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Premium Conversations | Decoding the Indian-American story with Ro Khanna

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Washington: Ro Khanna, the elected representative from California’s 17th district in the House of Representatives, has emerged as an important voice in American politics. First elected to Congress in 2016, his district is the only Asian-American majority congressional district in continental United States; it is also home to Silicon Valley. Khanna is associated with the progressive wing of the Democrats. He serves as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and is the Democratic vice-chair of the House caucus on India and Indian-Americans.

Born in Philadelphia in 1976, Khanna studied at the University of Chicago and Yale, served as deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce in the Barack Obama administration, before embarking on his electoral career. His recent book, Dignity in the Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us, offers a blueprint for making the best of digital technologies, while protecting democracy. In a wide-ranging conversation with HT, Khanna spoke about his roots and fundamental political beliefs, the pitfalls of Big Tech and how to battle it, the India-US relationship in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the success of Indian-Americans, the future of the Democratic Party and his own political ambitions.

You represent Silicon Valley. When it first emerged as a big hub, it was said to represent a new kind of capitalist ethos, which would deepen democracy. Given what we now know of the destructiveness of big tech, does Silicon Valley represent the worst tendencies of capitalism?

No. Silicon Valley has contributed to an information and communication revolution. Silicon Valley has contributed to enormous advances in medicine. We are leading in advances on climate – you are not going to have the solutions to the climate without massive technological innovation. We are leading on issues of alternative proteins and synthetic biology to help with the world’s food supply. So there is a lot of extraordinary innovation that’s taking place. There are two issues. One, it needs to be more democratised. There are parts of the country that have been left out of modern prosperity. And two, there have to be rules on privacy, and a better design on deliberative forums in the digital public sphere to improve democracy.

In your book, you propose an internet bill of rights to address some of those concerns. Could you tell us a little more about it?

The internet bill of rights premise is that you own your data. An individual has the inalienable right to their data, and that nothing should happen to their data without them knowing about it and consenting to it. And if we pass this, it will also help diminish the rise of hate and misinformation online, because a lot of times, these companies use the data, and then they have seen the growth of QAnon or the growth of hate groups targeting individuals. Sometimes they are targeting teenagers and you see suicide and depression and anxiety. If we minimise the use of that data and return agency to individuals about their own data, then I think we can make the digital public sphere a better place.

On hate speech and misinformation, what should governments do to crack down on it, while protecting free speech?

First, we need to make sure that there is no incitement of violence online. That is not protected under the free speech of the United States. So if you have people saying, we want to assassinate individuals, we want to kill people, we want to start violent riots, that stuff needs to come down. If there are things that are misinformation about public health that isn’t protected by the first amendment. If there are products that are harming teenagers, that is basic consumer protection law right. You can’t have products that are going to cause depression or anxiety in teenagers. So all of those things are areas where we can have smart regulation. But we should have a wide variety of viewpoints. Social media should not say we are going to censor Republican views or Democratic views, or Congress party views or BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) views. They should have a wide variety of viewpoints on social media.

For long, tech companies have got away with this defence of being intermediaries, and therefore, of not being accountable for what’s published on their platforms. Do you agree with that defence, or do you believe that tech companies have a responsibility for the content on their platforms?

They have a responsibility to remove, for example, violent content that is inciting action. But you can’t hold them accountable for all the millions of posts, for everything on there. That would be too big a burden. Unlike the Hindustan Times, where you may have much more control over the content, here, you literally have to monitor millions of posts. But they should be held accountable if a court finds that content is egregious in inciting violence, in violating public health and orders that down. That should be a carve out to the section 230 blanket immunity that they currently enjoy.

If you have court standards on speech, then you may find them engage in content moderation consistent with the first amendment.

How do you create a mechanism where they are responsible to take down some of this content, but do not have arbitrary power to engage in corporate censorship?

You give the authority to the courts. So you could say there is a court-ordered standard to remove content – so that the standard isn’t just them making the decision themselves, but a democratic elected body to make that decision. And there’s precedent for this. Right now, they remove things that are copyright violations. They do remove content if it violates copyright because they know someone could go to the court and order them to remove that. So if you have court standards on speech, then you may find them engage in content moderation consistent with the first amendment.

You write about how the rise of big tech companies has affected local journalism in the US. This is true of other parts of the world, where even larger organisations have been affected. These tech companies have shown a tendency to monopolise a large part of that revenue for content that’s created elsewhere. What should be the mechanism to ensure healthy, vibrant journalism, and keep these tendencies of big tech companies in check?

