When you decided to challenge iconic
California Congressman Tom Lantos in the
primary over a decade ago, you angered the
Democratic establishment and the larger
Indian-American community because he was
a close friend of the community and a strong
supporter of US-India relations.
I remember slamming you in an opinion
piece, saying you had been misled by some
Indian-American Silicon Valley honchos who
had helped you raise loads of money.
You lost badly then, but resurrected yourself in the eyes of this establishment. Besides
being mentored by Lantos himself, you had
the support of the likes of Pelosi, who, along
with several others, strongly recommended
you for the senior position in the Obama
This time around many of them wouldn’t
have minded you challenging Pete Stark in
the primary last year, but you refrained even
though at the time you had a hefty campaign
war chest. Why?
First, let me talk about the Lantos challenge. It was a four-month campaign. I announced in October of 2003 to run in a March
If Lantos was in Alaska, I would have gone
there to challenge him because it was about
standing up against the war and standing up
against the Patriot Act.
I believe that run earned me the respect of
people like Lantos himself and the Democratic leadership because they saw a young
person willing to stand up for his beliefs
running the first anti-war campaign in the
This was probably one of the things I am
proudest of in my public service career.
In my judgment, that (showed) to the
Democratic leaders that I was someone who
was going to stand up for human rights and
what I believe in.
After that, I was fortunate because of the
graciousness of Lantos and Pelosi to build a
lot of relationships.
I moved back (to Silicon Valley) at the end
of 2011 and explored when these lines got redrawn the option of running in a Fremont-based district.
The majority of Fremont was drawn in the
district where I am now running; that is
where the majority of the South-Asian
American population is. It’s where the heart
of Silicon Valley is. I always wanted to run
from that district.
Yes, there was a suggestion that Stark may
retire and that may be one option, and I
looked at that. But that district, which is
Livermore, Tri-Valley, Dublin, is really not
where the heart of Silicon Valley is nor is it
the heart of the South-Asian community.
Instinctively, I did not think that was the
place I wanted to represent.
This is a place where my skills, my background, my heart is fully in — representing
this district. To me, this is the right place for
me to be representing.
By challenging another iconic Democratic
lawmaker you’ve again created a lot of angst
among the Democratic establishment,
including Pelosi and others who have all joined President Obama in endorsing Honda.
Was it worth for you to anger the party
establishment again, even the White House?
How do you expect to prevail when the
entire political establishment in the party is
essentially backing Honda?
I have great respect for President Obama
and Leader Pelosi, but these political endorsements don’t really matter in Congressional
races. I mean, they all endorsed Stark (who
lost in the primary).
I have not had a single leader — to their
credit — ask me not to run. They have all
understood that democracy is based on competition — that competition makes us better.
We’ve had a lot of Democrats endorse us too
— (former San Francisco Mayor and current
Lieutenant Governor) Gavin Newsom, some
of the local mayors, some of the local state
But I was talking about the Democratic
establishment — the hierarchy of the estab-
If I were running from Washington, DC, it
would be a problem, but I am running from
Silicon Valley and the establishment in the
district is quite split.
We have quite a few of the mayors, we have
quite a few of the City Council members, we
have quite a few of the State Assembly mem-
bers supporting me, and we have a lot of
people staying neutral. So, that is the district
that I aspire to represent and where I have
built a decade of activism.
I have no doubt that if the election was in
Washington, DC, I would not prevail. But I
don’t know Washington, DC. My opponent
knows DC. I know my community and there
we’ve had overwhelming support.
The majority of Indian-American political
activists and those who have been supported
by Honda — including Ami Bera, Ashwin
Madia (who ran for Congress in 2008),
Manan Trivedi (Democratic nominee for
Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional district in
the 2010 and 2012 elections), Upendra
Chivukula (serving in the New
Jersey General Assembly) — strongly back
Honda and are pissed with you for challenging him.
How do you reconcile all of this? Do you
care about what they have been saying about
your chutzpah in challenging someone who’s
been their mentor, supported them and
raised funds for them when they ran?
I care about what people in the community think and I have a lot of support from Indian Americans in my district, but also
The Indian Americans whose support I
have are the ones who I admire and respect
the most — people like Vinod Khosla (
venture capitalist), Swadesh Chatterjee (
community activist), Deepak Chopra (celebrity
guru), Romesh Wadhwani (founder,
Symphony Technology Group)… They have
been out there advocating for me.
These are the people who built the South
Asian community — who have accomplished
and sacrificed far more than any of the
politicos you mentioned and who I admire
and whose respect means a tremendous amount, people who have been the entrepreneurs in the district.
We have also gotten… lot of support from
people in New York and DC — people like
Mahinder Tak (co-chair of the Democratic
National Committee’s Indo-American Cou-
ncil) and others. The reason is there is a dif-
ference between me and many others… let
me put it in a positive way.
My grandfather (Amarnath Vidyalankar)
spent four years in jail under British colonialism. I visited India as a young person
and I was inspired genuinely by that story.
I speak fluent Hindi, I am proud of my
heritage and faith.
That sense of humility and that sense of
understanding of historical context, allows
me to relate to that first generation in a way
that is unique, and they get it that I deeply
respect those values and want to take that to
enrich this nation.
I believe that’s why I have the extraordinary support that I’ve always enjoyed with
that generation across the country.
Do you believe that some of the younger
generation like Ami, Manan, Ashwin and
others, and even some in the older generation like Chivukula, for instance, feel a
sense of obligation, loyalty and gratitude
that makes them stand solidly behind
Honda and question your running against
someone who they argue has always been
there for the community, and for Indian-American candidates who’ve run for Congress, putting his money where his mouth is,
raising funds, batting for them in the
There is a difference of being tactical or
strategic. Some people are tactical about politics, about alliances — who’s there for
whom, who’s not and so on. That’s not how I
For me, politics is about a currency of
ideas. It was about that when I ran against
Lantos, it’s about that now.
I have better ideas for how to foster entrepreneurship, how to help our education in
the 21st century, what we need to do to
embrace the global economy and align with
China and India on economic interests, what
we need to do to build an alliance of liberal
For me, politics has always been about a
vision of ideas. I don’t like the cocktail cir-
Ro Khanna, second from left, with his family —
from left, mother Jyotsna, sister-in-law Lauren,
niece Maya, brother Vikas and father Vijay.
Above, Ro with his grandfather Amarnath
Vidyalankar, who fought for India’s freedom and
whose legacy he holds very dear.
THE CHALLENGER M8 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad November 29, 2013
‘For me,politics is about
a currency of ideas’
PHOTGRAPHS COURTES Y: RO KHANNA