The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Caste politics makes its debut in American poll

Washington, Nov. 5: As Americans head for polling booths to elect a new House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, 36 Governors and numerous state legislatures, Indian American voters have been galvanised at the eleventh hour by the Republican party’s decision to withdraw support to one of its candidates in Iowa who attacked her opponent’s Hindu upbringing.

Indian Americans, who are taking an unprecedented interest in this mid-term poll from the grassroots to candidacy, are outraged by Republican Karen Balderston’s comment to a newspaper in her town. “Will a person raised to function in the upper caste of India, the most repressive form of discrimination on the planet, be able to shed such repressionist views and fully and effectively represent the citizens of House District 36'” she asked a reporter from The Gazette of Cedar Rapids.

Balderston is a candidate for the Iowa state House of Representatives and her Democratic opponent is Nagpur-born Swati Dandekar (in picture right), who has a long history of service for the local community.

Balderston’s comment followed an e-mail she had sent earlier to her conservative supporters, in which she asked them to consider whether her opponent can represent the people of Iowa as she is an immigrant from India.

“Without having had the growing-up experience in Iowa, complete with the intrinsic basics of Midwest American life, how is this person adequately prepared to represent Midwest values and core beliefs, let alone understand and appreciate the constitutional rights guaranteed to us in writing by our Founding Fathers'” Balderston’s e-mail asked her supporters.

The idea probably was to use this daughter-of-the-soil line in the campaign in the newly-created constituency.

The Gazette got hold of the communication and confronted the Republican candidate. She then truly put her foot in her mouth with politically incorrect comments about Dandekar’s upper-caste origin.

To her credit, the up and coming Indian-American Democrat, who has lived in Iowa for 27 years, was dignified and refused to comment on the controversy.

But for Balderston, the damage was done. At a time when the Republicans are courting Indian Americans — who are often perceived as Democrats — their candidate’s outburst with racist, religious and ethnic overtones was inopportune in the extreme.

The party withdrew support for Balderston and has removed her name from the list of Republican candidates on their website. As a result, the Republicans will officially be unrepresented in the constituency today as voters cast their ballot.

The controversy comes as leaders of the Indian-American community from coast to coast are urging their brethren to take an active interest in the US political process as a way of asserting their rights and influence for making themselves heard.

Last weekend The Washington Post published a front-page story on a man named Vivek Chopra, who had 1,800 volunteers under his charge working for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The Boston Globe carried an exhaustive piece on how South Asians were determined to have their voices heard in American politics.

A total of 37 candidates of Indian American descent are in the fray in today’s elections. Among them is Rahul Mahajan, a candidate for Texas governorship, vacated by George W. Bush when he moved to the White House in 2001.

As a candidate of Ralph Nader’s Green Party, Mahajan is a no-hoper in Texas. But it is a state where the Green Party is taking roots and has fielded as many as 40 candidates, most of them for local posts.

There are five Indian Americans contesting for the US House of Representatives. Two are Republicans, two Democrats and one Green.

Public offices sought by Indian Americans range from board membership of California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit to a seat in the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.

Two of the seniormost elected officials in the US of Indian origin are seeking new terms in today’s poll. They are Kumar Barve, a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates since 1990 and Satveer Chaudhary, the youngest state Senator in Minnesota.

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