By Vidya Pradhan
While Indian Americans have been quick to form groups that deal with the social, cultural and economic implications of being in the diaspora, there is one important aspect where we have lagged behind. Politically, our involvement has been mostly relegated to fund-raising for our candidates and making disparate attempts at having our voice heard with respect to Indo-American relations; this, despite the fact that our affluence and education labels us a model minority group in the US.
Started with the mission of encouraging and empowering Indian Americans in politics, iForum (previously known as the Indo-American Council) is a non-partisan organization that attempts to remedy this state of affairs. An inaugural conference in October 2007 invited prominent members of the Indian American community, from elected officials to entertainers, to speak about their experience with politics and offer suggestions on how to participate in the political process. That conference was a huge success with over 600 attendees.
This year's conference takes advantage of the charged political climate of the primaries and features representatives from the Obama, Clinton and McCain campaigns elaborating on the theme of Indo-US relations. A panel discussion with distinguished guests like Prof. Sumit Ganguly and Ray Vickery is also included.
WNI spoke with Kamil Hasan and Talat Hasan, two of the trustees of iForum. Kamil Hasan, who is a charter Member of TiE, also happens to be a superdelegate to the Democratic convention in August this year. Talat Hasan, who is a Trustee of AIF and a charter member of TiE, is also the Chair, Board of Trustees, of the India Community Center.
How are Indian-American priorities different from those of the general public?
Some of our priorities are similar – like economic growth, health care , environment. But there are also certain issues that are more important – improvement of Indo-US relations, immigration. Being a minority, civil rights are also very important. It is not just about the issues. We have no voice in the strategic direction of this country. There is no elected Indian American in the house or the senate. We don’t have a seat at the table to bring our issues to the front.
What is iForum's biggest priority?
Getting Indian Americans elected is one of our big priorities. There are about 2.5 million Indian Americans. We have made major contributions to the country in high tech and finance. Our efforts have created thousands of jobs. We contribute to the economy as doctors and professors but we do not have representation in politics. Indian Americans need to get more politically involved.
How does iForum engage Indian Americans politically? What are the challenges?
One of the biggest problems we have is awareness. Indians are so busy with their day-to day jobs, they don't understand how important is to get involved in the political process.
The second challenge is to get them actively involved in the process. Our inaugural conference last year dealt with that.
iForum helps interested Indian Americans in a few ways; teach them how to get involved politically, how to raise funds. We encourage Indian Americans to run for office – provide them with political, strategic support, fund raisers, and motivated campaign helpers.
Has iForum been involved in the recent primaries?
iForum is a non partisan organization and was thus not directly involved in the process, though the trustees were involved on a personal basis. Our upcoming conference features a town-hall style meeting where representatives from all the campaigns will speak and answer questions from the Indian American community.
What is your opinion on Bobby Jindal? ( Bobby Jindal is the Governor of the state of Louisiana and considered to be one of the potential VP candidates to Senator McCain)
We are very happy that someone from Indian-American background has succeeded so well in politics. This sets an example for many younger Indian-Americans, and clearly demonstrates to them that they can succeed in public service and politics amongst all odds
Is there an emphasis on attracting young Indian Americans to the political process?
It is one of iForum's highest priorities to get young Indian Americans involved. We have a working committee consisting of young Indian Americans. We also are creating a major volunteer organization of young Indian Americans and students.
Does iForum have specific positions on issues?
We must emphasize that iForum is a non-partisan organization. Our Board of Trustees has both Republicans and Democrats as well as libertarians and independents. We feel that as far as Indo-American issues are concerned, there is agreement on most aspects of the issues.
Since it is a new organization we have not been able to put out position papers yet. Now we will be doing various conferences on issues that are important to Indian Americans. We also plan to issue white papers and position papers of the things that matter to us.
What would you say to Indian Americans who have become interested in the political process and want to be a part of it?
Please get involved. Register and become a member of iForum and suggest how you would like to help. Do you have a specific area of interest? Would you like to run for office? work on issues? Be a part of one of our committees?
Our conference is free and open to everyone. We have an amazing group of speakers, experts in the history and the future of Indo-US relations. Make it a point to attend.
WNI also spoke to Ro Khanna and Anamika Mandal, who are members of iForum's Working Commitee.
Ro is a young Bay Area lawyer who ran against Tom Lantos in the 2004 congressional primary from San Mateo. Running on a anti Iraq war platform, Ro was beaten in the primaries but was considered responsible for influencing some of Rep. Lantos's policies with his campaign.
"I had a great time running for office, " says Ro, "but fund raising is a challenge, as is putting together a good campaign team." These are areas where iForum would like to help future candidates. Ro's advice to political aspirants – If you have a passion for a particular cause, get involved in organizations supporting that cause. Find and join like-minded groups like the Sierra Club for the environment or Emily's list for women's causes and become active. That is one way of getting your feet wet. Volunteer for campaigns."
Anamika Mandal has been active in her local community before becoming a part of iForum. Coming from a politically active family in India, she finds iForum's dual emphasis on community and politics a good fit for her natural political inclinations. As part of the working committee, her role is to work towards educating members of the Indian American community on the political process and get the younger generation involved. "iForum would like to be the voice for the Indian American community, an organization that is dedicated to furthering our involvement in American politics.