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Why South Asians are the most politically liberal of all Asian Americans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This week the number of South Asian Americans in Congress is growing to five, all of them Democrats. Of all Asian Americans, recent polls show that South Asians are the most politically liberal. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: They call themselves the Somosa Caucus, Desi Americans in Congress, Desi meaning people of the South Asian diaspora. In 2016, there was only one Desi in the U.S. Congress. Now there are five. The latest member to join, Michigan's Shri Thanedar.

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SHRI THANEDAR: My name is Shri Thanedar. I...

DIRKS: That's Thanedar after the November election, surrounded by members of another caucus he is joining - the progressive one.

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THANEDAR: And I'm proud to stand here with my progressive colleagues.

DIRKS: And it's not just Congress where Desi representation is growing.

NEIL MAKHIJA: We have people around the country who are all the firsts, and it's happened so rapidly.

DIRKS: That's Neil Makhija, the executive director of Indian American Impact, which supports candidates.

MAKHIJA: Our population didn't double, triple, quadruple from 2016 to 2020, and yet our representation in elected offices did.

DIRKS: There are now 35 Desis elected to state legislatures in 16 states. That number is catching up to one of the country's fastest-growing ethnic groups, a lot of whom live in battleground states according to native Texan Chanda Parbhoo, the founder of South Asian American Voter Empowerment or SAAVETX.

CHANDA PARBHOO: There are so many of us.

DIRKS: After she started SAAVE in 2016, she realized in Texas, Desis were an untapped voting bloc. Parbhoo has been working to change that by registering South Asians to vote. They are, she says, mostly Democrats.

PARBHOO: We also had a lot of people like my dad. He's a big Modi person. But he is a staunch Democrat.

DIRKS: Narendra Modi is India's prime minister and heads its Hindu fundamentalist party. He's a Trump ally, and many see parallels between the two - authoritarian strongmen appealing to religious extremists, eroding democracy. But that doesn't always translate to crossover appeal. Part of that is because of anti-Asian racism that Trump and the Republican Party helped unleash, which hit South Asians, too. But to really understand the leftward shift in American politics, you have to talk about another Republican administration and another moment of American bigotry. Here's Congressman Ro Khanna.

RO KHANNA: So my first congressional campaign, a protest campaign against the Iraq War, a protest campaign against the Patriot Act, was very much motivated by the excessive reaction to 9/11.

DIRKS: 9/11 fundamentally changes what it means to be South Asian American, says political scientist Sangay Mishra.

SANGAY MISHRA: It's a highly underappreciated story - right? - how South Asians have been targeted, not only Muslims, not only Sikh, but just being brown.

DIRKS: Just being brown made you suspicious. Mishra says 9/11 created a new kind of racial category - being Muslim-looking. And for many South Asians, this punctured the myth that they were somehow protected as a model minority. Which brings us to now.

MISHRA: You take any major progressive issue and Indian Americans are largely on the left.

DIRKS: There's also been this real trend of especially younger progressive Desi candidates taking on establishment Democrats.

ZOHRAN MAMDANI: I'm a Democratic socialist who ran against the party.

DIRKS: That's Zohran Mamdani, one of the first South Asians elected to the New York Assembly in 2020.

MAMDANI: Because if you played the party's rules, the time just never seemed to come for South Asians.

DIRKS: He says he thinks more Desis are running to the left because they were left out.

MAMDANI: I think that we have seen the limits of institutional politics and the racism of institutional politics.

DIRKS: Mamdani says South Asian Americans aren't monolithic. Some are Republicans. Some are MAGA. And there's difference even within the liberal majority.

MAMDANI: In the difference between Modi Democrats and socialist Democrats, I think you see all of these different experiences in many ways of what different families went through in India.

DIRKS: Or the other countries their families came from. But he says it is what many South Asians have experienced as Americans that really counts in shaping their politics here. Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.