Ro Khanna vs Vanila Singh: Indian-Americans may clash for a Congressional seat in Silicon Valley


February 16, 2014

Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley, California, could win hands down the title of the most successful immigrant group in the US if it ever comes to that. The common thread running through the top echelons of technology companies, the most successful start-ups and investments of millions of dollars in venture capital funds is an India-American presence.

February 16, 2014

Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley, California, could win hands down the title of the most successful immigrant group in the US if it ever comes to that. The common thread running through the top echelons of technology companies, the most successful start-ups and investments of millions of dollars in venture capital funds is an India-American presence.

If there is sway in business, can politics be far behind? This year's Congressional race in California's 17th district — in the heart of Silicon Valley — features not one, but two Indian-American candidates, who could be pitted against each other. Ro Khanna, a first-generation Indian-American lawyer, is vying for the Democratic ticket. He is challenging fellow Democrat Mike Honda, the incumbent and a seven-term Congressman at the primaries, due in June. As the Republican candidate, Vanila Singh has no such problems. The wrinkle, if it can be called that, is that she is fresh in politics, entering the fray suddenly only six weeks ago.

The only obstacle before a direct contest between Khanna and Singh is the California rules on primaries. Only the two top candidates, even if they belong to the same party, will face each other in the general election in November, according to the rules.

Fund Fundas

Nevertheless, political pundits are betting on a clash between Khanna and Singh, an unusual instance of two Indian-Americans in an electoral face-off. Here is why.

Khanna, 37, who was earlier deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Obama administration, has hit the campaign train early. He has also been grabbing headlines as one of the biggest fund-raisers in this year's elections, having collected $1,975,000 cash already. According to a recent The Huffington Post report, his campaign contributors reads like a who's who of Silicon Valley — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Napster co-founder Sean Parker, among others. Together, they have helped Khanna raise more than $400,000 in the last fundraising quarter.

That is not surprising given that the Congressional district is home to many of America's top tech companies such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Intel and Tesla. "But it's not just the tech-sector money — or the insane amount of it — that has attracted attention to what may be the most expensive primary this year. Honda has been endorsed by the president, Barack Obama, while several of the president's former campaign aides now work for Khanna," The Huffington Post adds.

High Stakes

Besides the sheer size of contributions, high-profile supporters and the backgrounds of the candidates themselves, there is another burning topic that makes this electoral contest one of the most exciting ones to play out in the US this year. Tech companies outsourcing jobs to India has invariably ended up becoming an electoral issue in recent years — remember Obama's barbs at opponent Mitt Romney during the last presidential elections — and this election is taking place in the nerve centre of outsourcing.

The stakes are high, to put it mildly. Khanna dismisses such talk. "I'm honoured by the overwhelming support that I've received from technology leaders in Silicon Valley. But representing this area is not about one industry or one company," he told ET Magazine in an interview Khanna says people are taking an active role in his campaign because of his comprehensive vision on how to grow the economy and prepare young people for the jobs of the 21st century. On the agenda of Khanna, who has championed immigration reform, are start-up visas to encourage immigrants to start businesses and creation of higher supply of skilled labor to meet current demand.

Singh, 43, a doctor and faculty member at the Stanford University medical centre, has healthcare reforms on her to-do list, not surprising given her calling. "If elected to Congress, I will be deeply involved with healthcare reforms as a doctor myself. I strongly feel that the medical community was not represented at the table when the current health reforms were discussed, leading to many problems," Singh told ET Magazine.

Singh, who moved to the US with her parents when she was one-year-old, believes that having grown up in Fremont, Silicon Valley, and now working at Stanford University, she best represents the Indian-American community.

Sanjay Puri, director of the Washington, DC-based US India Political Action Committee, says both Khanna and Singh are serious candidates with great professional backgrounds that voters view very seriously. "Singh is being supported very aggressively by her party while in Khanna's case, the race is getting attention because Silicon Valley is on his side and the Democratic party is on the other's," he says.

Buzz in Community

Indian-Americans, meanwhile, are upbeat about the Congressional race in Silicon Valley and the visibility that it's bringing for them. Puri says the contest between two Indian-Americans reflects the political growth of the community.

Indians have become a force to reckon with in Silicon Valley and Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University has shown in a study that "as of 2005, 52.4% of Silicon Valley's companies had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign-born, and Indians founded 25.8% of these companies." According to the 2010 US census, South Asians represent 22.6% of the population of Cupertino and 18.1% of Fremont, both important cities in the 17th Congressional district.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), an advocacy group for Hindus in America, has welcomed the Congressional contest between two Hindu American candidates. Mihir Meghani, a doctor and co-founder of HAF, says this is a district which has diverse ethnic groups of immigrants and a large number of Hindu Americans as well. "A large percentage of voters from here are non-white. With such a good multicultural mix, it will be good to have someone elected from this district who can help change ageold ideas about Indian culture in the American government," says Meghani, a resident of the 17th district. Though many members of the community are engaged in both campaigns, Indian-Americans in California, like most immigrant communities in the US, have traditionally supported the Democratic Party.

The California's 17th district has always been a Democratic party stronghold, sending only Democrats to the Congress since 1991. In fact, the only Republican governor that the state of California has had since 1992 was Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger from 2003-2011. Which is why, not everyone is pleased with the sudden entry of Singh as a Republican candidate.

This seems to have created some fissures in the Indian community. Prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Kanwal Rekhi says Khanna is plugged into the broader high-tech community and has been building relationships over time. "Khanna has been working to enter the electoral fray for several years. Singh, for me, is just an interloper," he says. Nevertheless, an Indian-American Congressman from Silicon Valley would be the ultimate statement of arrival for the community, according to Rekhi.

Political activist and community leader Yogi Chugh, too, believes that while it is important for members of the Indian immigrant community to run for elected office, it is also important that they do that for the right reasons. "Khanna best represents the ideals and values of not just the Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley but also mainstream communities and technology leaders. His campaign is receiving tremendous support because of his vision which includes a robust economy, job creation, public education, immigration reform and a commitment towards building a strong middle class in Silicon Valley," he says. Indeed, Khanna has earned the support from community leaders such as Vinod Khosla, Deepak Chopra, Romesh Wadhwani and Ram Shriram over the past two years. Singh has the support of Republican political action committee, Indian-Americans for Freedom, founded by Chicago-based Indian-American businessman Shalabh Kumar.

Support Network

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was earlier a top executive at Google, says Khanna's support from tech luminaries is largely due to his experience in Silicon Valley. "The general feeling is that he [Khanna] has a deeper understanding of the technology community and ability to represent them in Washington," she says. Vanila Singh, whose parents Lalit and Leela Mathur, have been community leaders in the Bay Area and founders of the Fremont Hindu Temple, is unfazed.

"So far there has been no Indian-American community organization formally involved in my campaign, but many of the community members are supporting me individually in a big way. My parents are active members of the Rajasthan Association of North America (RANA) and I too have strong connections with my Indian roots and culture," she said. Despite Khanna emerging as the favorite in terms of popular support and fund-raising, all signs point to the nail-biting finish at the primaries.

Dinesh Sastri, a California-based political analyst who had been involved in many fund-raising initiatives for the Democrats during the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, actually fancies Singh's chances. Singh's path is clear because it is an open election but Khanna has to battle a strong Democratic Party incumbent, he cautions.

Courtesy: ET