South Asians Weigh Election Roles

Putting a Subcontinent on the Local Political Map

"There is no cohesiveness in the community," he says. "If we form a political bloc, we can grow and grow. Nobody is smarter than us, and we sacrifice more than anyone else," he says. "The only thing lacking is unity."

But as of this moment, there is little of that. An examination of Thakral's campaign finance records, and those of Alam, a Muslim, shows the division along religious lines. Alam, who dropped out of the race in June, received most of his money from Muslims; Thakral's money came from the Hindu community, though he insists his donors are a diverse group.

But before a Thakral or an Alam can make a difference, there must be a groundswell of interest in the political process within South Asian communities.

J.D. Thakral, campaigning in CD 23 with his campaign committee chair, Paul Khullar
photo: Cary Conover
J.D. Thakral, campaigning in CD 23 with his campaign committee chair, Paul Khullar

Steve Choi, the election campaign coordinator of the Young Koreans Center who hosted the Sheraton candidates' forum, says he reached out to many South Asian groups to participate in the event. All declined but two, Chhaya CDC, an offshoot of Asian Americans for Equality, and a new group called the South Asian Youth Action.

"Because of their experiences in their home countries, many South Asians view the political process as corrupt," says Seema Agnani, Chhaya's managing director. "There is a bit of education to be done about the political process."

For Thakral, the necessity of a heightened South Asian influence in New York City politics goes hand in hand with the unique problems faced by a community marked by rapid growth. Today, South Asians face serious problems with education, domestic abuse, and senior care, and not unlike other Asian cultures, they are a largely insular people who are very reluctant to seek help from city agencies.

"We are a proud people," Thakral says. "We don't want our neighbors to know of our problems."

He believes that only with a greater South Asian voice in the corridors of City Hall can the community provide itself with publicly funded social services tailored to its needs. As Thakral sees it, fighting for these services will result in political empowerment.

There is a tinge of irony in Thakral's observation. "We've never been a burden to this society," he says. "Perhaps that's why we are not recognized as a viable political force."

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