IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How South Asian American socialist candidates are helping lead the left

3 South Asian members of the Democratic Socialists of America won historic down-ballot races this year, while others laid the groundwork for future runs.
Zohran Mamdani, Nithya Raman and Nikil Saval
Zohran Mamdani, Nithya Raman and Nikil Saval are three South Asian American members of the Democratic Socialists of America who won historic down-ballot races in 2020.Zohran Mamdani; Getty Images; Nikil Saval

When Zohran Mamdani, a housing foreclosure counselor, became one of the first two South Asians elected to the New York state Assembly this month, he felt pride — but also anger.

“It’s both an extremely exciting feeling and an extremely infuriating one,” said Mamdani, an Indian Ugandan immigrant set to represent the Queens neighborhood of Astoria. Given that South Asians have lived in the city for more than a century, he said, the milestone is an “indictment of a political system that has not only ignored the South Asian community but actively worked to erase it.”

The 29-year-old decided to run for office to better serve the people who he said have been “left behind on the basis of their race and class.” This cohort includes many of his low-income South Asian and Indo-Carribean clients at Chhaya, a housing and social services organization.

“My job as a counselor was to put people’s lives back together after they’ve been broken into a million pieces by the multiple failures of capitalism,” he said. “Being a legislator comes with the opportunity to ensure people’s lives are not torn apart in the first place.”

In addition to public housing and single-payer health care, Mamdani said he’ll also advocate for causes specific to South Asian constituents, such as solving the taxi medallion loan crisis, expanding language access and making Diwali a school holiday.

Mamdani is one of three South Asian members of the Democratic Socialists of America who won historic down-ballot races earlier this month. In Pennsylvania, former magazine editor Nikil Saval became the first Asian American elected to the state Senate. And in Los Angeles, urban planner Nithya Raman will be the first Asian American women elected to city council. As first-time Democratic Socialists of America-endorsed candidates, they unseated Democratic incumbents while espousing progressive policies such as "Medicare for All," the Green New Deal and defunding the police.

Their wins point to the growing prominence of young South Asians on the left, many of whom, in the past half-decade, have transitioned from community activism to electoral politics.

“These candidates are successful not only because of the work they’ve done in South Asian communities,” Abdullah Younus, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America's national leadership body, said, “but also because the issues that they’re campaigning on — around housing, education and climate — cut across age divides and diaspora divides.”

Compared to East Asian and Latin American immigrants, the term “socialism” tends to hold less stigma among many South Asians, particularly those from India, since their home country has not had extended periods of communist or socialist rule, said Sangay Mishra, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University in New Jersey and the author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans.”

While the explicit embrace of socialism is a more recent phenomenon, he said, South Asian Americans have long participated in progressive activism, working alongside Black civil rights leaders in the 1960s to desegregate schools and organizing taxi drivers in the 1990s against unfair regulations and rampant racism. (Shyamala Gopalan, the mother of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, was an active participant in the mid-century civil rights movement.)

The inflection point, though, was 9/11.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen more South Asian groups engaging with the targeting of Muslims,” he said, noting that pervasive racial profiling and bigotry propelled many young people to public service. “You came to terms with the fact that you’re likely to face hostility even if you live a comfortable life,” he said.

Saval, who’s set to represent a highly diverse district in south Philadelphia, said it was partly this shattering of the model minority myth that pushed him toward socialism.

“A notion that’s prevalent in the South Asian community is that if you work very hard, your talents will help guarantee you a place on the class ladder,” said Saval, 37, who secured the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., before his primary contest.

He said he grew up with a deep faith in meritocracy only to learn through lived experiences that it offers little protection against exploitation, and no guarantee of social mobility. When he was working in the publishing industry in New York, he saw his employer doling out multimillion-dollar book contracts while paying him a salary that barely covered his rent.

This year wasn’t the first time South Asian socialists found success in local elections. In 2013, Kshama Sawant, an Indian immigrant and member of the Socialist Alternative party, became the first socialist in a century to win a citywide race in Seattle when she was elected to the city council.

Young South Asians have since risen to the forefront of the progressive and democratic socialist movements, not just as candidates but also as campaign strategists and thinkers.

Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin Magazine, one of the country’s leading socialist publications. Saikat Chakrabarti co-founded Justice Democrats, a political action committee that recruits progressives, including some democratic socialists, to run for office; he later served as chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who is a member of Democratic Socialists of America. And Faiz Shakir served as campaign manager for the country’s best-known democratic socialist, Sanders, becoming the first Muslim and first Pakistani American to assume the role for a major party’s presidential primary candidate.

Progressive Congress members Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who won their seats in 2016, are also emblematic of a burgeoning South Asian presence in left-wing electoral politics. Though neither identifies as a democratic socialist, Khanna, the national co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, and Jayapal, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, both have connections to the movement.

Some South Asian Democratic Socialists of America candidates pitched long-shot bids this year, and even in defeat, they’re laying the groundwork for the future.

Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, 38, a member of Democratic Socialists of America and a public school teacher, ran for a seat in the California State Assembly from a district in South Los Angeles. A win would have made the Sri Lankan immigrant the first Muslim and South Asian woman elected to the lower chamber.

With endorsements from the Democratic Socialists of America and Sanders, she campaigned on an ambitious climate platform, but lost in the general election to another Democrat. She's already gearing up for another run in 2022.

And in Georgia, Nabilah Islam ran for Congress, seeking to become the first nonwhite representative from a district that’s one of the most racially diverse county in the Southeast and has one of the fastest growing South Asian populations in the country. The 30-year old, who was backed by the Metro Atlanta chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, said her politics, such as support for single-payer health care, are heavily influenced by her upbringing as a daughter of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants.

Her mother broke her back from working grueling hours at the warehouse — an outcome that could have been prevented with stronger labor laws, she said. And like a quarter of the residents of Gwinnett County, where she lives, she was uninsured when she ran for office this year.

“I know what it’s like to watch your mom and dad struggle to pay the bills,” she said.

The novelty of her campaign, Islam said, was one reason she came up short in the primary, despite winning endorsements from Khanna, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

“There’s a myth of electability,” she said. “When I launched my campaign, I was a 29-year-old, first-generation Bangladeshi immigrant. Even though I was born and raised here, it wasn’t enough for a lot of folks because they had never seen anyone like me succeed before.”