17 Mar 2020 20:09 IST

Indian American activists are pushing America to the extreme Left

With Biden likely to go up against Trump, will these staunch Sanders supporters sit out the election?

President Barack Obama’s political success can be traced to his days as a community organiser, someone who coordinates efforts by local residents, such as advocating for a park or lobbying for cleaner streets. Obama cleverly used his organising skills in Chicago’s black neighbourhoods to later seek political office, as a senator in the state of Illinois.

Suave and urbane, he was spotted by leaders in the Democratic party and given a chance to speak at the 2004 convention, which nominated John Kerry as the Democrats’ presidential candidate. This was a remarkable elevation for a state representative, equivalent to a BJP MLA from an Indian State being asked to address leaders at the party’s national executive. He rode the glowing media coverage of an up and coming African-American star to the US Senate, and quickly thereafter, to the White House.

Achieving such rapid political success is extremely rare, but this fact hasn’t stopped numerous copycats from trying. Some Indian Americans, in particular, have taken community organising national, bringing into question the very definition of what a community actually is. Nearly all are ardent supporters and followers of Bernie Sanders, a 78-year-old avowed Democratic Socialist running for President and campaigning hard to fundamentally transform America’s capitalist roots. Sanders, running again after being defeated in 2016, is not an official member of the Democrat party — he continues to identify himself as an Independent.

Sanders’ Green New Deal

To Sanders, a single-payer government-run health insurance system, such as in Canada, or the UK, is central to the fight because he believes that healthcare is a human right. Never mind that this would force more than 150 million people who are happy with their private insurance coverage to switch, and the cost could be $30 trillion over 10 years. Sanders is also actively promoting the Green New Deal, which severely restricts all fossil fuel production, including a complete ban on fracking, an industry that returned the US to energy-exporter status. He wants to eliminate all student debt and make all four-year college education at public universities free.

Many Indian American leftists are active in the public eye while some are powerful players behind the scenes, like Saikat Chakrabarti. A Harvard graduate and software entrepreneur, Chakrabarti co-founded an organisation called Justice Democrats, whose aim was to overthrow entrenched members of the Democratic party and replace them with left-wing politicians who share his extreme views on the environment, income inequality, healthcare, and social justice. On immigration, they must have ultra-radical views that practically promote open borders and unlimited migration, including providing unlimited government-sponsored healthcare, housing, and education to the new arrivals — or else risk not getting Chakrabarti’s support.

The biggest beneficiary of Chakrabarti’s organisation is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a 28-year-old former bartender, when he threw all of his skills behind her 2018 Congressional run in New York. AOC won in a major upset and because of her social media skills — she has over 6.5 million followers on Twitter — has become a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democrat party. Many see her as a future presidential candidate but, now just 30, she has to wait until 2024 to run for national office. One has to be at least 35 years old to be sworn in as the leader of the free world, and she will have turned that by election day 2024. AOC is the highest-profile congresswoman to support the presidential aspirations of Bernie Sanders.

Binary solutions

A common thread that binds these Left-wing leaders is that they appear to only believe in binary solutions. Either it’s their way or no way at all. Compromise positions are frowned upon and rejected with deep resentment, both for the views proposed, and for the people who propose them. The voices of their disapproval are continually aired on Twitter, their social medium of choice, by a group of loud activists called the Bernie Bros, who call every day for a revolution to change America’s ways. Chief among them is Bhaskar Sunkara, a 30-year old author who was inspired by Marxist works when he was an undergraduate at George Washington University. His book, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality, is loved by more than a million followers who regularly read Jacobin, a democratic socialist magazine that he founded and publishes each quarter.

Or consider Varshini Prakash. A 27-year-old daughter of South Indian immigrants, Prakash is the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a left-wing environmental advocacy group that drew headlines when it endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination after Sanders actively lobbied the group for its support.

In seeking Prakash’s help, as he did seeking AOC’s and Chakrabarti’s assistance, Sanders is attempting to leverage the youth vote. Prakash claims publicly now that an idea which was probably good for her college essays was what inspired her to embrace the environmental movement. She says she was devastated as an 11-year old when she saw the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on TV. She was selected as one of Time’s top-100 young people to follow and, next to Greta Thunberg, she is probably the most well-known climate change activist under 30 years old.

