It was a chilly evening on 26 September at a bar in lower Manhattan. A group of well-dressed South Asian Americans, most of them in their early thirties, sat around a table fondly reminiscing about George W Bush, the former president of the United States. “Did you see that picture with him and Michelle Obama?” one of the women asked, referring to an image of an embrace that the First Lady of the United States had sharedwith Bush at the opening of the African American museum in Washington DC on 24 September. “It was pretty cute,” someone else chimed in. “Funny how we are now missing Bush…”
On a flat-screen television above, the NBC news anchor Lester Holt took his position behind a desk at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. His background was fading into darkness to hide specially invited guests, while the camera cut to the stage. From the right side of the stage emerged Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, dressed in a red pantsuit. “Pantsuit!” shrieked two women on the table in unison and laughed. But when Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the President of the United States, joined Clinton, the crowd I was with erupted into jeers.
I was at a presidential-debate watch party organised by the South Asians for Hillary (SAHILL), an autonomous campaign consisting of over 3,500 people, which is, according to its website, “dedicated to energizing and engaging the South Asian American community with the goal of electing Hillary Clinton to the presidency on November 8, 2016.” The logo of SAHILL—embellished with translations of its name in eleven South Asian languages including Tamil, Hindi and Bengali—is reflective of the diverse community the campaign is attempting to mobilise. According to figures released by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a non-profit organisation, in December 2015, South Asians are the fastest-growing major ethnic group in America—close to 4.3 million in all, over three-quarters of which are foreign-born. Yet, despite their varying origins, a majority of them have been consistently uniform in their political leanings. According to an exit poll, in the last three presidential elections, on an average, at least 90 percent of the South Asiansin America voted for the Democratic candidate and in each of these elections, over 70 percent were registered Democrats.
The young men and women I was watching the debate with were first and second-generation South Asian immigrants. Most of them were pursuing divergent careers—some worked as lawyers, others as public servants at the New York Mayor’s office—but what they all had in common was a keen interest in politics. Over the course of the first presidential debate, I watched them scream at the television, flail their hands in exasperation when Trump spoke, and hoot loudly when Clinton asked Trump to reveal his tax returns. On one corner of the long table sat Neha Dewan, SAHILL’s co-chair, and an associate at a New York city-based law firm. “Shut.Him.Up,” she tweeted as she ate her dinner, inviting an unpleasant conversation with a Trump supporter online.
I had first spoken to Dewan over the phone in early August, when I was included in a conference call with the key organisers of SAHILL: Dewan, and communications co-chairs for New Jersey Amit Jani and Dev Awasthi—all Indian Americans. Although Indian Americans do not form even one percent of the American population, they are among the dominant ethnic groupswithin the South Asian community. “We need to have a voice. If we don’t advocate for our community, then how are the leaders going to know what our needs are?” Dewan told me over the phone when I asked her about the need for a specific campaign focused on the South Asian community. As the former chair of the New York Chapter of the South Asians for Obama—a position through which she headed grassroots efforts in support of US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign—Dewan has been involved with national politics since 2012. “For SAHILL we banded together in November 2015,” she said. “It was a very conscious decision on our part. This had to be all inclusive, we wanted this to be a South Asian unified voice and when we are asked [by the Hillary for America campaign] for translations, we are conscious about including Bengali and Urdu and not just having it in Hindi.”