Building the next generation of South Asian American leaders

February 5th, 2012 - 4:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Washington, Feb 5 (IANS) Sam Arora is a Maryland state Delegate, Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and Hari Kondabalu is a rising comedy star just back from an India tour to spread religious harmony.

The three Indian Americans could not be more different from each other. Yet they have one thing in common. They are alumni of the Washington Leadership Programme (WLP) dedicated to building the next generation of Indian and South Asian American leaders.

The organization was founded in August 2008 in memory of pioneering Indian American publisher and philanthropist Gopal Raju, who sponsored a programme that placed over 170 students in eight-week summer Congressional internships over 15 years through his Indian American Centre for Political Awareness.

Over a hundred students who have applied for the programme this summer would be whittled down to about ten after a three stage “very intense” selection process, Harin Contractor, a 2003 alum who serves on the board of the programme now run by the alumni of Raju’s programme, told IANS.

“We actually just used to do exclusively Capitol Hill,” he said,”but with the influx of South Asians being appointed to the administration, who have been knocking at our doors for quality interns, we have extended the opportunity to government agencies.”

For the first time last year, WLP placed student interns in the departments of commerce, labour and transportation.

Arora, “one of a handful Desi elected officials in the country”, who worked on three of then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaigns and also volunteered for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, had a “really eye opening experience” as a 2002 alum as he “had not considered what it meant to be an Indian American in public service.”

“The most valuable part of WLP was the mentorship because in politics you really need to cultivate mentors to succeed,” Arora, who was a member of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s recent trade mission to India, told IANS.

“I think, I relate better with the Indian American community now. I represent all people my constituency, but I also feel a duty to be looking out for the greater Indian American community that is part of the great Indian diaspora,” he said.

The programme made three get-to-know trips to India from 2003 to 2005 with six students each “to connect young leaders of Indian origin with political leaders there,” said Contractor who was on the original trip to India that was organised in association with the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.

“It was interesting to see after my summer in DC, the contrast, the political style and the government style between the two of the oldest and largest democracies,” he said.

Looking to grow in the next five years, WLP is now plans to raise the number of interns to 20 as also making it year round programme.

Expansion of the programme from only Washington to New York, Chicago, Atlanta, California is also on the cards to give students opportunities to intern with local members.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at

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