In its 224-year history, no Hindu American has served in the US Congress. But that might change on Nov 6. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, a practicing Hindu, is favoured to win from the second district of Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold. The 31-year-old Iraq war veteran, who doesn't have any Indian ancestry, clinched her party's nomination last month with a come-from-behind victory against Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Born in American Samoa, Gabbard's family moved to Hawaii when she was two. In 2002, she was elected to the Hawaii State Legislature - the youngest person to serve the statehouse. But she served as a legislator for only one term, as she decided to serve in Iraq rather than run for re-election. Gabbard spoke to Global India Newswire during a visit to Washington. Here are excerpts:
Q: What are the issues you are running on?
A: First and foremost, service to the people. We have many different challenges that we are seeing all across the country. People are concerned about our economy. How do we support our small businesses? How do we create jobs? Make sure that our kids have good opportunities. And also make sure that our elders, our seniors are taken care of. The only way to find real solutions to these problems is if we look back to the core service of government, and that should be to serve the people, rather than self-serving politicians, or big corporations.
Q: You were one of the youngest state legislators in the country when you were elected to statehouse a decade ago. Now you are running for Congress. What prompts you to seek electoral politics at such a young age?
A: Well, we have a diverse representation within Congress, and it is important to represent our generation, who are starting businesses, starting families. We have people who are still trying to pay off college student loan, as well as to work hard to build that future for the next generation. Things are not easy, it is going to take time, but we can do this if we work together.
Q: You are part of the Hawaii National Guard. You are also an Iraqi war veteran. Tell us about your military experiences.
A: I currently serve as a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard. I am a military police officer and I have served on two deployments, my first was to Iraq, in a medical unit, and my second deployment was to Kuwait, as a military police platoon leader.
Q: In 2004, you chose not to run for re-election, and instead chose to go to Iraq. What was behind that decision?
A: I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. I was one of the few soldiers who was not on the mandatory deployment roster - close to 3,000 Hawaii soldiers were. And I was sure that there was no way I would stay home and watch my brothers and sisters deploy. So I stepped away from my seat in the state legislature, [and] volunteered to deploy on this 18-month-long deployment to Iraq.
Q: You are from a political family. Your father is also an elected official. Tell us about your family background.
A: Well, my parents raised all five of us with an important value of "karma yoga" and always wanting to be of service through everything that we do. And my parents have led by example, my father serves in the Hawaii State Senate, and I am grateful for their support in what I am doing as well.
Q: You are set to become the first Hindu congresswoman...
A: I think it is a very special thing, it is a tremendous honor, and I think that it adequately represents the diversity that we see in our country, and I look forward to seeing more Hindu Americans, Buddhists, [and] people who represent the diverse populations in our communities.
Q: Has your religion been an issue in the election so far?
A: Some have tried to make it an issue. I am a practicing Hindu and have made no secrets about it. Hawaii is a special place because we have a very diverse population there, who are very respectful and tolerant of those who have differing opinions and different views.
Q: You were an underdog in the primaries and now you are a clear favorite...
A: It is the power of people, coming out and understanding that the future is in their hand, that if we stand up and work together, then we can build a brighter future that we all need and deserve for the next generation, and that's what I attribute my victory in the campaign, for the primary election and that's how I am continuing to work to earn people's support to have the privilege of serving them in Congress after November.
Q: Have the Indian Americans been supportive of you?
A: I have been grateful to receive the support of Indian Americans from across the country, who are eager and excited to see the first Hindu elected to the U.S. Congress.
Q: Have you been to India?
A: I have not been yet. I look forward to visiting for the first time, hopefully in the near future.
Q: Tell us about your family. Do you have any India connections?
A: I actually don't have any Indian ancestry in my family. My mother introduced me, us kids to Hinduism. And I am still very fortunate to be able to practice this wonderful faith.