The new Sikher
WITH Lake Michigan sparkling in the distance and long beards flapping in the evening breeze, they clutched their turbans or ties and vowed to unite behind Chirinjeev Singh Kathuria. An assembly of Sikhs and Hindus and even a token Muslim set aside their differences and turned out on July 22nd on the roof of a posh downtown high-rise to endorse the first American from the Indian subcontinent ever to run for the Senate.
It is not going to be easy for Mr Kathuria, a millionaire Sikh businessman and a Republican. He remembers the insults he faced in airliners and on street corners after the terrorist attacks of 2001, when his Sikh turban and beard got him mistaken for a Muslim. He still carefully keeps an American flag pinned to his lapel.
There is also the fact that he is a Republican. Grover Norquist, a Republican anti-tax campaigner with influential friends in the White House, claims that “Indian-Americans are natural Republicans and natural conservatives.” They are on the whole well-educated and well-to-do; they respect family values, and like working for themselves. Bobby Jindal, a young Indian-American, is the leading Republican candidate for the governorship of Louisiana. Still, about 70% of them voted Democrat in the 2000 election.
The Indian-American community more than doubled in size in the 1990s, and now totals over 1.6m. That makes it America's third-largest Asian group. Mr Norquist and Karl Rove, George Bush's main strategist, have urged their party to embrace Muslim-Americans and Americans with roots in other parts of Asia. At the moment all seven Asian-Americans in Congress—five in the House and two senators—are Democrats.
In Illinois, Mr Kathuria faces long odds in the competition to succeed the retiring Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald. He is one of five Republicans who are already running for the party's nomination in the primary election in eight months' time. The fortune he built in business, while impressive, makes him just another millionaire Republican. A lot of people, if they mention him at all, stumble over his name. And Illinois includes not only the ethnic smorgasbord of Chicago but also a lot of farmers who wouldn't know a Sikh if he landed in their cornfields.
Mr Kathuria, who is still only 38, remains undeterred. He is looking for votes not just among the state's Indian-Americans (there are only about 125,000 of them) but among other Asian-Americans, who altogether make up 3.4% of the population. He hopes that voters will remember him for his beard and turban when his rivals are still a bit of a blur.
But a striking appearance and the immigrant vote will not suffice in the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois politics. Noting that conservatives usually dominate that state's Republican primary, Mr Kathuria announced his candidacy at a conservative forum. He sticks to the general conservative line—low taxes and close-knit families—and drapes himself in the cloak of the American dream: an immigrant made good.
With medical and business degrees from Brown and Stanford universities, a period working on international health issues and a series of business ventures, he can claim some experience. He founded part of an internet firm that went public for $2.9 billion in 2000. He was involved with MirCorp, the company that sent Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, into orbit in 2001. Mr Kathuria, who himself applied to be an astronaut, says he too will go into space one day. An ever-hopeful bachelor, he once dated a former Miss India.
Enough to win the wary hearts of Illinois's voters? Mr Kathuria is more than a colourful sideshow. He talks fluently to farmers about the global agricultural market and tells small businessmen that he understands their problems. He has ideas on health-care policy and space-based defence. The state's Republican Party has not yet backed any particular candidate. The White House's influence could matter. Does Mr Rove really want to chase the Asian vote? Or is it too risky to leave a crucial Senate seat to a first-time candidate whose nickname is Baboo?
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