“During the campaign I met with a wonderful group of Pakistani-American doctors and they told me this is the first time somebody had reached out to them to engage them in this process. And when I left, they said ‘you have given us hope and inspiration’.”
~ Michelle Nunn during her concession speech after losing the Senate race in Georgia.
Michelle Nunn’s comments during her five minute nationally-televised concession speech show how changing demographics in the US have made all minorities more valuable than they ever were before. Even in the Deep South, minorities, especially the affluent ones such as Pakistani-Americans and Indian-Americans, have seen a steady rise in courtship by political parties. And while Indian-Americans have taken this courtship in stride and ridden the wave to governorships in Louisiana and South Carolina, Pakistani-Americans seem to be slow in taking advantage of their potential political clout.
It is now time for the second generation of Pakistani-Americans to come out and play, but before that, they have to set aside the biases of their fathers
The US has about half a million Pakistani-Americans, with an average household income exceeding $70,000, according to the Pakistan Political Action Committee (PAKPAC) President Rifat Chughtai. The community is affluent and is highly educated. Now into its second generation, the community has included phenomenal success stories including that of Shahid Khan, the billionaire owner of NFL franchise Jacksonville Jaguars.
So why the success been purely economic? Why hasn’t the economic prowess of the community translated into political clout and influence?
Rifat believes this phenomenon is down to the “First Generation Syndrome” — a situation where the first generation never truly integrates into their adopted homeland and holds out for their motherland. The first generation seems more interested in Pakistan and its politics instead of refocusing on issues within the US and how they impact them.
Rifat is betting on the second generation youth leading the charge, backed by the financial resources provided by the first generation and the knowhow of how crucial lobbying and policy input are in US political culture.
The focus in the first generation of Pakistani-Americans, according to Rifat, is purely on securing an economic future for themselves and their children. Once they are able to achieve that, instead of focusing on US politics which the first generation seems out of touch with, the first generation tries to buy into the politics back home to fulfil their emotional attachment to Pakistan. Simply put, they wish to give back and wish to fix what is broken according to them in Pakistan.
As Pakistanis were late comers to the US, mostly arriving in late 70s, 80s and then the better part of the 90s, the current generation is still the first generation. The second generation is now finally coming to the fore and that is where dynamics are supposed to change. Latinos, specifically the Mexican and Cuban diasporas have undergone the same shift over time.
The first generation was slow to integrate and stayed out of the US political system. Once the second generation came into play, things start picking up for them politically and now the Latino community has representation at all levels of US government, except the Presidency.
Rifat believes that the Pakistani-American community is at the cusp of this demographic shift, and when that finally kicks in over the next few years, Pakistani-Americans would be more visible in political circles. Based on this belief, PAKPAC is hedging its future with the second generation of Pakistani Americans by paving the way for them in DC.
For a lot of them, involvement in Pakistani politics is a way to wash away the guilt of leaving their homeland.
Discussing their long term plan, Rifat argues that the trajectory PAKPAC wishes to take the Pakistani-American community towards will result in at least one senator and three congressmen/women position within the next 20 years.
Albeit an ambitious plan, Rifat insists that the founders of PAKPAC, along with Pakistani professional organisations such as the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA) and Organisation of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America (OPEN) are finally in a position to realign themselves to work as a single unit for a targeted aim of improving the influence of Pakistani-Americans.
Rifat is betting on the second generation youth leading the charge, backed by the financial resources provided by the first generation and the knowhow of how crucial lobbying and policy input are in US political culture. This is the realisation that had been missing within the community for the last couple of decades, and now that it is finally being acknowledged, the effort is to make the numbers count.
Additionally, with the worsening political conditions in Pakistan, the diaspora is starting to get exhausted after donating generously over the last 15 years in hopes of a cleaner political system, as they blame endemic corruption in Pakistan in part for their decision to move out of the country.
Psychologically the first generation blame the inept political culture as being the reason why they had to leave their families and friends to migrate thousands of miles away to secure an economic future. For a lot of them, involvement in Pakistani politics is a way to wash away the guilt of leaving their homeland.
But as the new generation takes charge, their set of concerns are more localised and invested in the American political system. For them, who runs Pakistan is secondary to who their congressman/woman is and what can their representative do for them.
This change in focus can potentially put the Pakistani-American community on the same trajectory as Cuban-Americans or Indian- Americans, where they are in a position to contest elections or at least run in the primaries and carve out space within political parties for themselves. There is a change coming to the US political culture and the next election cycle in 2016 will be the first true test of the political clout the Pakistani-American community believes it has gained over the years.
With a fully functioning political action committee and outreach programmes aimed at Pakistani-American communities across the US, the hope is that finally, Pakistani-Americans can arrive at the greatest exercise in democracy that dictates the fate of not just those who live in the US but also for rest of the world.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 25th, 2015