1. Life & Culture

Will Kamala Harris’ roots sway the local Indian American vote?

Not everyone will vote for Biden-Harris, but Indian Americans around Tampa Bay agree that her name on the ticket is historic.

TAMPA — Janelle Khargie’s Indian parents arrived in the United States in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement.

Later, when their children were born, each was given a non-Indian first name.

“My parents were afraid to promote our culture because they saw how minorities were treated,” said Khargie, 42, raised in Bradenton and now residing in Tampa.

Today, the Tampa Bay area’s Indian community is thriving, assimilated and celebrated.

“We are part of Tampa Bay,” Roshni Vasram, 36, who splits time between Tampa and New York, said.

Now, the local Indian American population is feeling acceptance on a national level with the ascent of Kamala Harris to candidate for vice president of the United States. Harris' mother is from India and “Kamala” is Hindi for lotus flower.

“It means so much to me that I get emotional,” Khargie said. “It means our culture is truly part of America.”

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2020, file photo Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks in Washington. On Monday, Sept. 7, Harris will travel to Milwaukee, her first traditional campaign trip. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) [ CAROLYN KASTER | AP ]

Not all local Indian Americans are voting for the Democratic ticket for president. Some support President Donald Trump because of his close ties to the Indian prime minister or because they prefer his platform. They still welcome the change signaled by Harris on the ticket.

“From a standpoint of picking the office of the president, Kamala Harris is not a determining factor for me,” said Ram Ramcharran, a 51-year-old Tarpon Springs resident and Trump supporter. “But her Indian heritage is exciting. It shows how assimilated we are.”

The South Asians for Biden national grassroots organization hopes to sway Indian American voters by promoting how the Biden-Harris platform can benefit them. San Francisco-based spokesperson Deepa Sharma says the population is “intertwined” with the hotel and healthcare industries that have been hurt by Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

And for a culture that once felt “invisible" in the United States, Sharma said, having an Indian American who is part of the national dialogue “personally means the world to me. She is a representative of us and we are very proud."

In a state known for close elections, Indian Americans could decide which candidate takes home Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

Sharma said the Tampa Bay area’s Indian American population totals nearly 34,000, with almost 154,000 statewide, around 87,000 of which are voting age.

Janelle Khargie poses at her Tampa home. Kamala Harris' Indian background is a point of pride for her. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Nationally, Indian Americans have recently supported Democrats for president, though the gap is narrowing — 84 percent voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 77 percent for Hilary Clinton in 2016, according to AAPI Data, which reports demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

A recent poll conducted by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote organization reports that 68 percent of Indian Americans will vote for Biden and 28 percent for Trump.

“Kamala Harris identifies with leftist views that I do not support, so I will vote for Trump,” said Pawan Rattan, 72, founder of the Indo-US Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay. “Among my friends, I see a 15 to 25 percent shift to Trump this year for the same reason. But I am happy to see an Indian candidate even if I would not vote for her.”

While no ethnic group should be classified as a “voting bloc” because race does not dictate views, that is perhaps even more so accurate for Indian Americans, Ramcharran said, because “we are very diverse.”

India has 28 states and seven union territories, each with their own version of the nation’s customs. Different regions, for instance, practice the nation’s primary religion of Hinduism in different ways.

And because India was once part of the British empire, its people relocated throughout to England’s colonies Africa and South America, each bringing their own customs and life experiences to the Indian diaspora.

“That made the forming an Indian community here more difficult, especially because of early language barriers,” said Ramcharran, who was born in Guyana and moved to Largo from New York at 14. “But we came together.”

Indian immigrants began arriving in the Tampa Bay area in the 1970s.

With no Hindu temple at the time, services were held in homes.

“I remember feeling very isolated because there were so few of us,” Dilip Patel, 62, said. “I was part of a group, yet I felt alone because there was so little reminding me of my culture.” Patel, a Biden-Harris supporter, was born in Uganda and moved to Tampa from England in 1982.

Vasram’s father, Mahesh Patel, (no relation to Dilip Patel) was among that first wave of Indian immigrants when he arrived in Tampa around 40 years ago. He brought the culture to the area by opening the first Indian grocery store, buying radio time so he could play Indian music, and renting event space where he screened Bollywood movies.

“We all had to do our part,” said Mahesh Patel, 68, who was born in Kenya and later lived in England. He is still uncertain for whom he will vote. “When I first came here, there were hardly any Indian names. To see an Indian name for vice president is amazing."

As an Indian American growing up in Tampa, Vasram at times felt like the minority of all the minorities.

Blacks and Latinos, for instance, had friends who understood them.

Vasram was alone, which sometimes made her the punchline of racially insensitive jokes.

“I’d walk by a kid and they’d say, ‘Do you smell curry?’” Vasram, 36 and a Biden-Harris support, said. “Being Indian made you different than everyone.”

As the local Indian population grew, so did its cultural footprint.

In 1992, an abandoned school building at 311 E. Palm Ave. was converted into the Vishnu Mandir, Tampa’s first Hindu temple.

Four years later, the grand Hindu Temple of Florida on Lynn Road was dedicated. It features a seven-story tower adorned with Hindu symbols and that can be seen from miles away.

The Hindu Temple of Florida [ Times (2016) ]

It wasn’t initially well-received. Some residing in the surrounding neighborhoods, according to Times archives, branded Hinduism — the world’s third largest religion — as a cult. Vandals tagged the temple with hate speech and set fire to a pile of old underwear on the property.

Indian Americans sought to educate locals on their culture by founding events such as the Tampa Bay India Festival, which attracts around 15,000 annually and celebrates the South Asian nation.

Khargie, who supports Biden-Harris, did her part as a teenage pageant contestant who wore Indian dresses and danced to Indian music.

“Back then, I was part of the younger generation willing to break boundaries,” said Khargie. “Indian parents were saying, ‘Don’t do that, don’t say anything about India. They will attack you. They don’t understand you.' But I wanted to showcase who I was."

The emerging Indian culture culminated locally in 2014 when the International Indian Film Academy’s 15th annual awards — also known as the Bollywood Oscars — were held in Tampa and the city celebrated all things Indian for a week.

“That was amazing,” said Vasram, who covers Bollywood through her “I was so proud.”

But Hermant Rustogi, chairman of the University of Tampa’s Marketing Department, says that the entire local Indian American community does not feel that same level of pride for Harris.

“Perhaps it is because she is more identified as Black and Jamaican on her father’s side than Indian,” said Rustogi, 60 and a native of India who would not reveal who he supports for president. “I would make the argument she is more Indian because her mother is the one who carried her for nine months.”

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump walk the perimeter of the arena floor to greet attendants after Modi's speech during the "Howdi Modi" event Sunday, September 22, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) [ MICHAEL WYKE | AP ]

Aakash Patel, a former Republican candidate for Hillsborough County Commission and a Trump supporter, said he and his father, Minesh Patel, are proud of the president’s relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

They were among the 50,000 people who attended a Trump-Modi rally at NRG Stadium in Houston in 2019.

When Trump and Modi “walked in unison holding hands, it was a cool to see how far India and United States relations have come,” Patel, 36, said. “I was already a Trump supporter. That really did it for my dad.”

Tampa’s Frankie Vayalumkal, 40, founded the now defunct India International Film Festival — Tampa Bay. He said regardless of who wins, Indian Americans should be proud that they have a vice presidential candidate representing their culture.

“It shows the impact the Indian community has made and how much momentum the Indian community has,” Vayalumkal said. “We have come a long way.”