‘Pragmatist’ Indian Americans Switch to Obama From Clinton
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DENVER — Indian Americans, who played a large but little-noted role in funding Senator Clinton’s presidential campaign, are getting on Senator Obama’s bandwagon faster than other supporters of Mrs. Clinton, though a die-hard element is resisting conversion, Indian-American political activists said here yesterday.
“I think 80% of them have already said they are going to work hard for Obama,” a former Clinton supporter from Colorado, Sudhir Verma, said. “We have to convince those hard-core, hard-hard-core Hillary supporters to move towards Obama.”
In the primary, Mrs. Clinton clearly had the upper hand as she raised more than $5 million from Indian Americans and counted more than 20 of them as so-called bundlers for her campaign. Most attributed the generosity to her visits to India as first lady, and to the warming in relations with India during President Clinton’s terms.
“Hillary had an inside track already and Obama had to build his bridges from day one,” Mr. Verma said.
Early on, Mr. Obama’s campaign stumbled when he was forced to apologize for a research paper questioning Mrs. Clinton’s ties to India and mocking her by putting “(D-Punjab)” after her name.
An aide to Rep. Edwin Perlmutter of Colorado, Sam Thomas, said Mrs. Clinton’s large Indian constituency also gave her a natural advantage. “When you talk about Hillary being New York-based, that’s the strongest sector of the Indian community. It’s a natural mesh. Whether it’s the Jewish community or the Indian community, that’s the strongest point, starting from there,” Mr. Thomas, an early Obama supporter, said. “It didn’t necessarily translate to the rest of the country. Hillary also brought, deserving or not, a lot of negatives with her.”
However, Indian-American leaders said most of the former Clinton backers in their community aren’t nursing a grudge.
“Ever since Obama became the leader, I feel the holdback has been much less in the Indian community than in the rest of the country,” a Democratic activist from Colorado, Arjun Sen, said.
“Indians are pragmatists,” Mr. Thomas explained.
The Indian-American Democrats spoke following a breakfast organized by the American Jewish Committee to celebrate cooperation between American Jews and Americans of Indian descent. The two groups have moved closer in recent years as America, Israel, and India have confronted the threat of Islamic terrorism.
Addressing yesterday’s gathering, Rep. Gary Ackerman, who represents parts of Queens and Long Island, said Indian Americans are comfortable keeping one eye on America and another on India, just as many Jews do with Israel. “There is no embarrassment and no shame to say that, in both communities, we recognize the fact that we have two mothers,” the congressman said.
India’s main priority in America at the moment is winning approval of a nuclear cooperation deal, which would allow America to sell nuclear equipment and fuel to India despite that country’s nuclear tests, during a tense 1998 standoff in which Pakistan also tested nuclear devices.
“We have to cut India some slack on this,” Mr. Ackerman said. “Israel has played a very, very important and supportive role in making this deal happen.”
Mr. Ackerman also told a joke about what America, Israel, and India have in common. “In all three countries, the populations are terrorized by Indian convenience store owners,” the congressman said to a smattering of laughter.
The comment evoked a remark that landed Mr. Obama’s choice for vice president, Senator Biden of Delaware, in hot water in 2006. “You cannot go into a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking,” Mr. Biden said.