The IndUS Business Journal spoke to Ramesh Advani, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of The Indian American Forum for Political Education, about politics and Indian American involvement in the political process. He is also the director of federal grants management in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance. He has previously served as a selectman in Norfolk, Mass., from 2003 to 2009. All told he served the town on various boards and committees for almost 20 years. He was one of the first South Asians to be elected to a political post in New England.
Tell IndUS Business Journal readers about your excitement and expectations in your new role as president of the Massachusetts chapter of The Indian American Forum for Political Education. What are some of your plans for your tenure and what do you think you most effectively bring to the role?
I am very pleased and honored to be asked to lead this organization. I had been involved with the Indian American Forum in its early days in the nineties. Back then there may have been 10-15,000 Indian Americans in the Commonwealth and many were successful professionals in their own right. Today, we are over 77,000 and growing faster than most Asian American groups – even more successful and contributing to every segment of the economy. Because so many more are so visible in every field but not politically, the question arises: Why not politically? I hope during my tenure we raise the awareness and importance within our community to get more engaged. Social leadership demands greater visibility of Indian Americans in the towns and cities we live in. “Making a difference” means being seen and heard and participating in decisions involving all of us and our children – immigration, health care, education and so many others. There are business and social issues that require creative thought and Indian Americans have the talent to help contribute to the solutions. I am hopeful given my own experience in my town and in the State will help me guide the Forum to make this happen.
You have more than 20 years of experience in local government and were one of the first Indian Americans to be elected to a political post in New England. Where did you get your passion for politics? And how, if at all, do you try and share your passion with others?
My inspiration was my wife, Rita, who was elected to our town’s school committee in 1996. She realized that she could make a difference in the policy and practices that affected our childrens’ education. This led me to get involved in understanding what drove the finances of our town government, given my own background in finance. I soon found I could make a difference and give back to my community by not simply asking questions but giving of my time and intellect to help make better decisions. Before I got involved, I had little contact with the residents of my town as I was focused on my career and professional pursuits. I began volunteering and speaking up, thinking I was doing “community service.” I was soon approached by citizens who felt I listened, could calmly see differing points of view and help bring a collaborative approach to solving common issues. You could call this a passion for politics, but I consider this addressing and resolving shared problems. What doesn’t help is just being critical, unwilling to listen to the other side, putting labels on others or becoming adamant. I hope I can share my passion through my engagement with the Political Forum.
What is your opinion on the efforts of the Indian American community in the political arena? Do you think Indian Americans do enough to represent the community in government? What are ways Indian Americans could improve the community’s political voice?
We can and should do more. Yes, we now have two Indian American governors, a few state legislatures have representatives, but none as yet in our Commonwealth. We have some terrific talent in the Obama Administration and earlier in the Bush and Clinton eras, but not enough. Even if we are only 1 percent of the U.S. population, given the economic clout, we are not visible politically. Indian Americans can do more to represent our community in government. The way to get involved is to engage with your representatives, run for local office, attend Forum events and push the Forum leadership to advocate for the community. In the post Sept. 11 era, the average brown man or woman who is mostly from a non Judeo-Christian background, needs to stand out in the melting pot, not just as a member of a model minority, but as an active participant in the political and social issues of the country.
What is your view on the 2012 presidential election? What issues do you think are key for the candidates and do you think any issues stand out as crucial to deciding a winner?
After the Great Recession and with an aging population, it is clear that who we have as our leaders in Washington and on Beacon Hill, must be able to work across the aisle on not just short term jobs and economic issues but on the longer term questions. What kind of a role does the government have in addressing questions of “fairness” and in rebuilding the crumbling physical infrastructure in the country? How will we get cost effective universal health care and not just universal primary and high school education? How will stronger ties be pursued with countries like India, Brazil, Russia and China? In my view, the economy, national debt and health care are the key issues for deciding a winner.
Do you think any of the current presidential candidates, including President Barack Obama, resonate with the Indian American community? Do you think the candidates have done enough to reach out to the Indian American community? What more could they do to connect with Indian Americans?
The Indian American community is not simply a microcosm of the rest of the country. They are very different. Many of the over 35-40 crowd being relatively economically well off, tend to be fiscally conservative. But given their ethnic upbringing and Indian background, they also tend to be socially liberal. The President resonates with many. The younger generation of voters, based on my own unscientific observations, have been a bit disappointed with last four years and a little less enthusiastic not just about the President but also of the alternatives. Locally and nationally, I don’t think candidates have done enough to reach out to the Indian American community. The Indian American large donors, I am sure, have access like any other. But not having the numbers of the Latino or African American voting bloc, Indian Americans are viewed by politicians as simply a part of the melting pot. The candidates who reach out and who think outside the box will reap the benefits of our support.
With the support from our governor for the President and his successes in health care management and the economy, Gov. Romney’s own gubernatorial achievements and the visible Brown-Warren Senate race, the eyes of the nation are on our state and the Indian American community can make a difference. What the candidates can do more is to get their campaigns engaged with the Political Forum and ethnic media like India New England, Lokvani, pull in South Asian college students in the fall election activity, etc.
If someone approached you and asked how they could become more involved in the political process, what would your first piece of advice be?
Come talk to the Political Forum and tell us about yourself and we can advise you on how to get engaged so that it is a win-win for you, for your town, our state and our community.