Election inflames many of city's Indian residents

National Congress Party in danger of losing decades-long majority

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Chitra Teredesai hasn't voted in India since she moved to Pittsburgh in 1978, but she still remembers the chaotic excitement of elections there.

She remembers crowds marching through the streets, chanting a candidate's name. She remembers campaigners riding in the backs of trucks, shouting slogans from megaphones. She remembers the political billboards that seemed to sprout everywhere.

Now, she enjoys seeing footage of Indian elections on TV. "I just laugh because it's very colorful and very funny," she said.

But she's also proud of the voting process in India. Despite the chaos, elections there work, she said. Many times, voters have booted out incompetent governments.

On Monday, Indians returned to the polls for another election -- a colossal undertaking for a country of 1.2 billion people split along dozens of religious, ethnic and linguistic lines. While voting here is crammed into one day, in India it takes five weeks. That allows time for the country's hundreds of millions of voters to cast their votes, electing 543 representatives to their parliament for five-year terms.

Many Indians think this election could bring a major change after years of corruption scandals and slow economic growth. The Indian National Congress Party, which has held sway for much of the 67 years since India declared its independence, is in danger of losing its parliamentary majority. The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, could return to power for the first time in a decade.

The election has inflamed many in Pittsburgh's Indian community, who have strong feelings about Indian politics even after becoming American citizens and spending decades away from the country. Foremost in their minds is whether there's a chance for Narendra Modi, the BJP's candidate for prime minister and the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.

Many said they supported Mr. Modi because he would be less corrupt and friendlier to business. He might also chip away at India's tradition of family political dynasties, they said, including one in the Congress Party that reaches back to the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

"The corruption is known inside and outside India," said Kollengode Venkataraman, who edits The Pittsburgh Patrika, a quarterly magazine for the local Indian community. "The country is looking for a change."

Nipun Popli, an Indian graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, said he supported Mr. Modi because he could turn around India's economy and put the country on a strong international footing. Mr. Popli can't vote in the election -- Indian citizens must be present in the country to vote -- but he has been campaigning for Mr. Modi on Twitter and Facebook.

Several Western leaders have criticized Mr. Modi for not doing enough to stop violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, shortly after he became governor. The violence caused hundreds of deaths. Several local Indian-Americans defended Mr. Modi, accusing Western leaders and the media of bias against him and pointing out that India's Supreme Court cleared him of charges.

The Pittsburgh chapter of Network of Indian Professionals, or NetIP, is hosting a breakfast April 25 at which experts will discuss the significance of India's election. The election could change India's policies toward foreign investment, retail stores and nuclear energy, said Vince Suneja, political chair at NetIP's Pittsburgh chapter.

"Even though it may be seven or eight thousand miles away, it has impacts on the business community here in Pittsburgh," said Mr. Suneja, of Peters, who has lived in the United States since 1982.

For Pittsburgh's Indian immigrants, some aspects of American democracy came as a shock, such as the vicious personal attacks that politicians use against each other. Also, the length of our political campaigns -- month after month after month -- seemed exhausting compared with what they were used to.

"No other country does this," said Dr. Nangali Srinivasa of Murrysville. "It's really annoying and most uncalled for."

Some aspects of American democracy seemed admirable to them, though, such as debates between candidates, which are rare in India.

Allegheny County's Indian community is growing fast, from 8,700 in 2005 to 13,400 in 2012, according to the American Community Survey. When Lalit Chordia of Fox Chapel moved here 30 years ago, there were only one or two Indian restaurants in town. Now there are dozens.

Despite the growth, the Indian community is spread across the county and doesn't have much cohesion, many said. In part, that's because of the religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity of India itself. Indian-Americans are split along the same lines, so they go to different temples, restaurants and cultural events.

The Indian community just needs more time to unify, Mr. Chordia said. He compared it to Pittsburgh's Eastern European community, which was once split along national lines -- Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian -- but now has adopted a larger identity.

In the almost four decades that Ms. Teredesai has been here, she's noticed Pittsburgh's Indians become more involved in the community, participating in local events like the marathon and the Great Race.

"It's nice to see that," she said. "That's how I always thought we should be -- as mainstream as possible, but trying to preserve our cultural values."

Mr. Venkataraman founded The Pittsburgh Patrika 19 years ago to help himself and others transition to life here. For him, the decision to become a U.S. citizen was difficult. He was grateful to India for giving him a great education, but becoming an American would make it easier to travel. Plus, his children grew up here as Americans.

He said he felt self-doubt as his old identity incorporated values from his new country. It was especially hard because there were fewer Indians around then to offer experience and support.

"When you are an immigrant, you are in no man's land," he said.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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