Days before becoming the first South Asians elected to the City Council, Shahana Hanif and Shekar Krishnan joined cab drivers in a protest demanding relief from the debts so many in their community incurred from purchasing taxi medallions.
The drivers blocked traffic, resulting in the arrests of drivers and protesters, including Hanif, Krishnan, and state Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, another South Asian American elected last year
This week, they seemed to have a collective change of fortune: the drivers secured a historic debt reduction deal. Hanif and Krishnan also won their races.
For South Asians, the back-to-back developments signaled dual victories -- growing political power in New York, and a flex by working-class immigrant groups who have been marginalized for decades.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told WNYC/Gothamist the debt relief deal was “one of the biggest wins for labor in the past 100 years, and the fact that it was driven by an almost-exclusively immigrant worker force that’s mostly South Asian could be a turning point in the political realm.”
The debt deal, which comes after a spate of taxi driver suicides and thousands of personal bankruptcies, was announced just hours after Election Night returns showed Hanif had won her race in Brooklyn for the 39th Council District. The seat is currently held by Brad Lander, who was elected city comptroller. Hanif also became the first Muslim woman elected to the council.
Meanwhile, Krishnan won his race to represent Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, an iconic area for immigrants from the Indian subcontinent who helped define it as a Little India after immigration laws were reformed in the 1960s.
Krishnan, a tenant rights attorney who succeeds the term-limited Council Member Daniel Dromm, appealed to Spanish speakers with a simple descriptor: "El indu que habla espanol" or “The Indian who speaks Spanish.”
His path to victory relied heavily on courting immigrant constituents. He learned Spanish over the last five years with the help of podcasts like Radio Ambulante and conducting tenant meetings only in Spanish. Krishnan said he also made 1,200 calls in Spanish to potential voters.
Outside the polls, he said he encountered Latino voters who had written his name on sheets of paper.
“On Election Day, an abuela didn’t recognize me and thought I was another candidate,” Krishnan said, using the Spanish word from grandmother. “And she said in Spanish, ‘No, I’m voting for the morenito (Spanish for the dark one).'"
He’d secured her vote.
Additionally, although he’s not Muslim, he attended jummah prayers on Friday at local mosques and developed relationships with Muslim constituents he met at taxi worker rallies.
After the debt relief deal was announced, ecstatic drivers celebrated by dancing in the street, showing off their bhangra moves -- and he joined them.
In Brooklyn, Hanif is set to represent a district that covers upscale Park Slope and Kensington, a hub of Bangladeshi life. Her political development took place as she dealt with lupus and looked to her own community for a sense of care and belonging.
She and other young Bangladeshi feminists built a coalition of leftist power, informed by ideas about the Global South and what they saw as the shortcomings of the older generation of South Asian political leaders.
“I had not seen Bangladeshis pursuing the fight to build working-class solidarity, and to build coalitions across communities of color, and join the fight for freedom,” Hanif said.
Her campaign for the council was closely watched, including by Teen Vogue. Like Krishnan, Hanif succeeded by mobilizing multiple constituencies.
“She ran a campaign in addition to her normal one that was all in Bangla,” said Ghida Dagher, president of New American Leaders, an organization that trains political candidates from immigrant communities.
“It was actually run by her mother. And so these are very deep community ties and they’re meeting their voters where they’re at. Educating them in their own languages. In a way that non-new American candidates do not.”
After her win, Asad Dandia, who co-founded the nonprofit group Muslims Giving Back, tweeted that “Shahana can walk into a conservative mosque or a progressive conference and be equally as welcomed and loved in both.”
Dandia described Hanif as a proud feminist and progressive and a proud Muslim.
"Regardless of whom she is speaking to," he said, "she is able to resonate with them because her message gets to the core of what we all seek: a world where we are all valued.”