Indian activist poised to be first ever elected socialist in US

Indian activist poised to be first ever elected socialist in US
WASHINGTON: This is a “Stop Press” development that could well have a pantheon of political greats from Leon Trotsky to Ram Manohar Lohia sit bolt upright in their graves. A young Indian-American activist-academic is poised to become the first recognized socialist to be elected to a public office in the United States, where the term socialism and socialist are treated with deep suspicion and disdain.

Kshama Sawant, a Pune-born leftist who studied engineering in Mumbai and economics in the US is leading her Democratic Party rival Richard Conlin by a narrow margin of about 400 votes for a seat in the Seattle City Council, whose electoral college consists of nearly 400,000 voters. Although some 20,000 mail-in ballots remain to be counted after the November 4 polls, which had a 50 per cent voter turn-out, some pollsters are calling the election for Sawant based on latest trends. The official result will be known only after November 25 when all the votes are counted.

Sawant, who has been an activist in the Occupy Wall Street movement, is a candidate of the Socialist Alternative in a city that is renowned for its progressive politics. She ran for a seat in the State Congress last year against the House speaker and polled a modest 20,000 votes (29 per cent) in her electoral debut, which she says convinced her there was core support for the socialist platform.
”It was evident that people yearned for a progressive voice,” Sawant said in an interview with ToI on Thursday. ”They have felt let down by the two traditional political outfits and sorely lacked a third party voice. We tapped into that.”

Raising $ 115,000 from grassroots activism and putting together a volunteer team of 350 people, Sawant campaigned on a platform of raising minimum wage to $15 an hour (highest in the country), implementing rent control, protecting public sector unions from layoffs, instituting higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for public union jobs and services etc., to win widespread support, much to the astonishment of the traditional media which initially ignored her. Now they are all over her. ”A Socialist Ran for Office in Seattle, and He May Have Won,” read a headline in The New Republic, it’s surprise evident in its misidentification of Kshama Sawant gender.

Sawant, whose family hails from Bangalore, earned an engineering degree in Mumbai in 1994 and came to the U.S for higher studies, even working as a software engineer for a while. She says she switched to an Economics PhD program in North Carolina to find answers to political questions that she says haunted her from her days in India. ”I was always a socialist at heart,” she explained. ”But academia in the US is not focused on solutions. It only provides an intellectual justification of capitalism system … you are told unions are bad and poor people are poor because t hey are lazy.”

That’s when she moved to Seattle, a city with such a left-liberal bent that police were recently reported handing out snacks at a large marijuana festival. More pertinently
though, Sawant says there has been a nationwide yearning for alternative to the two-party system that is being ignored by the mainstream media. Polls showed that some 60 per cent of people in the 18-29 age group actually favoured a socialism over a capitalist system. A Socialist Alternative candidate who ran for office in Minneapolis and lost by only about 40 votes convinced her that people are fed up with traditional politics, she says, reeling off the list of betrayals by both Republicans and Democrats: Guantanamo, Drone attacks, AfghanistanWall Street pandering, Bradley Manning’s incarceration…

Although the socialist movement in America is m ore than a century years old and some of its candidates have even run for office, it has never won an election in living memory. Some leftliberal democrats, notably Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, loosely describe themselves as socialists. But Sawant, who fought to have her Socialist Alternative ticket registered by authorities, could become the first recognized socialist to win office. ”This is just the opening salvo of what the left can do in the United States,” Sawant said.

Incidentally, the Indian leftist movement has some of its roots in the United States. Manabendra Nath Roy, who co-founded the united Communist Party in India before it split, lived in Palo Alto,California, and New York City, where he got interested in Marxism nearly a century ago. He and his American wife Evelyn Trent then moved to Mexico, where they founded the country’s Socialist Party (which later became the Communist Party of Mexico) in 1917 before they returned to India.Roy later moved away from Marxism to become an exponent of what he called Radical Humanism.

Kshama Sawant during August 29 fast food strike.