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U.S. Elections: Center Prepares Young Indian-Americans for Leadership Roles

  • Subhash Vohra

As Americans get ready to vote in the 2004 U.S. elections, an institution in Washington is busy preparing young Indian-Americans for future leadership roles. The mission of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness is to increase political involvement in the Indian-American community and encourage participation in American democracy.

Every summer its Washington Leadership Program offers 15 internships on Capitol Hill with members of Congress. This edition of Dateline written by Subhash Vohra and voiced by Bob Doughty looks at the program through the eyes of its participants.

The Indian American Center for Political Awareness, or IACPA, is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the participation of the Indian-American community in public policy and the political process.

Ralph Nurnberger, adjunct professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a member of the Board of Directors of IACPA, says Indian journalist Gopal Raju originally conceived of the program. Mr. Raju was then owner and editor of India Abroad, the largest circulating Indian-American newspaper in the United States:

"He came up with the concept in 1993, and the idea was to place Indian-American university students in Congressional offices in Washington, in order for them to learn first hand how the government works, what their role in the government can be, and how the overall Indian American community can be a bigger participant."

Professor Nurnberger says the Indian-American community has evolved in many ways since the immigration waves of the 1960’s and 70’s. The first generation devoted much of their energy and talent to earning a living, supporting their families and creating opportunities for their children. But the second generation is now entering America’s democratic process. In the last ten years, the Washington Leadership Program, or WLP, has started producing results.

WLP was launched in 1995 for interns who spend six to eight weeks on Capitol Hill working with members of Congress and learning how Washington operates.

Christopher Dunn, Executive Director of IACPA, says the mission of the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness is to strengthen American democracy by developing outstanding citizens and leaders from the Asian Indian-American community. He explains how Congressional interns are selected:

"We get about ten applicants for one vacant spot for the program. We get about 150 to 175 applications every year for 15 slots. So, it is very, very competitive and very well known within certain college circles. We get several different things including a resume, writing samples, and references. We take all into consideration and we look at the whole person and their interest in politics. We don’t always look for grades."

Mr. Dunn says in the last nine years, more than 130 students have participated in the program on Capitol Hill:

"After we select them, we don’t promise anything but what we do is to sense what their interests are, what their political interests are, and we go out to the Hill with the resumes, we talk to various people on the Hill and we basically sell these interns. We try and pitch them like you would a story. We give the offices all their information and place them where we think they will do their best."

Anjali Shaykher, who attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and majored in International Politics, is one of the interns who participated in the Washington Leadership Program in the summer of 2004. She says she interned for Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida:

"The program basically gives you eight weeks where they match you with the Congressman, usually from your state and political affiliation. You do all sorts of tasks ranging from administrative and clerical, but I also had the opportunity to attend many hearings and briefings. I heard Colin Powell speak, Dick Cheney. I went in a briefing with Allan Greenspan. So you really have close experience with so many prominent people in the government."

Harin Contractor majored in political science and economics at the University of Georgia. He participated in the program in the summer of 2003.

"My internship with the Washington Leadership Program two years ago was a life-changing experience," Harin. "After I did my internship, I got good insight about how politics really works and how we as South Asians can really effect change with our local community. I wasn’t aware of this before my internship that only 30% of Indian-Americans are registered to vote."

Harin says that immediately after completing his internship, he got the chance to fulfill a dream:

"After my experience that summer, I intended to go back, affect change and give the Indian-American community some political clout. So, immediately when I went back I organized a voter registration drive. I got 300 people. That was the largest voter’s registration drive in Atlanta’s history. I, also, from my experience interning at the DNC, got a job through that. So, it has also helped me in my career."

The program has earned the respect of the Indian-American community at large, members of Congress and their staff. But most important, the participants themselves have been inspired to run for political office. Anjali Shaykher:

"Securing an internship on the Hill is one of the most difficult internships in (Washington) D.C. That gave me first-hand exposure to the policy-making process, what it is like being an elected official. I, definitely, because of that experience, definitely would like to run for office perhaps later down the line."

Many members of Congress have praised the Washington Leadership Program. For example, former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO), who has hosted interns from the program, calls this program "among the very best of its kind" in Washington.

IACPA takes pride in the success of its leadership program, which is building a new generation of Indian-American leaders, Professor Nurnberger says.

"More than ever, there are an increasing number of Indian-American candidates for office, elected officials, staff to political figures, media leaders, and political activists. Most significant, ever-increasing numbers of Indian Americans now understand the importance of setting political goals."

Five Indian-Americans now serve in state legislatures. Kumar Barve in Maryland, Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey, Swati Dandekar in Iowa and Satveer Chaudhri in Minnesota. And Nikki Randhawa Haley recently won a historical runoff for a seat in the South Carolina state assembly.

Bobby Jindal was the Republican candidate for governor in the southern state of Louisiana last year, but was narrowly defeated. Now, at the age of 33, he is running for a seat in the U.S. Congress, representing Louisiana's 1st congressional district.

Officials of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness say more Indian-Americans are becoming involved in the American political process. And the Washington Leadership Program will clearly help prepare them for their role.