At Women Who Impact, Indian-Americans offer blueprint for midterms

India Abroad
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — When she considers the blue wave in the midterm elections that some voters envision as sweeping through red states, Seema Nanda is cautious. A recent surge on the Republican side, she said, has made her “hopeful, not optimistic.”

Heartened by what she called “historic numbers of women running for office…historic numbers of people of color, LGBTQ candidates,” the Democratic National Committee CEO finds herself excited by the diversity of candidates. Republicans in Congress, she said, “are well over 80 percent white men. Democrats in Congress are just over 40 percent white men. When you have that kind of diversity and that diversity is just going to increase, it changes the conversation and it changes policies and that is what I am excited about.”

Speaking at the Women Who Impact celebration of Indian-American women leaders in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2, she said she was just as excited about Democratic turnout. “In the primary cycle, over 4 million more Democrats voted as compared to the last time — an 8 percent more turnout on the Democratic side — which is incredibly positive and incredibly important.” She was hopeful, she said “not optimistic. There is a lot of activism and that this is all going to turn out to people coming out to vote. But I don’t like to talk about a blue wave because I don’t want anyone to get complacent.”

She urged young activists in the audience to support Indian-American candidates. “Get the word out to the community to provide them the resources to provide their campaigns with that extra push to help them get over the finish line first. We own this, we can do this together.”

She mentioned in particular three Democratic congressional contenders: Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, in Arizona, Sri Preston Kulkarni in Texas and Aftab Pureval in Ohio.

Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the progressive D.C. think tank, Center for American Progress, said, “In policy-making, it is vital to have different voices at the table.” As immigrants, Indian- and Asian-Americans bring such a diverse experience on a plethora of issues to enrich the dialogue, she said. The question in midterms, she said “is whether the politics of hope or fear will take place,” noting a rise in groups against Muslims, LGBTs and immigrants.

Tanden, a former senior official in the Obama administration and a close friend of Hillary Clinton invoked Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary: “If you want change, we have to be the change.”

Tanden urged the audience to be active in voter mobilization by bringing at least 10 others to the polling booth with them. “It really takes every single person in the room calling your aunties in Ohio and make sure they vote, your networks. Just imagine what it would be like to wake up on Nov. 7 to find out that Donald Trump had kept the House and Senate.”

“We have to acknowledge we have homophobia and racism in our communities,” said civil rights activist Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “You can’t approach civil rights work or political work in silos,” said Gupta, who headed the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Justice in the Obama administration.

“It is incredible to see the amount of South Asian activism and engagement in perilous times,” she said, calling for sustaining this activism and continued push for “values of inclusion and justice” particularly in the face of “some of the most challenging attacks.”

“We are not facing an attack on just one community. This is fundamentally an attack on who we are as a country,” she said.

During a conversation on public service moderated by Teen Vogue executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S. India Business Council said: “We need to find a way to build bridges and reach outside our comfort zone.” Asked how she now straddles a business organization with strong views on both Democratic and Republican sides, she acknowledged, “There are a lot of things that divide us.” But she said that her work in Congress working across the aisle to reach compromises and her diplomatic skills, held her in good stead. Biswal had served as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Obama administration and her public service career spans more than three decades from her days as a congressional staffer.

“One of the things I wanted to do being passionate about the U.S.-India relationship and wanting to continue building on that is work with and engage the business community, understand organization in the US Chamber of Commerce which tends to be right-of-center, find the commonalities that we have,” Biswal said.

“In the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USIBC, there are a lot of things that divide us and on which we disagree. One of the things that the United States has consistently sought to agree on is the relationship with India. Support for India has often been bipartisan.”

Striking a note of optimism regarding future trends in the country’s political process, Biswal said, “There is the politics of division, [but] there is also the politics of hope.”

She recalled the 2008 election as “an enormously inspiring election built on hope. I don’t think that is too far beneath the surface despite the polarization that we see. There are opportunities to bring the country back together, bring us back on the path of building greater unity.”

Mini Timmaraju, board member of the Indian American Impact Project and the only Indian-American woman who served as a chief of staff in the office of Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), said the gathering of more than 200 activists and leaders fulfilled its goal to spur change.

“These phenomenal women inspired all of us to dream big, blaze our own trails, and always fight for the values of our community. Looking around, it was clear to me that the future of our community is bright — and that future is female.”