First, we need to have a strong role for the support of journalism and local media. The big publications in the United States – The New York Times, Wall Street Journal – have done fine and well on a digital subscription, but it’s very hard for local newspapers to do that. I don’t know the Indian landscape as well. My guess is that the Hindustan Times or The Times of India are doing fine, but it may be harder for local papers. And so what I would say is that we ought to have a tax on these digital companies that goes into an independent fund to support journalism, to make sure you can have local papers, community papers, and that there should be some compensation perhaps for the use of content on links on social media, if that content is coming from journalism and newspapers. Just because everything is free online doesn’t mean that there’s not value to the content creation. So there has to be a look at how we can support vibrant journalism in a digital age.

In your engagement with representatives from these companies in Silicon Valley, who are your constituents, have you noticed a willingness to be regulated on some of these issues or have you noticed a reluctance? You write there is a joke in the Valley about how Congress will hold a hearing every few months, yell at tech, and forget all about it. So is there complacence too?

There is an increasing desire almost for regulation. The reason is they want Congress to make the hard calls. They don’t want to be blamed themselves for making the hard calls. And I think that there’s an increasing recognition that there are things that have gone out of whack after January 6 and the insurrection, when you see the total misinformation on vaccines, when you see the rise of QAnon. There was a recognition that these platforms that were touted as responsible for the Arab spring or facilitating Arab spring have now also become destructive. But then, they are reminded, as in the case of Ukraine, of a wonderful role for social media, where people are seeing this resilience and courage of Zelensky and other individuals.

So the social media platform still can be inspiring, but they need to be properly regulated. And I think there’s a greater introspection in the valley for the need for smart regulation and greater recognition that they need to have more liberal arts majors in humanities, thinkers, and philosophers, helping them design the modern public digital sphere. It’s a very difficult task. People like Amartya Sen, John Rawls, (Jurgen) Habermas have dedicated their whole lives thinking about how do you have democratic conversation? You can’t just throw up a website or a platform and expect that that’s going to facilitate the search for truth or the search for democratic consensus. We have to be more intentional on the design of these platforms and what can facilitate a liberal exchange of ideas, what can facilitate equality. At least the blinders are off in the valley and they understand that there are deep philosophical questions that need to be addressed.

We have to be more intentional on the design of these platforms and what can facilitate a liberal exchange of ideas, what can facilitate equality.

What’s stopping Congress from taking measures?

Well, partly, it’s inertia. I mean, look, there are very urgent issues right now facing the country. The gas prices are high. The price of wheat has gone up. The challenge has been on a lack of good paying jobs in certain areas. And so those issues are at the top of people’s minds. And it’s a little bit hard to get momentum on some of these issues of the design of social media platforms, though, I think, January 6 woke people up to how destructive they can be. I am hopeful in the next year, we are going to get some movement.

The India-US relationship

Before I come to Russia, what’s your big picture take on where India-US relations are at the moment?

Strong. The US and India have to have a very close strong alliance in the 21st century. We are both democracies founded on the basis of pluralism, respect for markets, and the alliance is going to be critical as we see an expansionist and rising China. The alliance also can help lead for advances in technology, science, in tackling climate change. So I would say, overall, the relationship is probably the strongest that it’s been since India’s Independence. Obviously (Franklin D) Roosevelt was largely a champion for Indian Independence. And so that was a strong moment. I would argue that the relationships were quite strong with (John F) Kennedy and (Jawaharlal) Nehru. But, in modern times, it’s probably at the strongest it’s been.

What are the key points of divergence?

The fact that India still gets 60% of its weapons from Russia is obviously a huge issue. Now I would like to see… India says that they want to procure more from the United States. We ought to figure out why that’s not happening. How do we make that transition happen faster, and have India have stronger defence cooperation with the United States and Europe? Obviously, recently, the fact that India has not been clear in the UN (United Nations) in censuring (Vladimir) Putin has been an issue. It’s because that seems like the least ask. It’s not even saying that they need to ban oil imports like we have done, but just to look at the horror in Ukraine, and to say that it’s wrong for a country to violate territorial sovereignty. So those are two areas of recent divergences.

On the defence relationship, the argument one hears in Delhi is look, Russia is willing to do more with us – in terms of pricing, co-manufacturing, technology-sharing on strategic programmes – and the US is not. Are you willing to champion deeper India-US defence ties, which entail the administration and Congress to share more technology and offer a better package to India?

