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Last Updated: Monday, 25 August, 2003, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
Sikh bids for US history
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington

Chirinjeev Kathuria's ambitions include the earthly and the out-of-this-world: he plans to get married and travel in space.

Dr Chirinjeev Kathuria
Chirinjeev Kathuria believes his ethnicity will be a bonus

But before that he wants to become the first ethnic Indian elected to the United States Senate.

And it is not just his race that sets him apart - the beard and turban of a Sikh are an obvious visual reminder that he is not a traditional American politician.

But while he has faced ignorance and discrimination, Mr Kathuria, 38, now believes his differences are a bonus for his political campaign to win the Republican primary next March and then stand for election as an Illinois senator.

And a look through his biography shows so many high-profile successes that few would bet against him taking this next step in his American dream.

There are several similarities between Mr Kathuria and another putative politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Both are immigrants made good, both now have thriving businesses that made them millionaires, both are Republicans who make a virtue from their lack of involvement in mainstream politics.

But while Mr Schwarzenegger may become governor of California, Mr Kathuria hopes he could spark a revival in the Republican Party in Illinois as well as attracting more ethnic minorities to the party and politics in general.

'Political paradox'

It is unlikely to be an easy ride. A Sikh man was apparently the first victim of a hate crime after the attacks on 11 September 2001.

He was shot and killed apparently because it was thought he was Muslim and, for that alone, associated with al-Qaeda.

Mr Kathuria, who himself faced insults and discrimination in the wake of the attacks, acknowledges that his appearance might be a hindrance.

"People think someone with a beard and a turban running for the US Senate, it's paradoxical," he told BBC News Online.

Don't let the beard and the turban fool you, I'm an American
Chirinjeev Kathuria

But he said his appearance is actually becoming a bonus because people only need one look to spot the difference between him and the rest of the field standing in the primary.

That was one of the reasons why Mr Kathuria was courted by the Republicans in Illinois.

The state party needs a boost after losing the governor's mansion to a Democrat and seeing voters pick Al Gore over George W Bush at the last presidential election.

If Illinois' Indian-Americans and other ethnic minorities voted Republican instead of Democrat, the senate seat being given up by Peter Fitzgerald could stay in Republican hands.

But Mr Kathuria believes his election could have an impact far beyond Illinois. "Putting someone like me into office sends a strong message to the rest of the world that the Republican Party is reaching out."

He accepts that he could become a "poster boy" for ethnic minorities but says he is also a genuine candidate with the intelligence and ideas to be a good senator.

"I was not going to run [just] to send a message," he said.

But if a by-product of his campaign is to raise people's expectations, that is fine.

"There's got to be one person to do it and I think... it will open it for other Indians to run for the state senates, House of Representatives and so on - someone needs to set the pace."

American dream

On the other hand, Mr Kathuria wants voters to know: "Don't let the beard and the turban fool you, I'm an American."

Dr Chirinjeev Kathuria with Senator Peter Fitzgerald
Senator Fitzgerald's retirement offers a "unique chance"

He says his aim is to give something back to the country that gave his family so much.

Mr Kathuria's parents moved to the US with him from Delhi when he was just eight months old. With just a few dollars in their pockets they arrived in Chicago, then home to only a few dozen Indians.

His father sold insurance policies and his mother worked as a doctor as young Chirinjeev worked hard at school, graduating top of his class, going straight to medical school at Brown University in Rhode Island and following that with an MBA at Stanford.

He decided not to practice medicine but try his hand at business instead.

He worked to launch Morgan Stanley's investment banking operations in India, helped to found the free internet service provider X-Stream Networks and his group is launching medical diagnostic imaging centres across the US.

He was also instrumental in setting up MirCorp, the firm that sent Dennis Tito into orbit as the first space tourist.

That connection could well enable Mr Kathuria to achieve his wish of space travel, but political campaigning could hinder his other goal.

"My mum always says that the one drawback is there is no way I am going to get married before the election," Mr Kathuria says.

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