This is part of a Scroll Global series on politicians of Indian descent who are running for office in the 2020 elections. If you have suggestions for who we should profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zohran Kwame Mamdani did not expect to be running for political office in America.
Before 2020, he was best known by the name “Mr Cardamom” and for featuring octogenarian actress Madhur Jaffrey in a rap video. He was a Muslim, an immigrant, a socialist and had taken a public position on supporting self-determination for the Palestinian people – not the most popular stance in the US.
“When you do something like organising for Palestine, you don’t harbour any ambitions for local office in this country,” Mamdani said. “But then seeing someone like Khader Al-Yateem – a Palestinian Lutheran minister who ran for city council in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn – run a campaign where he defined himself and ran on that definition opened my eyes to the possibility that these kinds of things are not written off for the rest of us.”
In January 2021, Mamdani – as well as fellow Queens native Jennifer Rajkumar – will become the first South Asian members of the New York State Assembly. The New Yorker of Indian-Ugandan origin – whose parents are Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair and Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, also of Indian origin – is running unopposed in the general election on November 3 in a heavily Democratic district and is therefore assured a seat in the state legislature.
He beat incumbent Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas in July’s Democratic primary to represent Astoria, a neighbourhood in the borough of Queens, at the New York State Assembly. The race was close: he beat Simotas by only 346 votes. Simotas has represented the district for ten years – five terms – and has championed women’s rights, sponsoring a bill of rights for survivors of sexual assault, as well as an act that protects tenants against unfair rent increases.
Mamdani plans to take things a few steps further at the State Capitol in Albany and fight for universal, state-wide rent control, ensure the private energy companies that power New York City (like ConEd and National Grid) become state-owned agencies, and defund the New York Police Department to reinvest in health, housing and community services.
He decided to enter the fray in October 2019, after a friend from a local unit of the Democratic Socialists of America – an association of labour-oriented, democratic socialists of which Mamdani is a member – suggested he run. The DSA has gained prominence in recent years with members like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashid Tlaib being elected to the US House of Representatives as Democrats.
“I decided to do it for many different reasons, but one of the main reasons is because it’s an extension of the work I was doing as a housing counselor,” said Mamdani, whose campaign advocated housing as a guaranteed right. “The reason I decided to run to be a legislator is because it gives you a chance to craft legislation that ensures people’s lives are never broken in the first place.”
Astoria is a diverse neighbourhood with 14.2% of the population identifying as Asian American, 8.2% as Black, and 24.4% as Hispanic. As a housing counselor, Mamdani said he had a ring-side view of the difficulties people faced in dealing with the complexity of home-owning and particularly how to prevent foreclosures, where banks repossess a home if the owner hasn’t been able to pay back their loans in time.
“Time and time again, I found families who didn’t speak English, or didn’t have an understanding of bureaucratic English, or didn’t understand their situation,” he said. “That experience and that understanding of the ways in which the legacies of what it means for a community to be ignored and erased from the political fabric of a city and a state played a big part in my campaign, and in the slogan of my campaign.”
‘Struggle of South Asians’
That slogan, “Roti and Roses”, is a play on the popular labour chant “bread and roses,” first popularised by the working rights activist and suffragette Helen Todd and a reference to what workers need first to survive, and then to thrive.
“I wanted to speak about the universality of that struggle, and also shine a specific light on the struggle of South Asians in New York City,” said Mamdani.
For example, the campaign looked through a long list of voters in the neighbourhood who had not voted, because they had not been spoken to and had not been prioritised by others. Campaign volunteers, Mamdani included, would speak to constituents waiting on subway platforms or bus stops and often find that housing issues were foremost on their mind. Another issue his campaign focused on was the debt crisis taxi drivers in New York City are facing because of Covid-19.
They sent mail that had messaging, including handwritten postcards, in eight different languages: Nepali, Tibetan, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Arabic, and Serbo-Croatian.
“Our entire campaign believed that if you gave people the respect and dignity they deserve, they might be motivated to vote,” he said.
During the month of Ramzan, Mamdani and his colleagues distributed over 14,000 meals to people across Astoria and Long Island City, and provided groceries to about a thousand people. During this time, his office began to host the Astoria Food Pantry: now, every Friday morning, there’s a line around the block with people queuing up for food, including in the middle of his interview with Scroll.in, when a woman knocked on the office door enquiring after a meal.
“There are no questions asked, no ID required,” he said. “We have to ensure that we do every single thing in our power to make it clear that one’s ability to belong in this neighborhood has nothing to do with the government’s classification of them based on their immigration status.”
Mamdani, who has lived in New York city since 1999 but only became a US citizen a couple of years ago, hopes his campaign can become a blueprint for South Asian candidates who want to run in the future, as well as for people who believe in justice for their neighbourhood as well as for their homeland.
“That’s why I’m trying to fight for universal rent control in the same breath as I’m fighting in Times Square for an India that respects a pluralistic vision that so many of us Indians are proud of,” he said.
Mamdani protested against an ad taken out in Times Square to celebrate the August 5 groundbreaking of the Ram Mandir in India.
“Being Indian is something that I’m proud of and it’s a big part of who I am,” he said, bringing up the role that the Indian-American diaspora plays in funding right-wing groups back in India. “If I just spoke about my pride in being Indian and didn’t talk about politics, I would face far less pushback and conflict with other members of the Indian diaspora. But what’s the point of doing that?”
His desi roots also show up in his music: Mr Cardamom’s most popular song, Nani, is a story about a gangster grandmother played by actress and chef Madhur Jaffrey. In the video, the 85-year-old Jaffrey wears bright yellow clothes, huge sunglasses, and flips the finger in a halal cart while she runs a crime syndicate in New York City.
‘Tell a story’
“Being a rapper was an instructive experience. Oftentimes, people think of music and politics are separate endeavours, but I think they’re tied together,” he said. “In both, you’re trying to tell a story. As Mr Cardamom, I was trying to tell a story about my grandmother made a little fantastical. As a candidate, I’m trying to tell the story of my community.”
His rap career began in Kampala, Uganda: he and his friend would board the city’s 16-seater taxis and rap for occupants while the seats filled up, and try and sell their CDs on college campuses and dormitories.
“Once you’ve done those kinds of things – like perform in a dimly lit club at 10 PM on a Tuesday in Mbale in Uganda, or make a music video about your grandmother on subway platforms of Astoria – it’s not that h difficult to knock on a door and talk about politics,” he said. “What it takes to succeed in both fields is similar in that you have to hustle with every single bone in your body... There’s a certain wilful ignorance of just how crazy what you’re doing is, and then there’s the determination to do it anyway!”
Mamdani does not have firm plans to graduate Mr Cardamom to Assemblyman Cardamom, or release a victory rap just yet: but his plans for office are set in stone.
“I hope the Biden-Harris ticket beats Trump. And then, I hope to help organise to ensure they feel pressure every day of their administration to deliver actual change,” he said. “I’m going to try and keep the spirit of socialism alive in this next administration through constant pressure.”