´s any secret sauce, other than I think folks in the community are finally beginning to understand that we -- it´s our time, right?

Traynham: Mm-hmm.

Raghavan: And we need to take our seat at the table. And that running for office, serving in elected office, exploring public service, working in government, that these are things that our community needs to do if we want our voices heard. If we want our stories heard. And if we, quite frankly, we need to take care of our own issues that way, too.

Traynham: When you say "own issues," what do they look like?

Raghavan: So you know, the Indian-American community is not that different from any other American community, right? We´re about -- we care about things that everyone else cares about -- access to healthcare, good-paying jobs, education. I think some of the unique differences are, obviously, we have a community that is either foreign-born or descended from immigrants. My family and I immigrated from India when I was about three years old. So immigration is, obviously, something that we care deeply about. And I think something else that I wanted to mention in terms of the rise of interest and energy and enthusiasm right now, I think is partly due to what we´re seeing around the country. The sense of, you know, barely held back xenophobia and racism that we´re all grappling with as Americans. And it certainly reared its ugly head in the last year.

Traynham: The representatives in Congress, do they represent the Indian-American community or is it a community-at-large? In other words, is it maybe a non-minority community that they represent? Or a combination of both?

Raghavan: You know, other than Congressman Ro Khanna, who has a large Asian-American constituency, the other three members in the house have a mixed bag...

Traynham: Yeah. terms of their voters.

Traynham: And the reason why I ask that question is because you may remember Bobby Jindal, the republican from Louisiana, Governor, as well as Nikki Haley, the current U.N. Ambassador, who represented South Carolina. I bring those up because those were two states, from a stereotypical standpoint, I never would have thought, you know, when they were elected that they would´ve won, quite frankly.

Raghavan: Right.

Traynham: Does that surprise you?

Raghavan: You know, it might have at first, but it no longer does because we´re seeing Indian-Americans in small towns and rural parts of the country all across America who are running for office and being elected by voters who look fundamentally at their criteria, at their qualifications, right? Like, they´re -- these are folks who have organized their communities. They´ve served on school boards. They´re clearly deeply invested in serving their constituents.

Traynham: So what I hear, Gautam, is that there is a huge pipeline at the mayor level, at the local level, and also the federal level for the million-dollar question. And that is in 2024, 203-- maybe even in 2020, can you see an Indian-American running for President and winning?

Raghavan: Absolutely. There´s no reason not to. But I will say that we tend to focus a lot on the Presidential level. Just as importantly, if not more important, in my opinion, is the work that we need to do to build our ranks at the state and local level.

Traynham: Absolutely.

Raghavan: These are where the most important decisions get made.

Traynham: Tip O´Neill, the former speaker of the House said, "All politics is local." You have to make sure that the local politics is taken care of before you can even think about national office.

Raghavan: Absolutely.

Traynham: Gautam, thank you very much for joining.

Raghavan: Absolutely. Glad to be here.

Traynham: And of course, thank you for joining us, as well. And for more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Robert Traynham.

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