For a FRESH US immigrant yet to earn the right to vote, Avinash Iragavarapu hasn’t done too badly for himself this election. Not least because he helped put in office a man who ran on an anti-immigrant ticket.
The executive director of the Republican Party in Arizona, 31-year-old Iragavarapu landed in the US just two years ago from India as a tourist. His breathtaking rise in the GOP is one of the most phenomenal – and curious – success stories in American politics today, arcing a political trajectory almost as audacious as his leader, the more famous outsider who has just moved into the White House.
Iragavarapu’s story began in a small town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. An engineer with a management degree, his heart was never in engineering or business. Politics was all he cared for. His grandfather being a politician, Iragavarapu has been campaigning since he was 10. “The heady buzz of political activity at home left a deep imprint on me. My obsession with politics only grew with time; everything else seemed so flat in comparison,” he says.
A management degree gave him the tools of clinical analysis, helping him marry his passion with the cold logic of business. As he entered his working life, he started applying the tools of studying consumer behaviour to understand the voter mood. “There’s so much noise – media, ruling party, opposition parties, social media, civil society activists – how do you hear what the voter is saying and get your message across to him in this din? You can do that only through a strategy based on empirical research rather than emotion.”
Iragavarapu began to undertake field trips to “understand the operational background of politics”, as he puts it. He also started frequenting television studios as a member of the audience in talk shows and panel discussions featuring politicians in the hope of making acquaintance with some of them. One such interaction led him to the son of a powerful politician who broke away from the Congress party after his father’s death and floated his own party. Before long, Iragavarapu was leading a team of 150 researchers, studying individual constituencies, determining the most resonant issues and demands, screening candidates and shaping the campaign. The party emerged as the main opposition in the state, quite a feat for a new political outfit.
After the election in 2014, Iragavarapu decided to head to the US to help his wife move back to India after her stint at Intel in Chandler, Arizona. The trip – his first outside India – was essentially meant for sightseeing but would set him on an incredible adventure.
One day while driving around Chandler, a mid-size town of about 250,000 people, he noticed signs of candidates for a mayoral election. Ever the political animal, it piqued his interest and he started to dig around for information on how American politics works. Iragavarapu soon zeroed in on the governor’s race in Arizona.
After doing a background check of the eight candidates in the Republican primaries, studying past voting patterns and taking the pulse of the voters through random conversations with complete strangers, he shortlisted Doug Ducey as the candidate with the best chance of winning. He then contacted his office and offered his services. “Political campaigns are like start-ups, with possibilities of vital operational deficiencies despite the best business models. I analysed their campaign and saw they had gaps in data analysis. They were calling up all kinds of people and collecting data but had no model for using this data to refine the message. I offered to help them out with data analytics.”
Ducey’s campaign team in Chandler decided to give him a shot. Ducey went on to win the primaries, and Iragavarapu went on to work on his state campaign team. Ducey eventually became the governor, and Iragavarapu was hired by state GOP party chairman Robert Graham as the party’s data director. In a little more than a year, he rose to become the political director and then executive director, putting him among the top echelons of the party.
“Avinash understands victory. It was the combination of his extraordinary talents and our well-defined needs that made him an easy choice for my organisation,” says Graham on Iragavarapu’s rapid rise. “He has a citizen servant’s heart. This type of disposition makes him a great candidate for endless successes within American politics. Not just Arizona, Avinash helped many other states and territories with data analytics, get out the voters, and target deployment of human and financial resources. His efforts helped in victories in respective states and Donald Trump’s presidential election.”
Iragavarapu played a major role in fine-tuning the Republican voter database to ensure support was translated into votes. “For example, the 54-65 age group is a good demographic for the Republican Party. But in early ballotting four to five weeks before election day ... we noticed this group wasn’t participating and we were taking a beating. We quickly shifted some of our resources to flood them with conservative messages and within a week there was a turnaround,” he says.
But as an immigrant, doesn’t it feel odd to have played such an important role in the election of a man with a hard line on immigrants? Iragavarapu blames it on messaging. “He campaigned against illegal immigrants, not all immigrants. And illegal immigration has always been a major issue. In my interactions with Trump, I have found him to be a charming man with no prejudices. What could be greater proof of the liberal outlook of Trump and the Republican Party than my own role in his campaign? I don’t even vote.”
And by the looks of it, he never will, as he refuses to give up his Indian citizenship (“it’s a matter of pride”). Even as the plan is to keep working for the Republican Party, almost like a junkie looking for his next fix, Iragavarapu is looking for the next election, anywhere.
“I want to do my bit for democracy. Smarter elections make smarter democracies. When Hong Kong goes to polls next, I would love to work on a campaign there. I know it’s very different but I’m sure the scientific techniques and methods that I have developed will be of use there as well.” A data diviner, anybody? ■