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Indian-American vote hardly a sure thing for Ro Khanna

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Ro Khanna

SAN FRANCISCO (Diya TV) — Fremont attorney and congressional candidate Ro Khanna is relying heavily on strong support from his fellow Indo-Americans to catapult him to victory, but the community is notoriously splintered. 

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna receiving support from the Indian-American community isn’t a sure thing.

Indian-Americans have a saying about themselves that should make Ro Khanna a little nervous as he tries for a second time to unseat San Jose Congressman Mike Honda:

“Two Indians, three opinions.”

The U.S.-born son of Indian immigrants, Khanna is counting on the Indian-American community to come out in force on Nov. 8 to help catapult him into Congress to represent a swath of Silicon Valley stretching from Fremont to Cupertino. But when it comes to politics, Indian-Americans have been far more successful at bankrolling candidates of Indian heritage than galvanizing behind them.

As Khanna learned from his loss two years ago, it’s hard to weave together a cohesive voting bloc out of a constituency whose members trace their roots back to a country with 22 official languages and nine major religions. That task is even more difficult as a challenger running against Honda, a Japanese-American who attended high school in San Jose, has been elected to four different offices, and has had decades to build relationships with Indian-Americans of all stripes.

“It would be presumptuous for anyone to think they can get such a diverse community to rally completely around them,” said Khanna.

Many members of Silicon Valley’s Indian-American community have had enormous success launching startups and now run gold standard companies like Google and Adobe, but Indian-Americans are largely absent from the corridors of political power — even in the 17th congressional district, where they account for 1 in 10 voters.

The numbers are even more sparse in Khanna’s hometown of Fremont. Indian- and Chinese-American residents each make up about 20 percent of the city’s 224,000 residents.

“In Silicon Valley, there is a sense among Chinese-Americans that Indo-Americans are doing better when it comes to business leadership and rising up quickly to positions of corporate power,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political science professor who directs the National Asian American Survey. When it comes to politics, though, Indians marvel at the success of their Chinese-American neighbors.

“It’s sad that we haven’t achieved the same success in politics as we have in other endeavors,” said Raj Salwan, a veterinarian Democratic Party donor who is trying for the second time to win election to the Fremont City Council.

“It’s democracy at its best and messiest,” said former Fremont Councilwoman Anu Natarajan, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor four years ago. Or as Salwan, who campaigned for Natarajan’s white opponent in that mayor’s race, put it: “We don’t fall into line, so to speak.”

Khanna, who said his favorite book is “The Argumentative Indian” by Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen, has been working for nearly a decade to paper over divisions and offer himself as a unifying force in his community.

He cites his grandfather’s personal struggle in the battle for India’s independence, while presenting himself as a second-generation secular Hindu who has moved beyond the divisions of the old country.

Khanna also has reached out to Sikhs, a minority religious group in India that still nurses wounds of violence against them — most notably in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were killed in the majority Hindu nation after two Sikh bodyguards assigned to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated her in retaliation for ordering Operation Blue Star.

Appearing with Honda at the Fremont Sikh temple two years ago, Khanna called the mass killings “a genocide,” a position not held by the U.S. State Department. When pressed by his hosts, Honda wouldn’t use the term “genocide.”

“That is what made me support Ro,” said Amrit Sra, a Silicon Valley executive who attended the event.

Indian-American leaders say they sense stronger support for Khanna this time around, and last June’s primary election results seem to support their case. After losing to Honda by 20 percentage points in the 2014 primary, Khanna won this year’s contest by two percentage points, running strongest in heavily Indian-American precincts in South Fremont and Cupertino.

“I think the community will converge around Ro,” said Saratoga Councilman Rishi Kumar. “And he might become the big uniter who can work across political and religious lines and help us collaborate for the common good.”

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