South Asians Weigh Election Roles

Putting a Subcontinent on the Local Political Map

Some 100 people crammed into a room on the second floor of the Sheraton hotel in Flushing, Queens, in early August to hear a clutch of city council candidates describe their platforms and how they planned to represent Flushing, a district of approximately 150,000 residents.

The event, hosted by the young korean american service & education center, was intended to make candidates more aware of Asian American issues. The faces in the crowd were mostly Asian, and the questions asked by the moderators concentrated on how the candidates would help revise and improve policies on housing, education, and care for the elderly in the Asian American community. The event had added significance for the Asian community because among the candidates was John Liu, widely regarded as the front-runner in the Flushing race and poised to become the first Asian American elected to the City Council.

Also in the crowd that day was Harjinder Singh Duggal, an Indian American who stood out in his white turban. Duggal, a former community board member from Flushing, had briefly flirted with the idea of opposing Liu on the Democratic line. If he had stayed in the race, it would have been the first time a South Asian attempted to represent Flushing in the City Council. Flushing has been home to South Asians for the past four decades. But so far, unlike the Chinese American community, South Asians from Flushing have yet to produce a single viable candidate for elected office.

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

Still, South Asians have been involved in city and state electoral politics for some years now. At the vanguard of South Asian involvement in Queens politics stands Morshed Alam, a school board member since 1996. Alam bloodied himself in political battle in 1998 when he went after the seat held by the 13-term state senator Frank Padavan from Bellerose, Queens. His winning 42 percent of the vote against the vastly popular Padavan caused a sensation.

This year's council election season will see two South Asians on the ballot: Jairam Thakral, a Democrat, is seeking the seat from Hollis, Queens, and Renu Lobo, a Republican, wants the Forest Hills council slot. However, their chances of winning are slim to none.

With the strong candidacy of Liu in Flushing and the vigorous race in Manhattan's Chinatown featuring Rocky Chin, Margaret Chin, and Kwong Hui, three Chinese Americans with impressive records of community activism, it's clear the Chinese American community has reached political maturity.

On the other hand, the South Asian community is in its political infancy. It stands behind when it comes to garnering support within the entrenched Queens political machine, which picks and chooses candidates for elected office. And there is hardly any comparison when it comes to articulating issues particular to the South Asian community and transforming them into political platforms.

In Flushing, the Chinese American community has at least one common interest—business. Whether in banking or real estate, entrepreneurs with ties to both China and Taiwan see immense promise in Flushing. It's to their advantage that one of their own gets elected to the council where legislation on zoning and land use is passed. An examination of Liu's campaign finance records shows more than a third of the $137,000 of his net contributions comes from real estate and banking interests.

Compared to Rocky Chin, Margaret Chin, and Kwong Hui, Liu has a negligible record of political activism. Flushing heard of Liu just four years ago when he tested the political waters with a run against City Council member Julia Harrison, who is forced out this year by term limits. Since his 1997 defeat, Liu has endeared himself to the Queens Democratic Organization and has impressed the county capos with his fundraising abilities. Raising money has not been a problem for Liu. His father, Joseph Liu, was president of the Great Eastern Bank in Flushing and his close ties to the Chinese American banking community are reflected in the contributions on his son's financial records.

On the other hand, by way of explaining an endorsement for Liu opponent Ethel Chen, The New York Times last week cited questions about his campaign finances, especially connections to area developers and his father's bank. Earlier this year, officials of the bank, including his father, were convicted of bank fraud. Despite the conviction though, the Queens Democrats have continued to support Liu.

In contrast to the popularity of Liu's campaign in his district, the South Asian community in New York, largely composed of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, is badly fractured because of religious, regional, and linguistic differences. Most Indians in New York are Hindu or Christian; Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim. If one were to look for a symbol of the complex nature of the Indian subcontinent, one could find it in the Indian rupee note. India's currency has 17 languages printed on it. For anyone with some knowledge of the tensions currently festering on the subcontinent, it's reasonable to expect that for a single candidate to represent these disparate groups would require political genius. In his day, not even Mahatma Gandhi could unite these groups.

Thakral has firsthand knowledge of these divisions. A Hindu born in pre-independence India, he lost his home when Sargodha, a city in west Pakistan, became part of Muslim Pakistan after India was partitioned.

"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.

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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