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Are Indian-American Women Slowly Realizing Their Political Potential in the US?

File Photo of Pramila Jayapal (Credit: Reuters)

File Photo of Pramila Jayapal (Credit: Reuters)

The future looks bright for Indian-American women, who are being sworn into multiple public offices around the country and making their voices heard.

On November 6, 2018, more than 100 women were elected to the United States House of Representatives, the American equivalent of the Lok Sabha.

The New York Times have hailed this year as the “Year of the Woman,” since an unprecedented number of women contested and won elections across the US. A record-breaking 34 new women won US House of Representative seats on Tuesday, joining 66 incumbent women who were reelected, thereby beating a previous record set in 1992.

“With new and diverse voices joining our ranks, we are building a movement that truly represents the people of this country,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the first and only Indian-American woman elected to the House, in her victory speech in Seattle.

The recent re-election delivered the firebrand congresswoman an impressive 83 percent of the vote.

Pramila Jayapal is just one amongst 100 other Indian-Americans who ran for the office in state, national and local elections in the 2018 midterm election.

Indian-Americans constitute 1 percent of the American population and are one of the fastest growing minorities in the country. However, they remain politically underrepresented. This year some contestants looked to change that by actively participating in elections across the country and giving the community many firsts.

On November 6, 2018, Nima Kulkarni, an immigrant lawyer, community activist and an Indian immigrant became the first Indian-American woman elected as a state representative in Kentucky.

“The election of Donald Trump; the political tenor nationally and locally on immigration; and our governor in Kentucky attacking things beyond immigration, things that I value, like public schools and social security, moved me to run,” said Kulkarni, a political newcomer. “At some point, I realized I would be able to do more good in office rather than on case-by-case basis. It was the right time and for the right reason.”

Kulkarni’s decision to run against the 21-years-old Democrat incumbent Dennis Horlander in the Democratic Primary elections was hailed as a quixotic quest when she initially proposed it. However, she successfully unseated Horlander in the Primary, going on to win by a large margin against her Republican opponent.

Kulkarni believes that she got “lucky” running for office along with countless other women.

“This was a good year in Kentucky for women and for women of color. It was a good year to run as a new face. People were looking for an alternative and a better option,” she stated. Other notable Indian-American women who won state and local elections include Mona Das, Padma Kuppa, Manka Dhingra, Vandana Slatter, Susheela Jayapal and Juli Matthew.

Amongst the twelve Indian-American running for the US House, only three candidates, Pramila Jayapal, Anita Malik and Hiral Tipirneni, were women. Malik and Tipirneni both lost their races.

Gautam Raghavan, the executive director of India America Impact Fund, a PAC that endorses and supports Indian candidates, believes that more women are running for local offices, like city council, state legislature or school boards, they remain underrepresented in Congress or statewide offices.

“The future looks bright but we need to keep doing a better job at motivating women to run for office and, once they do, of providing them with greater support,” said Raghavan. He remains hopeful as Indian-American women are increasingly running and winning at the down ballot level and that is where most political careers start.

While Indian-Americans are more likely to lean left - National Asian American Survey finds that only 16 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Trump - they have also increasingly become the face of minority and also gender diversity in Trump’s conservative, male and largely white administration. For instance, Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Nikki Haley, who recently stepped down as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, became the face of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy during her tenure. While Haley has denied any presidential aspirations for 2020 against Trump, many have not ruled her out as a potential Republican candidate.

Another Indian-American woman speculated to run for President is Kamala Devi Harris, the first Indian American to be elected as a senator. A decade ago, PBS' late Gwen Ifill went on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and called Harris “the female Barack Obama” and the label has stuck.

The first-time senator and former state attorney general has built a national following amongst Democrats with her outspoken criticism of President Donald Trump and her extensive fundraising. According to a report by Issue One, a non-partisan think tank, Harris raised above $2.3 million for her leadership PAC, Fearless for the People PAC, more money than any other senator. She has also campaigned for Democratic candidates in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina further fueling the rumors for a potential bid.

Indeed, the future looks bright for Indian-American women, who are being sworn into multiple public offices around the country and making their voices heard.

(Bansari Kamdar is an Indian-origin freelance journalist and researcher presently based in Boston, MA. She specializes in South Asian political economy, gender and security issues.)