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California Congressman Ro Khanna Mulls US Senate Bid

The race to capture retiring Senator Diane Feinstein's seat will be one of the most expensive Senate races ever. Khanna says he will announce his decision in early April.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California. ( photo)

FREMONT, California — Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents portions of Northern California’s Silicon Valley and the East Bay in the House of Representatives, is considering a possible Senate bid.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat who has represented California in the Senate since 1992, announced her retirement Feb. 14. Even before the 89-year-old senator formally announced her departure, three members of Congress — Reps. Adam Schiff, former chair of the House Intelligence Committee; Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee, one of the most progressive members of the House — announced their intent to run for the seat.

In an interview with New India Abroad, Khanna said he was still mulling over a run and would announce a decision in early April.

“I have a lot of respect for Barbara Lee, so that’s obviously something that I will consider. I just want to make sure that she has a strong campaign and will be able to have the resources and campaign structure to win. And if I feel by the end of this month that she's put that together, that will weigh heavily on what I decide,” said the Congressman, who was recently named co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

“I've had a lot of people — especially the Bernie Sanders base around the state — approach me and say that I've got good policies on Medicare for all, free public college, technology jobs and creating those jobs,” said Khanna, who served as co-chair for Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2020.

(video by Sunita Sohrabji)

Shekar Narasimhan, founder and chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, told New India Abroad that the race to replace Feinstein would likely be the most expensive Senate race ever, topping out at over $200 million. “Any candidate running is going to have to raise a ton of money.”

“Should Ro run for this seat or should he bide his time and run for President?” queried Narasimhan. Asked if Khanna would get the endorsement of the AAPI Victory Fund, which seeks to promote Asian American candidates, Narasimhan noted the heavyweights already running and said the organization is likely to take a “wait and see” approach.

In one of the first polls released for the race, Schiff held a slight lead with 22 percent of the vote. Porter came in at 20 percent, with Lee and Khanna trailing at 6 and 4 percent respectively. The poll, conducted by UC Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times, noted that 40 percent of Democrats in the state have not yet made up their minds.

In the interview with New India Abroad, Khanna also discussed his vision for broadening the US-India relationship from his new post as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. “The strategic relationship with India is arguably one of the most important of the 21st century. I want to make sure that the United States has a strong presence in Asia, to make sure that we're supporting democracy, to make sure that there's peace in that region. So I really feel lucky to be in this role,” he said.

Khanna is the second Indian American to co-chair the Caucus. Rep. Ami Bera co-chaired it in 2014.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, with his wife Ritu. (Ro Khanna for Congress photo)

Here are excerpts from the interview, which can also be watched in its entirety above.

New India Abroad: Congratulations, first of all, on being named co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. Were you actively pursuing that role?

Ro Khanna: I was actively pursuing it. I'm very passionate about the US. India relationship. I thought we could inspire and mobilize the diaspora to support a closer relationship. And that's something I will do as chair of the caucus. And I wanted to work to strengthen the military relationship, strength of the economic relationship, strength of the relationship of our educational institutions, of our work on climate. It's just a place I feel like I can make a difference.

NIA: Are you still involved with the Congressional Pakistan Caucus? I know you received some flack for that.

RK: I suppose I’m technically still a member. These caucuses just invite you when there is someone who's visiting.  I'm sure I would show up: a lot of people are members of multiple caucuses. But I think people know that I care about strengthening the US.-India relationship and also peace in the region.

NIA: What are some concrete pieces that you hope to bring to this role?

RK: Well, I want to increase the membership of the caucus, which is important when we have votes. You know, I had a vote last year on my amendment to waive CAATSA sanctions on India that passed with the support of some 300 some members of Congress. The stronger the India Caucus is, the more that can make a difference on votes concerning India.

(editor’s note: CAATSA — Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 — imposes sanctions on countries that purchase major defense hardware from Russia. The sanctions are currently invoked on North Korea, Iran, and Russia, and would have been invoked on India for its purchase of the S-400 missile defense system.)

I want to have a summit where I involve the Indian American diaspora. They haven't been as involved on strengthening the economic relationship, the cultural relationship, the technology relationship. And I want to try to work on this vexing issue of moving India away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States.

On defense, it's a tough issue because the Soviets have cheaper weapons. The Soviets also allow India to manufacture it domestically. We have export controls. Understandably our weapons cost more, but are more effective. So I want to work with the administration to make progress on that issue.

NIA: You have been critical of the Modi administration on several key issues. One is your non support for the Citizenship Amendment Act and also the handling of Jammu and Kashmir.

RK: Well, I have, of course, been supportive of generally the US. India relationship, as evidenced by my CAATSA amendment last year.

But I have spoken out for pluralism and criticized any move that would grant citizenship faster based on a particular faith. I think that's opposed to the ideals of Gandhi and Nehru.

Now, what I've said on Kashmir is that's an internal matter for India. And I haven't taken a position in opposition to Section 370. I've said that's an internal matter for Indian democracy, but that they should keep the Internet open and make sure that it's consistent with what our State Department has suggested.

If I lead a delegation to India, of course I'll be honored to meet with the Indian Prime Minister and all of the leaders as I would in any country. If I went to China, I might meet with Xi Jinping if he wanted to meet. But I would be candid in places where I disagree.

NIA: Has the Modi Administration reached out to you directly?

RK: Not the prime Minister directly, but the ambassador has, and he conveyed that the Prime Minister and his ministers are aware and they're proud that an Indian American is leading this caucus.