Monday, January 19, 2009

Numbers Growing, South Asians Take New Approach to Political Organizing by Betwa Sharma - City Hall News

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The number of South Asians in New York City has more than doubled over the last decade to 250,000, but the number of South Asians in local elected office remains the same: zero.

Swaranjit Singh, a 55-year-old Sikh from Bellerose, is hoping to change that.

The real estate broker is running for the Council seat currently held by David Weprin (D-Queens) under the slogan, “Fresh Face, New Voice.”
Like other Sikhs, Singh wears a turban and has a beard, which, he said, leads many people to confuse him for a Muslim. The confusion, according to him, is because South Asians are still the new immigrants on the block and voters still know little about the community—and that makes winning an election even more difficult.

“The intolerance towards Muslims is very troubling,” Singh said. “But if anything, Barack Obama’s example has taught us that an election is won on the issues.”

Singh received early backing from his fellow Sikhs, but in a problem that plagues many potential South Asian candidates, most of his early financial supporters were from Richmond Hill, which lies outside his Council district, making their donations ineligible for matching funds.

Candidates naturally rely on their own ethnic group for their base of support, but for South Asians often the same support is not extended to a different ethnic group within the larger community. Ethnic divisions, geographical dispersion, the general adjustment problems of immigrants and a relatively short history in the United States leave the community politically frail, and the kind of necessary cohesion hard to achieve.

All these factors played a part in Rene Lobo’s unsuccessful Council runs in 2001 and then again in 2005, when she and her Bangladeshi opponent split the vote of the Hillside Avenue Bangladeshis in their race against James Gennaro (D-Queens).

An Indian immigrant and a community board member, Lobo rattled through the hurdles of running for office as a young South Asian woman: “You’re a minority within a minority,” she said, recalling the difficulty of getting support from Bangladeshi mosques. “They would ask me, ‘Why are you in the mosque?’ It was so demoralizing.”

The South Asians are a relatively small and dispersed group, and prone to increased fragmentation when neighborhoods are carved into voting districts. But the main problem is the prevailing apathy in the community towards electoral participation.

“People don’t realize how important it is to vote,” said Lobo.

CUNY law students Gurpal Singh and Ali Najmi and friends have launched Desis Vote,
a voter registration drive geared toward increasing political participation among South Asians.

An Asian community expert at Queens College, Madhulika Khandelwal, attributes this indifference to an outlook prevalent in the South Asian community that keeps them from seeing their long-term future in the city.

“Many people see the city as a stepping stone to a better life,” Khandelwal said of the community. “The goal is to suburbanize.”

Because of this, Khandelwal said, relatively few South Asians buy homes in the city, leaving them without a stake in the future of their neighborhoods. There are few specifically tailored organizations that focus predominantly on voter registration and electoral participation, especially on the local level.

In an effort to change that, Gurpal Singh, 32, and Ali Najmi, 24, friends who met at CUNY law school, launched Desis Vote, a voter registration drive. Working with a few volunteers they organized countless voter registration drives throughout last year and got 836 “Desis,” or South Asian immigrants, registered.

After discovering the deep divide between Sikhs and the Guyanese population in Richmond Hill, Singh and Najmi created the South Asian and West Indian Leadership Cabinet Committee (SAWI) to build bridges between these two groups. Among other activities, SAWI organized an intense debate between Serphin Maltese (R) and Joseph Addabbo (D), along with a town hall meeting to address common concerns.

“Our goal is to transform the South Asian community in Richmond Hill into a powerful voting block,” Najmi said.

Singh and Najmi confess that galvanizing the rest of Queens and eventually the entire city will take years of community organizing. The plan for 2009 is to conduct more voter registration drives, awareness campaigns and candidate forums, as well as to concentrate on the fundraising necessary to support their efforts.

But Najmi and Singh said they are not fixated on getting a South Asian elected. Instead, they see Desis Vote’s focus as generating sustained electoral participation which will enable them to create a voting block which will be able to influence all local elected officials. While seeing one of their own on the Council or in the Legislature would be welcome, they say, more important will be getting their voices heard by everyone in the Council and Legislature.

“It is not who represents you,” Singh explained, “but how you are represented.”

Photo by Betwa Sharma