By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON: Of six Indian-Americans, all doctors and engineers except one, who ran for the recent US Congress, five fared poorly in the elections, with only one contender actually winning a seat.
Dr. Ami Bera, a Democrat and a physician, defeated the incumbent in the Seventh Congressional District of California, and became the third Indian-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He narrowly won his seat from Rep. Dan Lungren, a veteran Republican who first entered Congress from Long Beach in 1978, served two terms as state attorney general, then went back to Congress from a Sacramento-area district that was redrawn before 2012 elections. Lungren, the chairman of the House Committee that runs freshmen orientation, conceded the contest only last Friday.
Dr Bera said earlier on his website that he was running for Congress, “because I know it must be a place for service, not personal gain.”
“I know things can be different. Together, we can create a more compassionate, sensible and sustainable America.” He said.
One of the election promises of Dr. Bera, a first-generation American citizen whose parents hail from Gujarat in India, was to “save Medicare.” He was endorsed by former President Bill Clinton and the Sacramento Bee, the local newspaper.
Other Indian-American candidates were less fortunate. Four Indian-American Democrats — Manan Trivedi, Jack Uppal, Syed Taj and Upendra Chivukula — lost their bids to join Congress. A fifth candidate, Ricky Gill, a small business owner and a Republican, also lost.
In addition to Dr. Bera, Dr. Trivedi and Dr. Taj are also physicians whose campaign promises included reforming health care. Mr. Uppal and Mr. Chivukula are engineers.
There was, however, a small win for Indians looking for a victory. A young Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard, became the first Hindu-American to be elected to Congress. The Iraq War veteran said she follows the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism, which venerates the deity Lord Vishnu and his incarnations.
Gabbard will take the congressional seat of another Democrat, Mazie Hirono, who will be the nation’s first Buddhist senator when the new Congress convenes in January.
Hirono, who is also the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, was one of three Buddhists in the House of Representatives. The other two, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, both won re-election on Tuesday.
Gabbard creates history by becoming the first Hindu-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, winning her Hawaii seat by trouncing her Republican rival in a one-sided contest. The other three Indian-Americans who have been elected in the past have not been Hindu. Former Congressman Dalip Singh Saund was a Sikh and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, raised a Hindu, became a Christian. South Carolina Governor Nicky Haley who was raised a Sikh, converted to Christianity.
Ms. Gabbard, an Iraq war-veteran, is not of Indian origin but has a mother who is a Hindu. Her father Mike Gabbard, is currently Hawaii State Senator and mother Carol Porter Gabbard is an educator and business owner.
Proud of her Hindu heritage, 31-year-old Gabbard defeated K. Crowley of the Republican Party with a handsome margin in Hawaii’s second Congressional district. She was endorsed by U.S. President Barack Obama, during the election campaign.
“Although there are not very many Hindus in Hawaii, I never felt discriminated against,’’ the New York Daily News quoted Ms Gabbard as saying, “I never really gave it a second thought growing up that any other reality existed, or that it was not the same everywhere.”
Her victory has been cheered by the Hindu-American community across the country. There are estimated to be 600,000 to 2.3 million Hindus in the United States, most of them Indian-Americans.
Tulsi was born in 1981 in Leloaloa, American Samoa, the fourth of five children born to a Hindu mother and a Christian (Catholic) father.
Gabbard moved to Hawaii when she was two. In 2002, at age 21, she was elected to the Hawaii state legislature. At 23, she was the state’s first elected official to voluntarily resign to go to war. She joined the Hawaii National Guard, and in 2004 was deployed to Baghdad as a medical operations specialist. After completing officers’ training, she was deployed to Kuwait in 2008 to train the country’s counter-terrorism units. At 28, she was the first woman to be presented with an award by the Kuwait Army National Guard.
“On my last trip to the mainland, I met a man who told me that his teenage daughter felt embarrassed about her faith, but after meeting me, she’s no longer feeling that way,” Gabbard said.
