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Indian? A lot to talk about
- On the US campaign trail, the change is loud and clear

Charlottesville (Virginia), Oct. 26: To be on the US election campaign trail in 2008 as an Indian reporter is to be a minor celebrity of sorts.

Three days ago, I stood in the middle of a plaza in northern Virginia, at the intersection of a highway and a heavily trafficked urban road along with some 20 other foreign correspondents covering this landmark American election.

It was a setting that was symbolic of Virginia’s complex mix of the rural and the urban that makes election outcome in this state difficult to predict. The trees along the highway were glowing in autumn colours and the office blocks on the urban road proclaimed the area’s importance as an engine of the American economy.

Talking to us was Gerry Connolly, who combines the roles of a district collector and a panchayat president in Virginia’s Fairfax County. Connolly is an elected official who also has an executive role in local government. But he is no ordinary panchayat president-cum-district collector.

As chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, he oversees a budget of $4.5 billion. Fairfax County has within it America’s 13th largest city, 12th largest school district and sixth largest office market.

It was the first county in America to reach a six-figure median household income. Now it has the second highest median household income in the entire US: $105,241.

On November 4, Connolly, a Democrat, hopes to wrest Virginia’s 11th district in the US House of Representatives from the Republicans and replace Thomas Davis who has held the seat for the Republicans for seven consecutive terms.

Once we finished an animated discussion about Barack Obama’s chances in traditionally Republican Virginia, Connolly, 58, looked around and picked a reporter with Southeast Asian features.

“Where are you from?” the candidate asked.

“China,” replied the reporter. Connolly quickly moved on, turning this time to Peter Cheremushkin, the correspondent of Russia’s Interfax news agency.

“There are a lot of problems in Russia-US relations,” Cheremushkin said. Connolly agreed, but immediately turned to four German reporters.

Connolly knew Germany well. Although candidates are usually adept at disguising their statements as manifestos or policy initiatives, there was nothing new that he could offer the Germans.

Yes, Fairfax has a sister relationship with the German industrial hub of Stuttgart, he has been to Hamburg and he loves the Christkindlmarkt, the street markets that spring up in German cities before Christmas. It is a relationship that has few problems, but it is also devoid of any excitement.

Next, he asked if I was Indian. Instantly, Connolly had found something to talk about, something to squeeze some more substantive media coverage that good politicians are adept at attempting.

The demography of Fairfax County, had significantly changed, Connolly told us, with Indians moving in there, both new immigrants from India and Indian Americans relocating to the county.

“In 1970, less than one-third of our residents worked within the county. Today, nearly 55 per cent work here. In 1970, less than 4 per cent of our population was foreign-born. By 2004, one in four residents was born outside the US, bringing with them a diverse tapestry of cultural, human and economic resources,” he pointed out.

High-technology firms, which are at the core of growth in Fairfax, had brought many Indians to the area.

I decide that it is time to sound him out on the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. One more caucus member, after all, means one more good source for an Indian reporter on Capitol Hill. I tell Connolly that it is the biggest caucus on the Hill.

In a flash, the man who has a good chance of becoming a freshman Congressman in nine days is enthusiastic. Yes, he wants to join the India caucus.

The other reporters are impatient to get Connolly back on controversial subjects such as Sarah Palin, the Republican pick for vice-president who has provided juicy copy for reporters.

But it is difficult to get Connolly off India. He tells me that after graduating from Harvard 29 years ago, Connolly went straight to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he stayed as a staffer for 10 years.

With a tinge of regret, he tells me that he has not been to India. But that reflected the state of Indo-US relations then. “India is a country I want to go to,” he says after he replies in the affirmative to a question from a Japanese reporter if the House Foreign Affairs Committee is one of the panels he would like to be on in the next Congress.

Every American state and most US counties have candidates like Connolly in this election. Time spent with them offer a window on what Indo-US relations will look like under the next President and under the next American Congress.

It will take more than a Prakash Karat to change the course of Indo-US relations in the coming years if the poll campaign here is any guide.

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