Chandler, Arizona seems a long, long way from Kovur in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district.
Two years ago, it was in Kovur where Avinash Iragavarapu, an MBA graduate from Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, joined the YSR Congress’s election campaign in Andhra Pradesh after quitting his job with HCL Technologies Ltd in New Delhi.
Political campaigning and strategy, in many ways, were his natural calling. In his college years, Iragavarapu would begin with “the basic” distribution of pamphlets and knocking on doors to enrol volunteers. It was hard, at times painstaking work, but one that he hoped would ultimately pay off.
It did. Last week, Iragavarapu was at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. You read that right. The same convention where Melania Trump read out a speech in which a portion was plagiarised from a 2008 Michelle Obama speech, or where Ted Cruz urged Republicans to vote their conscience, and the same convention where Donald Trump was officially nominated the Republican Party’s candidate for the upcoming presidential election.
Iragavarapu isn’t your quintessential Trump supporter, in fact, far from it. Nor is he a donor to Trump’s super-PACs (political action committees). Heck, he can’t even vote in the US election. But he, like several million Americans, wanted to help Donald Trump “Make America Great Again”.
He made his way to the convention as a member of the Republican Party’s delegation from Arizona, a key state in America’s “Mountain West”. He was, after all, the executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, a post he has held since last year.
But how did a 30-year-old electrical engineer-turned-entrepreneur-turned political communicator from Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district end up with the Republican Party in the first place? This is his story.
“My wife works for Intel and was based out of its Chandler campus in Arizona,” Iragavarapu said over the phone. “In 2014, after the general elections in India, I decided to join her for a holiday. I spotted a road sign near our home, which said that the Chandler City Council was going to polls soon. I thought to myself, “Why don’t I give it a shot?”, and around the same time, Arizona was also due to elect its governor, a much bigger race. I sat down, analysed old election data of all the counties, did my own polling. I chose Doug Ducey as my candidate for the primary and wrote to his campaign.”
Initially, Ducey’s campaign did not take Iragavarapu seriously. But after a flurry of calls, tweets and emails to those in charge of his campaign, they got back to him with a simple “Let’s meet!” phone call.
His work, as part of the Ducey campaign, included a lot of what he calls “data work and polling”, often identifying key areas where the campaign could effectively spend the money it raised. Arizona, for the record, is what is popularly referred to as a ‘Red State’, which in American political parlance means, a traditionally Republican leaning state. “We had a 7-point advantage over the Democrats, which means, for every 100 registered voters, we had 36, and they had 29. We used this to our advantage,” he says.
Ducey would go on to win the primaries, and even the Arizona Gubernatorial election in November 2014, defeating Fred DuVal comfortably. Thanks to his role in Ducey’s success, Iragavarapu’s data work would come for praise from the Arizona GOP chairman Robert Graham, who as per news reports is also in contention to replace GOP chairman Reince Priebus in January next year.
Iragavarapu’s rise within the Arizona GOP was a meteoric one. From being hired as the party’s data director, he was soon elevated to the ‘political director’ and later as executive director, all within a span of a year. The post puts him directly in charge of running the party’s campaigns in Arizona, across all its levels, including the general elections, congressional elections, senate races and even councils.
‘Making America Great Again’
Iragavarapu, as part of the presidential elections, is now tasked with helping Trump carry Arizona, a state the Republicans have held since George W Bush wrested it in 2000. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for Trump in Arizona,” he says. “During the primaries, we registered around 50,000 new people to vote for Donald Trump.” Trump went on to win the Arizona primaries, with 47 delegates and 47.1% of the votes.
The enthusiasm is fueled by the fact that Trump is seen as an outsider who doesn’t believe “in political correctness”. Iragavarapu says, “Trump reaches out to people the party doesn’t usually reach out to, like the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) voters, a new base the party hasn’t tried reaching out to in the past. He taps into the thought of the people, the anti-establishment sentiment and importantly, talks their language.”
Trump’s strengths, he adds, are also his weaknesses. “He does not appeal to people who are considered independent. Besides, he doesn’t have a well-oiled campaign team just yet, unlike Clinton. It is my job in Arizona, to get more independents to vote for Trump.” Equally, as a campaign insider, Iragavarapu says Trump personality makes his job a lot easier. “People can see the freshness in his campaign. He is incredibly open to suggestions, and takes advice from relevant people.” After all, over 14 million voters chose Trump in the primaries.
Iragavarapu’s story is rather interesting, especially given his background as an immigrant, a word that has dominated Trump’s approach to making America great again. “I have met him personally. He knows I am from India. He’s a totally fine person, and he’s embraced me with open arms. He has only spoken out against illegal immigration.”
‘We stand a chance’
8 November might be still some months away, but most polls and forecasts currently have Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the lead, in what promises to be a bitter, hard-fought presidential race. Trump, currently enjoying a “convention bump”, is marginally ahead in some of the polls.
“Every political campaign is an uphill battle. We have a lot of similarities with Modi’s campaign. Like Trump, he too is a nationalist. The media was dead against Modi, as it is against Trump, and Modi was written off too, and the same is happening with Trump. Look at the Brexit results too, nationalism is a global trend and is growing everywhere.”
Besides the Trump campaign, Iragavarapu will also oversee state-level and national races that include the Senate elections, where John McCain is up for re-election from Arizona. November 2016 will also see the nine Congressional districts in Arizona head to polls.