Vice President-elect Kamala Harris [Source: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]

Making History: Indian Americans and the 2020 US Election

Asia India

As the world watched, four days after Election Day in the United States on November 7, 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden secured enough votes in the electoral college to be determined the president-elect of the United States. Vice-president elect, Kamala Harris has generated excitement as well. Senator Harris will become not just the first woman to hold the vice presidential office, but the first black woman and first woman of South Asian descent to do so. Senator Harris is no stranger to breaking barriers, having been the first woman and first African American to serve as California’s District Attorney and the first Indian American and second African American woman to serve in the US Senate. Senator Harris credits her mother, who immigrated from India at age 19 and went on to be a well-respected breast cancer researcher, with inspiring her drive to serve others. Her connections to her ancestral homeland were apparent as celebrations in her maternal grandfather’s native village kicked off following her historic win.

Senator Harris is in good company, as 2020 saw increased representation from Indian Americans up and down the ballot across the United States. Her fellow members of the self-proclaimed “Samosa Caucus” in Congress, all members of the House of Representatives, all won re-election. They include Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi from Illinois’ 8th district; Dr. Ami Bera and Representative Ro Khanna from California (districts 7 and 17, respectively), and Representative Pramila Jayapal from Washington’s 7th district (when elected in 2017 she became the first Indian American woman to serve in the House). With his re-election this year, Representative Bera also now holds the distinction of Congress’ longest-serving Indian American member (he has been in office since 2013). All told, 11 Indian Americans ran for seats in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Although only the four already serving were successful, the breadth of races spanned the United States and party lines, signaling increased interest by the Indian American community to run for and achieve long-overdue representation.

It was not just at the federal level that this desire for increased representation could be seen. According to Indiaspora, between 200-300 Indian Americans on Democratic and Republican tickets ran for local, state, and federal office. Two Indian Americans from the New York City borough of Queens, Ms. Jenifer Rajkumar and Mr. Zohran Mamdani, were both elected to the New York State Assembly. According to the 2010 census, New York City is home to over 300,000 South Asians, the largest concentration living in Queens, yet until this year no South Asian had been voted to represent the city in the state legislature. Ms. Rajkumar joins a sisterhood of firsts for Indian American women across the United States, with Nima Kulkarni elected to serve as the first Indian American state representative in Kentucky; Kesha Ram as the first woman of color in the Vermont Senate; and Padma Kuppa as the first Indian immigrant and first Hindu in the Michigan Legislature. Mr. Niraj Antani, running as a Republican, will make history as Ohio’s first Indian American state Senator after winning the race to represent the Ohio Senate’s 6th district.

This is by no means a full list of Indian American representation as a result of the 2020 election, yet it speaks volumes to the growth and increasing political clout of the community as a whole. While currently only representing roughly 1 percent of registered voters in the United States, 50-60,000 Indian immigrants are able to naturalize and roughly 40,000 children of Indian American descent reach voting age each year. Despite overtures by the Trump administration toward the Indian American community and India at large, including a rally in Houston with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a recent survey of Indian American attitudes leading up to the 2020 election found that 72 percent planned to vote for former Vice President Biden. The historical significance of Senator Harris’ presence on the ticket was a factor, as were concerns about policies concerning immigration and US closeness to Modi. It must be remembered however that the Indian American community is not a monolith and their lack of representation in such studies and elections more broadly is something that both US political parties would do well to address.

Sarah Wang is a Programs Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.