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Gaffe underscores Indian-American clout

The hubbub over remarks made by Sen. George Allen, R-Va. to an American of Indian ancestry this week points to a significant development: both political parties have reason to cultivate Indian-Americans as they show an increasing interest in American politics
Republican Senators Introduce Legislation To Protect Families And Children
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., a potential 2008 presidential contender, offended Indian-American voters with ill-considered comments to a worker for his Democratic rival's campaign.Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images file
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The hubbub over remarks made by Sen. George Allen, R-Va. to an American of Indian ancestry this week points to a significant development: both political parties have reason to cultivate Indian-Americans as they show an increasing interest in American politics.

“Welcome to America,” Allen sardonically said at a Virginia campaign event to S.R. Sidarth, who works for the campaign of Allen's Democratic rival, Jim Webb. Sidarth was making a video recording the event, a standard tactic campaigns use for “opposition research.”

Sidarth is a student at the University of Virginia and attended high school in northern Virginia. Allen also addressed Sidarth as “Macaca,” which some commentators interpreted as a racial epithet.

Allen has apologized for his comments to Sidarth.

The incident came at a time when the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) and other Indian-American groups have been intensely lobbying Congress on the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative the Bush administration and the Indian government have agreed to.

The Republicans would seem to have great potential affinity with Indian-American entrepreneurs, but Allen’s gaffe may cause his party some short-term grief.

'Making America more American'
As part of the Bush administration’s outreach to Indian-Americans, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave an upbeat speech to Indian-American groups last month at the State Department saying Indian-Americans are “working hard and they're playing by the rules and they're sharing their successes with people who are less fortunate than themselves. In doing so, Indian Americans are making America more American.”

While it is difficult to quantify the impact of Indian-American political donors and voters, one measure is the number of individuals who have given to USINPAC, 169 donors, according to records on the Federal Election Commission web site.

Since 2002, USINPAC has contributed nearly $285,000 to candidates of both major parties, ranging from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Barbara Boxer of California to conservative Republicans such as Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. 

In the universe of political action committees, USINPAC is still a small player. By comparison, the biggest PAC giver in the current 2005-2006 cycle is the National Association of Realtors PAC, which has given more than $2.3 million.

According to data released just this week by the Census Bureau, about 77,000 “Asian Indians” now live in Virginia but the data does not reveal how many of them are citizens, nor does it indicate how many of the citizens are registered to vote.

From 2000 to 20005, the total Indian-American population in Virginia, increased by nearly 30,000 or 62 percent.

Nationwide there are now about 2.3 million Asian Indians, according to the Census.

The 2000 Census revealed that there were 47,578 Asian Indians in Virginia, of which nearly 80 percent were American citizens.

Allen meets with Indian-American leaders
To help make amends for his remarks, Allen met Wednesday afternoon with a group of more than 25 Indian-American leaders from his state Wednesday afternoon for more than an hour.

Sanjay Puri, the chairman of USINPAC called the meeting “very heartfelt.” He said, “This remark is obviously something the community found insensitive.”

“The Indian-American community is getting more and more politically active and I think that’s good for not just Indian-Americans, but good for America,” Puri said. “Indian-Americans are saying they want give back — they have been successful in business and other professions; now they should be engaged in policy and government.”

He added, “Historically from an immigrant perspective, the Democrats have been the party that has [been] reaching out. Historically a high proportion of Indian-Americans are Democrats, but I think especially in recent years, Republicans have been reaching out quite aggressively to the Indian-American community.”

Allen’s gaffe earned him plenty of bad press, especially from the Washington Post which has thousands of readers in northern Virginia.

Democrats and Democratic-allied groups have pounced on Allen’s blunder, aiming to weaken him as he heads into his Nov. 7 contest against Webb.

Allegation of racism
“Republicans have used racism to try to win over voters for decades, but this kind of pandering has absolutely no place in our politics,” said Nita Chaudhary, a staff member of in an e-mail to members Thursday. and its PAC, a group which backs Democratic candidates, is urging the Republican National Committee to withdraw its support from Allen.

“The sting of Sen. Allen's words upset me personally,” Chaudhary wrote.

Chaudhary's parents emigrated from India and she was born in the United States.

“I'd hoped to see his colleagues in Washington censure him for this display of bigotry. But just yesterday, Sen. John McCain stood with him at a town hall meeting. Race-baiting continues to be a time-tested tradition for the Republican Party in the South.”

Raj Bhakta, a Republican congressional candidate in suburban Philadelphia who is of Indian ancestry, said Allen’s comments were “silly and an indication of a lack of knowledge about the Indian-American community and the tremendous success it has had.”

Bhakta said Indian-Americans “have the highest per capita income of any minority group in America” and are “rapidly rising without government assistance” which, he argues, “is why Sen. Allen’s statement betrays his lamentable lack of knowledge.”

Allen’s gaffe was hardly the first time American politicians have let slip ill-considered comments about Indians or Indian-Americans:

  • In July, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., a presidential contender, said, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking.”
  • In 2004, Sen. Hillary Clinton joked that Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi “ran a gas station down in St. Louis for a couple of years. Mr. Gandhi, do you still go to the gas station?”