Yes, I am. I have been, for my five years in Congress. I said India should get NATO status in its defence cooperation with the United States. It makes it harder for me to make that argument and build consensus when you have things like the abstention on the invasion. But, absolutely. I still am committed to doing that. And I think it’s figuring out how we move forward. On the United States side, they say, well, we are offering that, but India is still going to Russia. And India says, no, we want more. So we have to cut past this and say, okay, how do we have targets for what we need, what India needs, and what can be done so that 60-70% of their defence cooperation is with the United States. And it seems to me that would be in India’s interest. I mean I don’t know why you would want Russian weapons after we have seen the performance these days.

I will say, on the defence issue, we should support India’s manufacturing capacity for defence, with a US-India partnership for manufacturing. Boeing has demonstrated there’s an opportunity for such partnerships and strengthened supply chain with almost 250 companies in India. So how do we do more of that manufacturing capacity in India with US partners like Boeing.

The other argument in Delhi is that condemning Russia runs the risk of pushing Moscow even closer to China, when it comes to India’s security interests. Does that resonate with you?

No. I don’t think so. If India condemned the invasion in the UN, but they still had ties on defence and oil, that would just give them the leverage over Russia to try to bring the war to an end. I would understand if the ask from the United States was to cut off all your oil from Russia. And then you say, well, Germany’s not doing that. Or cut off all your defence. And you’re saying, how can we do that when we get 60%? But the ask from the United States is to speak out clearly at the United Nations to say that what Russia is doing is illegal, in invading Ukraine’s sovereignty. And this should be fairly easy for India, because I would argue that India has not had territorial expansionist ambitions, and India has been relatively restrained in its 75 years. It would never dream of going and invading a sovereign country. So from India’s own values, it seems to me, that it should be an easy, easy call.

The ask from the United States is to speak out clearly at the United Nations to say that what Russia is doing is illegal, in invading Ukraine’s sovereignty. And this should be fairly easy for India

Two months ago, you put out a tweet when the news about a possible Russian invasion was picking up, about the need not to get distracted from Indo-Pacific theatre and the China challenge. Do you think the US has the ability to multitask and focus on both theatres, or do you think it runs the risk of getting distracted from the China challenge?

We won’t be distracted from the China challenge. If anything, this Putin experience has been a clear signal to China that they will be ostracised from the world if they were to try to invade a sovereign territory. I think it’s given probably Xi Jinping pause on any kind of expansionist design. We have a commitment to Taiwan, a commitment to help them militarily if there were ever an invasion. What we would need to continue to work on is engage with the Quad. And hopefully India, Japan and Australia can also say that they will be prepared to defend Taiwan if it ever came to that. I do think we need to bring this war to an end, both from a perspective of civilian casualties and a perspective of not being diverted militarily and in terms of the world’s resources, and that we should be pushing for. But I have no doubt we are capable of focusing at the same time on China.

If anything, this Putin experience has been a clear signal to China that they will be ostracised from the world if they were to try to invade a sovereign territory.

Indian politics and society

What do you think of India’s domestic political trajectory?

I barely can predict American politics! You know, I am proud of my Indian heritage, but I was born in Philadelphia in 1976 and have spent all my time in the United States other than visits. So it’s not for me to dictate to India on their internal affairs of politics. I guess I would just say, as someone of Indian heritage who believes that (Mahatma) Gandhi was the greatest human being of the 20th century, that I would hope that India would, regardless of party, be committed to principles of pluralism, principles of free speech, principles of dissent, principles like the celebration of all faiths. That to me is what marks the essence of India’s independence and the idealism of Gandhi and Nehru.

I know it’s got trendy among some in India to criticise Nehru, and I certainly would not enter into the debate about Nehru as a domestic leader, though I will say that there are many Indian-Americans who benefited from his setting up the IITs and educational institutions. And that has been a great source of success of the Indian-American community. I will say that one thing that Nehru had was the respect of the world, the respect of Kennedy, the respect of world leaders, because he gave voice, as an intellectual, to some of these principles of pluralism and humanism. And I would hope that regardless of party, those principles at the founding of India that Gandhi and Nehru articulated will continue to flourish.

I will say that one thing that Nehru had was the respect of the world, the respect of Kennedy, the respect of world leaders, because he gave voice, as an intellectual, to some of these principles of pluralism and humanism.

Have you seen an erosion in that in recent years?

