Global Tamilian: November elections and some titbit thoughts on Indian Americans

Despite being settled overseas, the Tamil diaspora loves to recreatethe life they left behind in India. Here’s a glimpse of their lives, celebrations and struggles on foreign shores
Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris

Chennai

It takes an Indian immigrant about 15 years to exercise his or her democratic right in the US, namely, ‘casting a vote’ in elections. Obviously, the wait for visa status leading to citizenship could be that long and, in some cases, even longer. Does this mean one is a mute participant in the foreign land that one chooses to live in? You are highly mistaken to think so, particularly at a time when you hear the south Indian name ‘Kamala’ being announced as the vice-presidential candidate in the upcoming US elections.
Quite noticeably, from the local township committees to the US Congress, names of Indian origin have made a mark just not in finding seats of power, but through contributions in voicing public opinion and generating support that matters to the community, even when having no voting rights. There are not big numbers to the list of political aspirants, yet the news that there is room for political aspirations to be met is soothing to hear particularly for the first-generation immigrants.
“It feels really awesome to be welcomed by voters who express their eagerness to elect one who could work for them. The voter’s focus on issues is very clear and specific to those that impact their personal life, be the size of the education budget that funds school programmes in their county, policy to bring a gas station to the township or the town planning concerns,” said Neeharika Thuravil, a young Indian American who recently contested in primaries for the freeholder position at the county level.
“Even though I did not make it, the fact that I got over 30 per cent of the votes gives me the confidence that this land offers political space even for starters like me who have a real passion to serve,” said Neeharika, who is fresh out of college.
There are many like her who have pushed hard and come out successful at local and national politics, all of them point to the fact that individuality and leadership traits of the personality make politics in the US really healthy.
For the immigrant in the general population who is just watching the election process, it is issues that immediately affect their personal life that get attention. These priorities change over time as the status of immigration changes too.
“US politics is easy to watch and less complicated to understand when compared to the Indian politics that we are used to. The two-party system with very distinguished policy stands makes it easy to take sides. In the initial days, we used to follow the presidential debates and clearly our focus would be on the immigration issues. ‘Who is better inclined to get us the green card’ was the only concern,” said a resident of New Jersey.
Over the years, the focus seems to shift to issues like property tax, college funding and retirement savings and the like. These are issues discussed in repeated elections and easy to follow. A typical election talk topic would be immigration, job creation, handling unemployment, taxing policies, medical insurance, gun control laws, college tuition, criminal justice, foreign policy and so on. Every American think either as a core Democrat or a Republican when it is time to cast their vote.
An interesting observation seems to be on the individuality of the politician that can shape policies. Unlike the Indian scenario, a politician need not fit into the strict boundaries of the party to pursue politics. Personalities seem to have a distinct identity of its own. Policies are let to be shaped by the experiences of the person holding the position. “Barring a few core principles that the party upholds, the individual politician may behave unpredictably in taking sides irrespective of being a Republican or Democrat,” observed an Indian immigrant living in the US for the past 40 years.
Primaries are yet a detailed aspect of US elections where a candidate gets to prove the majority approval for his candidacy, and where the registered party voters choose the right one to represent the party at the national election. This is so unlike the Indian experience where a candidate in the good books of the party leaders alone can still manage to fit into the contestant list. Again, a strong test for the real personality seems to be put in place all through the primary race.
Yet another significance is that both the House Representatives and the Senators get elected by the general electorate. Thus, both houses of Congress have democratically elected representatives in it. “This is again unlike the Indian experience of Rajya Sabha members being elected by the elected representatives of people,” observed a long-time US resident.
In the US, voicing opportunities for the political and cultural issues of any group is not dependent on voting rights. Personality and individual choices to vocalise make the difference. Be it contesting for elections or choosing to vote for a candidate, the silver lining is the personality trait. Of course, the lobbying charm can win real laurels.
In any case, it is often hard to find those twists and turns that spice up the political space as is often expected in the Indian scene. Here, all one can look for is more a streamlined thinking arena with the known territory of operation. The fact remains that the more vibrant one is in having their demand heard, US democracy no doubt will be a wonderful space to be in. The way Indian immigrants have shined in this both as electorate and the elected is very impressive and worth the watch. And more assuring is the fact that their numbers to represent the US Congress are sure to go up in the days to come.
— The writer is a journalist based in New York

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