Gaffe Underscores Indian-American Clout

Tom Curry, MSNBC, August 17, 2006


[Also:

Sen. George Allen Gives Direct Apology

Bob Lewis, AP, August 23, 2006]


Washington—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.

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‘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.”

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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 MoveOn.org in an e-mail to MoveOn.org members Thursday.

Moveon.org 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?”


S.R. Sidarth had built an impressive record of achievements for such a young man: straight-A student at one of Fairfax County’s finest high schools, a tournament chess player, a quiz team captain, a sportswriter at his college newspaper, a Capitol Hill intern and an active member of the Hindu temple his parents helped establish in Maryland.

But for all his achievements, the moment that thrust him into the national spotlight this month came when Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called him “macaca.”

The remark stung the young man of Indian descent. What hurt more, Sidarth said, was when Allen gave him a sarcastic welcome to his own country, his birthplace even. It was too ironic, he thought. “I was born and raised in Fairfax County, and he’s from California,” said S.R. Sidarth, wearing khaki shorts, a yellow short-sleeve shirt and flip-flops a week after the incident during an interview at the campaign headquarters of Allen’s opponent, Democrat James Webb.

The full name of the suddenly famous 20-year-old is Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth. Following Indian custom, he goes by his surname. To some of his friends, he is simply “Sid.”

He returned this week to the University of Virginia, where he is a senior majoring in American government and computer engineering.

Before college, Sidarth lived a somewhat typical, but distinguished, Fairfax County life. He attended the elite Thomas Jefferson High School, where he had a 4.1 grade-point average and scored 1550 on his SATs. He was a member of the chess club and the Spanish Honor Society and participated in the quiz show “It’s Academic.” At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he also played defensive end, tight end, punter and kicker for the school’s football team.

Sidarth was ambivalent about his sudden celebrity. He twiddled a pen as he talked about his life, at times barely raising his eyes from the office desk where he was sitting. “I was just doing my job, and I got sort of pulled into this,” he said.

Sidarth said the Allen incident hasn’t turned him off from politics, though he’s ruled out becoming a politician himself. Right now he thinks it’s more likely that he’ll become an environmental lawyer.

Growing up, Sidarth was consumed by chess, testing his mettle against computers and in tournaments. As an 11-year-old, he paid attention when IBM’s Deep Blue computer defeated Russian chess master Garry Kasparov in a legendary showdown between man and machine.

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His political interests follow family tradition. His great-grandfather accompanied Mahatma Gandhi to London for talks on political reform. His grandfather, R. Srinivasan, was secretary of the World Health Organization in the 1990s. His father, Shekar Narasimhan, aided some political campaigns, usually for Democrats but not always, Sidarth said.

Sidarth’s father, a prosperous mortgage banker, came to the United States to study about 25 years ago. His mother, Charu, a teacher of Indian classical dance, followed later.

Both played important roles in the founding of Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, one of the largest Hindu temples in the country, said Narayanswami Subramanian, the temple’s president. Shekar Narasimhan is a trustee emeritus, Charu Narasimhan chairs the board of trustees and Sidarth volunteers there.

“They’ve instilled in him all the values that are important to a Hindu: being honest, working hard,” Subramanian said.

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Back at school in Charlottesville now, Sidarth has taken his new, unwanted fame with him.

Larry J. Sabato, an oft-quoted political pundit who teaches a small, popular seminar on campaigns and elections, said he asked students to write an essay as part of the admission process. Eighty people applied for the course, including Sidarth. His essay was just three words long—but it was enough to clinch one of the 20 coveted spots in the class.

“I am Macaca,” he wrote.

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