There have certainly been concerns on that, concerns that have been raised by non-profit groups, concerns raised by people, among Indian-Americans. And it seems to me that we need to make sure that those principles are upheld, but look democracies aren’t perfect. We had Donald Trump rise in our country, and we did things that were very illiberal, such as banning Muslims from certain countries from coming, which I spoke out against, and separating children at the border from their parents, which I spoke out against. So I guess my point is that the US-India relationship needs to be grounded on human rights and pluralism. And I will speak out for those values as an American and certainly in the context of the US-India relationship.

The US-India relationship needs to be grounded on human rights and pluralism.

Personal roots, rise of Indian-Americans

In your book, you write about your grandfather. He was Lala Lajpat Rai’s secretary, he participated in the freedom struggle, and he went on to be a three-term member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha. How have your Indian social roots of course, but also your Indian political heritage, shaped your views and beliefs?

I am so inspired by his story. It made me feel that politics matters, that politics is not just about jobs and the economy, politics is ultimately about standing up for human rights, standing up for dignity, standing up for freedom, that people can change the world based on political activism. And it oriented my values. And, you know, as a politician, there are times you have to do things that are a compromise, or that you do things because you want to succeed. And I’m always holding myself up to what would my grandfather think. I don’t have the same sense of sacrifice that he made and that sense of complete virtue that people of his generation and Gandhi had. But it’s a yardstick. When I fall short, which I am sure I do at times, I think about that as a north pole on standing up for integrity and human rights and sacrifice for something larger than yourself.

How have you combined representing one of the most prosperous districts in the country with being associated with the left-wing of your party?

I call myself a progressive capitalist. I am very proud of the innovation in our district, very proud of the entrepreneurship in our district. We have probably created more wealth than any place in human history, 11 trillion dollars is the market cap in my district and the surrounding areas. But I also believe everyone needs to have a chance at that success. And that means an investment in education, investment in healthcare, investment in a person’s nutrition and that we ought to be giving people the opportunity to succeed. It means that workers ought to get a living wage. And, here, I am influenced by Amartya Sen’s work on the importance of these kinds of investments, important for the United States, and I would argue, for India and other parts of the world.

How are Indian-Americans doing so well in both politics and in the corporate world in your district?

Well, I am very proud of Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai and Parag (Agrawal) at Twitter. I think their leadership is quiet leadership. They are not showmen. They are extraordinarily competent at what they do. They are reflective. They are listeners. And they succeeded by sheer hard work and by their temperaments. And I am the beneficiary of that because the Indian-American community is so respected in the valley. And I would argue in large places of the country I have been the beneficiary of it. When I ran for Congress in – in 2014, I lost, and then I ran again in 2016 – there was no Indian-American at the time of Hindu-origin who had ever been elected to the United States Congress. And I had a lot of people in the Indian-American community who said, you know, if this is going to happen, it should happen from Silicon Valley. And a lot of people took a chance on me, people at some of the highest levels in technology and in the business world. And I am very appreciative of the Indian-American community. I wouldn’t be in Congress if it hadn’t been for their mentorship and support.

What do you make of the larger rise of the Indian-American community in American politics? You, of course, are a symbol of it. But I was just thinking about how, over the past month, the Biden administration has relied on Daleep Singh for the sanctions on Russia; Ashish Jha to be the new White House Covid coordinator; Vinay Reddy to draft the State of Union speech. This is the rise of Indian-Americans at key levels, some are first-generation and many are second-generation. What does that speak of?

Barack Obama opened the floodgates to see the rise of diverse talent in the United States. I give him a lot of credit. I would say that a lot of people in the Indian-American community have heritage similar to mine. Their grandparents may not have been in jail for the Indian independence movement, but they had stories of families participating in the messiness of democracy. And so it is a tradition that Indian-Americans have embraced and love the messiness of participating in democracy. You know, one of my favourite books is Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, which is about this idea that it is a part of the heritage, of the culture, of participating in discourse and discussion.

I am very appreciative of the Indian-American community. I wouldn’t be in Congress if it hadn’t been for their mentorship and support.

The first generation focused on economic security, the immigrant generation. But now I think that the younger generation wants to have a contribution. And it’s a testament, I think, to America’s extraordinary story that you have so many people of Indian origin with different names, different faiths now making a contribution. I believe America will become the true, first true, multiracial multiethnic democracy in the world as an immigrant nation. I know India is pluralistic, but here you have people literally from every corner of the world, and and the Indian-American community have a big part in that story.

US politics and the challenge for progressives

As the US head toward the midterms, why does it seem like your party is in trouble?