“He was so happy that my being elected to Congress would give hope to hundreds and thousands of young Hindus in America, that they can be open about their faith, and even run for office, without fear of being discriminated against or attacked because of their religion,” Gabbard said in a statement soon after she took an unbeatable lead over her Republican challenger.
Early during the Democratic National Convention, Gabbard spoke from the stage along with Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Aloha! I’m Tulsi Gabbard, candidate for Congress in Hawaii and a captain in the Army National Guard,” she had said, amidst rounds of applause and cheer from the audience.
She is the youngest woman in the U.S. to be elected into such a position.
Having never visited India so far, Tulsi says she is looking to make her first trip to India as an elected member of the House of Representatives.
“As a Vaishnava, I especially look forward to visiting the holy sites of Vrindavan,” she said in an earlier interview.
Notably Hawaii is comprised of a majority of Christians with a significant number of Buddhists, comprising almost ten to fifteen percent of the population.
The number of Hindus living in Hawaii is relatively small, with only two Hindu temples in the entire state, the Iskcon Temple on Oahu and the Aadheenam Temple on Kauai.
Her religion, Tulsi said was not an issue for the election, neither had it been a negative factor in her electoral campaign, she added.
The Indian American community has embraced and felicitated Tulsi Gabbard like no other Indian American congressional candidate, even though she’s not Indian American, reported Aziz Haniffa, national editor of India Abroad newspaper.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) hailed Gabbard’s historic election on Wednesday, calling it a “testament to the greatest ideals of American pluralism.”
“That Gabbard won while proudly espousing her Hinduism and voicing a willingness to be a strong voice for Hindu Americans brings over 2 million Americans into the political landscape for the first time,” said Aseem Shukla, co-founder and Board member of HAF.
Gabbard said she hopes her faith will help strengthen ties between the U.S. and India, Hinduism’s spiritual homeland. “How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India’s 800 million Hindus?” she said.”
Tulsi Gabbard, 31, who was buried her opponent and won Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District on the Democratic ticket and created history by becoming the first Hindu American in the United States Congress, took a couple of minutes out from watching the election results to give a shout out to President Barack Obama on his convincing re-election.
“President Obama has great aloha for the people of Hawaii and the people of our country, so I am very happy he was elected,” she said. “I very much look forward to working closely with him to improve our economy, get our troops out of Afghanistan as quickly and safely as possible, and work for the well-being of all of our people.”
Gabbard added, “To move our country forward, we need to be less concerned about partisan politics and more concerned about actually serving the interests of the American people. I’m thankful and honored to have been elected to Congress by the people of Hawaii and anxious to get to work.”
On becoming the first practicing Hindu to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Gabbard said, “Hawaii is known as the Aloha state. Aloha means heartfelt respect and love for others, regardless of their race or religion. I grew up with a great appreciation for the cultural melting pot that we have here in Hawaii.”
“That Gabbard won while proudly espousing her Hinduism and voicing a willingness to be a strong voice for Hindu Americans brings over two million Americans into the political landscape for the first time. Her cultural understanding of Hawaii’s unique and diverse population, will serve her district’s interests well,” Shukla said.
Tulsi is a great role model for the community as she practices the dharmic truths and has shown her support to our community even before the elections, said Anju Bhargava from Hindu American Seva Charities. “Tulsi is our Sevavotes.org Ambassador in which we were bringing the pluralistic values and transformative seva to the forefront to bridge the bipartisan divide. With a Hindu and a Buddhist representation in the Congress and Senate we are excited that a dharmic approach, an inside out approach to life will get highlighted,” Bhargava added.
Gabbard promised that among many issues, she will also focus on environmental issues, veteran affairs, and developing relations with India, Hinduism’s spiritual homeland. She also stated her desire to become the first to take her oath of office in January 2013 on the Bhagavad Gita.
The Washington Post earlier quoted, “Congress will become a shade more religiously diverse this January, after November Six election of the first Hindu representative and first Buddhist senator.
Although the road to U.S. politics is still a steep one for the Indian Americans, the victory of an Indian American to Senate and one Hindu to House of Representatives, open a small window for the aspiring future generations.
(Surekha Vijh is a Washington DC-based journalist and poet)