Or what about Kshama Sawant? A bright software engineer from Mumbai, she claims to have been shocked by extreme poverty and inequality in the United States, when she was studying at North Carolina State University. After earning a Ph.D. in Economics and failing to get a tenure-track position to teach, she turned to politics in Seattle, joining the Socialist Alternative party. As a member of the Seattle City Council, she is a strong advocate of increasing rent control and fought an unsuccessful battle with Amazon to raise taxes on its Seattle employees to pay for subsidised housing. She is considered so divisive that the liberal Seattle Times newspaper endorsed her opponent in a recent election, but somehow, Sawant eked out a win.

Liberal stance

Saru Jayaraman aggressively advocates for restaurant workers and is a frequent TV personality. Rashi Bhatnagar — not yet a Permanent Resident, far less a citizen — is mobilising fellow H-1B spouses to argue for a right to work at a time when nearly half the country nurses anti-immigrant feelings because of the dominance of Indians in the tech sector, leading to US worker displacement. Countries around the world already fret that over 75 per cent of all H-1B visas continue to go to Indians. And there are nearly a million Indian H-1B visa holders hoping that their jobs will continue to exist as they wait for their green cards, a backlog which may take nearly 40 years to clear. H-1Bs who lose their jobs and don’t find a replacement within a short period of time run the risk of being deported.

In Congress, Ro Khanna, a member of the US House of Representatives from San Francisco, is so liberal in his political views that he was one of the first congressmen to actively support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for President. In return, Sanders named him his campaign co-chairman, a powerful role that allows Khanna to have a strong influence on every aspect of the campaign.

And Pramila Jayapal, born in Chennai and moving to the US in 1982 to go to college, is now one of the most powerful members in Congress as the co-chairperson of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This is a left-wing organisation that works to advance progressive and liberal issues and positions, and represents the progressive faction of the Democratic Party. She is extremely close to Sanders, who first endorsed her run for political office in 2016. She returned the favour, endorsing Sanders both in 2016 and again, in 2020.

Biding time

It has only been recently that Indians are being seen and heard in the public square, and largely as left-wing activists in the Democrat Party. Not everyone has been successful, but they plough on, hoping for a better day. In 2018, Suraj Patel, a Stanford graduate educated at Cambridge, ran and lost in New York’s 12th congressional district. Goutam Jois, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has won cases at the Supreme Court ran and lost in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional district. Prominent Obama alumni, such as Neera Tanden, Preet Bharara, Neal Katyal, Arun Chaudhary and Vanita Gupta, are all biding their time to return to power in a future Democrat administration, actively constituting what the right-wing media calls the Obama deep state. Each uses a disdain for conservatives to win airtime on media outlets hungry for never-Trump opinions.

As the Indian diaspora matured in America during the 1980s and 1990s, it was natural that more Indian Americans would get involved in the political process. After all, Indian American families continue to be the wealthiest and most successful ethnic group in the country. They have quietly gained America’s respect by rising in the hallways of universities, hospitals, and offices, competing intellectually with the best and brightest that America offers. Skilled in small business, the Indian diaspora has flourished, running motels, commercial real estate, convenience stores, restaurant franchises, and fuel stations. In the business world, Nadella and Pichai are just two of the best-known chief executives. There are scores of others in the corner offices of America’s largest corporations.

One would think that these successes are a direct result of strong family bonds, deeply religious and cultural ties back to India, profound respect for education and an appreciation for the benefits of hard work — factors which would ordain them naturally towards the Republican Party and its business-friendly approach to lower taxes and regulation. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who said that government was the problem and not the solution.


For some of these super-bright individuals to embrace the Democratic party and its most liberal wing, which maintains that the government is the solution to all problems, is completely counter-intuitive. To these overachievers, social and economic justice driven down from the corridors of government seem to matter more than successes that result from the bottom up, when a rising tide — as Reagan famously postulated — lifts all boats.

With the recent string of defeats faced by Sanders, and with former VP Joe Biden shaping up to go up against Trump in 2020, these Indian Americans will have to wait some more time to get their policy initiatives implemented — and their own career dreams fulfilled.

But one thing is certain. The Indian American activists have helped move the Democrat party so much leftward that Biden, a supposed moderate, is so only to a degree. Biden appeals to millions of voters looking for a less-radical choice because he looks a lot more reasonable compared to Bernie Sanders. Never mind that Biden is profoundly more left than Obama ever was, but to the activists, Biden will never be enough.

So will the activists sit out the election and indirectly hand a victory to Trump — so that disappointed Democrats will seek massive change in 2024 through an AOC-like candidate? This is, by far, the most interesting question of the 2020 election — assuming, of course, that America recovers sufficiently from the Covid-19 pandemic to witness a normal election year.