Posted on December 3, 2020

How South Asian American Socialist Candidates Are Helping Lead the Left

Claire Wang, NBC News, December 1, 2020

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.


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.


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. {snip}


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.