South Asian Voters Hope for Landmark Year

Some South Asian-American candidates, from left: Abe George, former candidate for Brooklyn district attorney; public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani; Natraj Bhushan, candidate for the 48th City Council District. (Photo montage by Chester Soria via Gotham Gazette)

Some South Asian-Americans resonating in this year’s political season: Abe George (left), former candidate for Brooklyn district attorney; public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani and Natraj Bhushan, running for the 48th City Council district in Brooklyn. (Photo montage by Chester Soria via Gotham Gazette)

This year’s handful of South Asian candidates running for City Council – and Reshma Saujani for public advocate – may give the city at least one elected official of South Asian descent. Gotham Gazette‘s Minty Glover reports that some of the candidates call this year a potential “tipping point” for a community that numbers over 300,000, according to the 2010 Census.

Winning a seat is no guarantee, however, given two factors, among others: redistricting and diverse origins.

Activist groups say that this is in large part due to the way district lines have been redrawn, splitting up South Asian communities of interest. There is also the fact that the South Asian community in itself is not a monolithic mass.

The community encompasses a number of diverse cultures, languages and religions: Someone of South Asian descent could be from a whole host of different countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, as well as countries with large diaspora populations, like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Uganda.

Saujani, who is the former deputy public advocate, emphasized the importance of campaigning with more than just the South Asian community in mind.

“So it’s not like, ‘You’re Asian so I’ll vote for you, or you’re black so I’ll vote for you,’” Saujani said. “It’s, ‘Will you fight for my issues?’” And Saujani, whose family came to New York from Uganda as refugees, said she inherently understands these issues due to her background.

“I think the powerful thing you’re seeing with this next generation of leadership is many of us are first-generation Americans,” she said. “We’re so tied to the American dream, so tied to creating the American dream.”

John Albert, of the South Asian voting advocate group Taking Our Seat, also believes in the need for “finding unifying themes in the American political context.” However, it might be tricky among even the South Asian community alone. What unites other voting blocs composed of different national origins does not apply to South Asians. But at least the divisions present in their native countries not necessarily apply here, especially when all are categorized together as “South Asian.”

“I think the South Asian community poses some unique challenges,” Albert said. “We’re fractured in so many more pieces. There may be different types of Latinos, but Spanish brings them together. We don’t have that particular connection.”

Some South Asian candidates argue, though, that the lines of division within the South Asian community in the city are much more blurred than the borders between those of its home countries.

One prominent South Asian candidate who recently bowed out of the election is Abe George, who was running to be the next Brooklyn district attorney against longtime incumbent Charles Hynes.

“You come to Brooklyn and, on Coney Island Avenue, the Pakistanis and the Hindus are getting along,” George told the Gotham Gazette before deciding to drop out of the race last week and endorsing his opponent, Kenneth Thompson. “But you go to India, and the Pakistanis and the Indians are fighting. I think it’s different here in America because we’re so outnumbered that you come together.”

However, when it comes to politics in New York, stepping above the geographical, political or historical differences gives the benefit of “power in numbers,” says Albert. And not just within the South Asian community.

“Much of our work early on was to go to communities and say, ‘Yes, you can be Bangladeshi, you can be Pakistani, you can be Punjabi,’” he said. “But it’s more politically empowering to say we’re South Asian.”

Candidates are also running on platforms that they hope will attract the minority vote in general. Albert says that, strategically, it is important for them to focus on Hispanic and black communities.“We have to have an understanding that the South Asian community lives very close to the Latino community,” Albert said. “You’re more likely to have a Latino neighbor than anything.”

Candidate Helal Sheikh is aiming to win over Latino and black voters, not just because of his district’s demographics, but also because he doesn’t want to run on the basis of his background.

Helal Sheikh, a Bangladeshi former public school teacher from East New York who is running to represent the 37th City Council District, said he was very keen on capturing Latino and black votes. He said that if he were to just focus on the South Asian vote that the numbers in his district wouldn’t be there to get him elected, despite the large number of Bangladeshis who reside in East New York.

He also emphasized the importance of the South Asian community finally seeing political representation, but added that electing the most qualified candidate was still more important.

“I’m not running as a Muslim,” Sheikh said. “I don’t want anyone’s vote as a Muslim.”

Additional challenges that apply to heavily immigrant communities – such as registering first-time voters and language barriers at polling stations – are no different when it comes to South Asians.

First generation American candidates will also need to target the first-time voter base. South Asian candidates said they need to not simply campaign on the issues, but also spend some of their time and resources on get-out-the-vote strategies.

Adding to the challenges is the language barrier at the ballot box. While the city Board of Elections is mandated under the Voting Rights Act to provide ballots in Bengali to some of Queens, there is no requirement for Hindi or other major South Asian languages. Some candidates are doing voter outreach, alongside campaigning, to try and engage people in an effort to overcome the difficulties the South Asian community might face on Election Day.

As with other immigrant populations, electing one of their own means much to the South Asian community.

“I just think it’s important for someone to represent me for a change as well, somebody who looks like me,” said Neha Dewan, a lawyer who works at the city’s Department of Education. “I’d also like to see someone who looks like me pave the path for other people.”

Furthermore, according to Amol Sinha, 27 – whose parents moved to the U.S. from Bihar, India, in the early 1970s – electing a candidate of South Asian descent to political office would change how the community looks at politics in the coming years.

“Being politically engaged or being engaged in the democratic process has in a way been seen as a white thing,” he said. “Over the years it’s been seen as something that isn’t necessarily for us.”

Sinha added, “It’s incumbent upon those candidates to cut away at the apathy that might exist.”

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