Well, the party in power always has a challenging time, but we have had a very challenging time in the world. Covid has been tougher to defeat than we have thought. We have inflation – you know, gas prices are six bucks in my district. Hard circumstances. We have got an ongoing war in Ukraine. So, the Democrats really have to have an economic message to succeed. And if we convey a message that we want to help the working class, that we want to lower prices, that we want to create good jobs, then we have a fighting chance.

Is the progressive wing on the defensive when it comes to culture wars?

No, I am a huge believer in America as the greatest nation in the world. And it’s because of my story. I was born in Philadelphia in 1976, our bicentennial. My parents are immigrants and came to the United States – my father in 1968 to study at the University of Michigan. My mom came in 75. At the age of 40, this country elects me to represent arguably the most economically prosperous place in the world. So how can you not believe in the American story?

And I think if we craft progressive policy as helping America achieve its true potential as a multiracial multiethnic society, as a fair society in which everyone has the chance to live up to their potential, as a nation that will lead the 21st century, then we won’t have to be on the defensive. American progressive policy just means we believe in giving everyone the opportunity to live up to their potential, to give America the opportunity to live up to its potential. But the progressive message has to be hopeful. It has to be optimistic. It has to be aspirational. We are an aspirational people.

American progressive policy just means we believe in giving everyone the opportunity to live up to their potential, to give America the opportunity to live up to its potential.

How do you craft it in a way that doesn’t alienate or doesn’t give Republicans ammunition to mobilise white majoritarian sentiment?

By being universal and aspirational, by saying that we care as much about white working-class voters in Ohio, as we do about black working-class voters in Columbia, South Carolina, that we want to provide opportunities to them to have good-paying jobs and to build wealth and to have healthcare and to have livable wages.

But does that ignore the question of racial justice?

No, because the issue of racial justice is there as well. What we ought to say is of course we are deeply proud of America. It’s going to become the first multiracial multiethnic democracy in the world. No one should be embarrassed about being American. No one should apologise for being White. Some of our greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison were White, but great nations teach honestly about history. And we have to grapple with the fact that we had slavery and we have to grapple with the fact that we had Jim Crow. And we have to grapple with the fact that a Black American, to this day, if pulled over by a police officer, may have an instinctive reaction to put their hands up because of the fear of the legacy of Jim Crow. That doesn’t diminish our greatness, that doesn’t diminish our exceptionalism. That’s what makes us great that we’re unafraid to deal with the truth, that, unlike Russia, we teach honest history and our contribution to human civilisation will be perfecting a multiracial multiethnic democracy.

Political future

What’s next for you, Congressman Khanna?

Literally, I head out to do a press conference on my proposals to tax the big oil companies and give rebates to Americans. More so, I am very proud of representing Silicon Valley. I think it’s an incredible platform. And of course, you know, I don’t apologise for ambition to do good in the nation and world and will be open to future opportunities. But right now the main focus is to win, keep the House in 2022 and to re-elect the president in 2024

And be open to a presidential bid in 2028?

No one ever knows the future, but I think that first, we got to make sure that we have a vibrant democracy. And that means that Joe Biden needs to win in 2024. President (Bill) Clinton once said something – I was so honoured when he tweeted on my book and we have developed a relationship that I’m really grateful for – but he once said something that stuck with me. He said politics is like tennis. If you start worrying about who will win the next set, you’ll lose the point at hand. So I’m focused at the point at hand.

I am still going to ask you about the set. If you were to look at your political future, would you be more excited about a role in California? Would you be more excited about a role in the Senate, or would you be more excited about a role in the administration?

I would be excited about a place where I can make the biggest impact on having good-paying jobs across America, of getting people who have faced de-industrialisation the opportunity to participate in modern wealth generation. And so, I would evaluate the option of what that is. And it would have to be pretty good because I have a pretty big impact on those issues from Silicon Valley, I would argue a bigger impact than people in many positions.

And what would be your vision for the international system, particularly US foreign policy when you have that larger role?

It would be a vision of respecting human rights, respecting the sovereignty of other nations, not dictating to other nations what they should aspire for, but standing up for a sense of human rights across the world and having America play that role – and having a 21st century that maybe is less brutal than the 20th century that was marked by colonialism, two world wars, cold war. Maybe we can hope for something better in the 21st century. That would be my hope for the world.

I would be excited about a place where I can make the biggest impact on having good-paying jobs across America, of getting people who have faced de-industrialisation the opportunity to participate in modern wealth generation.

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