When Neel Kashkari announced he was running for governor last week, he became the latest Californian of Indian descent to step onto the political stage, the most recent example of a rising trend in one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse states.
Kashkari is part of a surge of second-generation Indians emerging in politics, despite their relatively small population in California.
While Sikh Californians have been farming in California’s Central Valley for nearly a century, the last couple of decades have brought a wave of technology workers and entrepreneurs into Silicon Valley, where they have formed a tight-knit, supportive and financially successful community.
Tapping into that donor base will be key to the Republican Kashkari’s campaign, even if many donors will have to cross party lines to support him.
The growing roster of candidates and elected officials of Indian descent includes Democrat Ami Bera, a doctor who holds a Sacramento-area congressional seat; Democrat Ro Khanna, who is challenging for another in the San Francisco Bay Area; Vanila Singh, a Republican who recently announced she is entering the same Bay Area race; and Republican Ricky Gill, who attracted millions of dollars from Indian-Americans in the Central Valley before losing a tight congressional race two years ago.
San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon was elected vice-chairwoman of the California Republican Party last year, while Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, is the highest-profile California officeholder with Indian ancestry.
“It symbolizes the changing face of California,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside and director of the National Asian American Survey. “Even though Latinos are the largest nonwhite group in the state, there’s room for other communities to also break through.”
Latinos are about 40 percent of California’s 38 million residents and have a solid record of exercising their political muscle. By comparison, Indians make up less than 2 percent of the population, or about 638,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
There is a long Sikh history in the Central Valley, where Kash Gill is mayor of Yuba City and Sonny Dhaliwal is mayor of Lathrop, in San Joaquin County. But many other Indian immigrants are more recent, and it is their U.S.-born children who are now bounding into politics, Ramakrishnan said.
His research has found that compared with other much larger Asian constituencies, Indian-Americans have high levels of voter participation. They also are among the most consistently Democratic-leaning, although a significant portion have no party affiliation. That could create an opening for candidates such as Kashkari, a moderate on social issues who supports abortion rights and gay marriage.
Indian donors backed governors Nikki Haley of North Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, both of whom are Indian and Republican.
“When there’s an Indian candidate, Indian donors have been very enthusiastic about supporting them,” regardless of their party, said Dhillon, the state GOP official. “They’re a longstanding funding base for candidates, but there are very few candidates.”
Among the children of immigrants emerging into politics is Khanna, 37, a former Department of Commerce staffer who is challenging incumbent Democrat Mike Honda in the majority Asian 17th Congressional District in the Silicon Valley. When his parents immigrated in the 1960s, they were focused on securing a middle-class life, getting a good education for their children and “taking a shot at the American dream,” he said.
“My generation that has had the opportunity to go to public school, go to football games, walk the precincts … that generation is going to give back in public service to the state and the country,” Khanna said.
Similarly, Kashkari, 40, said his platform focusing on education and jobs resonates in the Indian community, where education is highly valued.
“Indians in America recognize how the opportunities that they have been able to pursue are not possible in India, and that’s part of why they feel a sense of gratitude and to try to help others,” he said.
Kashkari, who is Hindu, has spent much of the last year meeting with potential donors across the country.
“To try and raise enough money to credibly challenge the governor, we’re going to have to tap into Indians, not just in California, but across the country,” said Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official and an engineer by training. “The idea that one of their sons could go run for governor of California is really exciting for them, and then the platform that I’ve developed, focusing on jobs and education and economic empowerment, that just — it’s a perfect fit.”
Brown has amassed at least $17 million for an expected re-election campaign.
Influential Indians in Silicon Valley are demonstrating their might in other ways, too.
Businessman Vivek Ranadive, a successful software pioneer, emerged at the intersection of business and sports last year as he led a consortium of owners to buy the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise. He is the league’s first Indian-American owner, and the NBA hopes to parlay his position as it seeks to expand into India.
Both Khanna and Kashkari cited a Silicon Valley mentality that merges well with an Indian view of success that places hard work above all else. They called the tech hub a meritocracy, where those who work hard can get ahead and people are less focused on race, religion or ethnicity.
“You’ve got Chinese entrepreneurs, you’ve got Indian entrepreneurs, you have American entrepreneurs, Russians. It is the great melting pot, and the key to getting ahead is, ‘Are you smart and will you work hard?'” Kashkari said. “I think Indians are making a phenomenal contribution in Silicon valley and in California and in the country, and I think it’s high time that Indians in America start to get more involved politically.”