The Indian diaspora in the U.S. has traditionally supported the Democratic Party, but the last three and a half years have witnessed a perceptible shift in this regard. As the winds of hardline Hindu nationalism blow across India, it’s hard to say that Indians living in the United States have remained unaffected.
President Donald Trump’s penchant for floating conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated allegations, and outright lies is known to all. His recent claim at a public address that he had the support of more Indians than the half-Indian Kamala Harris may well have elicited no more than a smirk and a yawn. Except that the statement might, just might, have contained a sliver of truth. In September 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had beamingly endorsed Donald Trump at a glittery, garish event called “Howdy Modi”, saying “Abki baar, Trump sarkar” (This time, a Trump government). The phrase was a spin on his own 2014 election slogan which urged people to vote for his government “this time”. The endorsement did spark a bit of controversy, and had to be clarified by India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. At a press conference, the minister rejected the idea that Narendra Modi had endorsed Trump’s candidature – which would technically amount to interference in America’s domestic politics – and argued that he was merely repeating a slogan Trump had earlier used to pitch himself to Indian-American voters.
Watch: Indian PM Modi and US President Trump at the Howdy Modi event in Houston, TX
Irrespective of whether or not it was an endorsement, the question is whether Indian-Americans – the third largest Asian-American ethnic community after the Chinese and Filipino – will indeed vote to bring back “a Trump government” this time.
Shifting Sands of Political Affiliations
The Indian diaspora in the United States has traditionally voted for the Democratic Party. According to the 2016 National Asian American Survey, 77 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. Likewise, in the 2012 Presidential Election, Indian-Americans’ support for Barrack Obama was statistically higher than any other Asian-American group. This support can be attributed to a number of historical reasons which include the Democratic Party’s association with civil rights and championing of multiculturalism. Also, the overwhelming majority of Indian-Americans are middle-class and see the Democrats as addressing issues that affect them most, such as reducing the cost of college education, expanding social safety nets, and providing equitable access to healthcare.
Watch: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris address Indian-Americans
However, the last three and a half years have witnessed a perceptible shift. For all his egregious eccentricities, Trump has demonstrated a degree of consistency with regard to his India policy. Despite his enthusiastic offers of mediation between India and Pakistan, Trump remained silent after India revoked Article 370 which granted semi-autonomy to the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir. His administration offered to sell India armed drones and integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) technology – both of which were denied by the Obama administration – and suspended military aid to Pakistan. Most recently, the U.S. government slammed Chinese aggression, and strongly came out in support of India in its latest border standoff with China. This amicability, in addition to what is perceived as Trump’s refusal to interfere in India’s “internal affairs” has doubtless endeared the Republican Party and Donald Trump to vast swathes of the Indian-America community.
In sharp contrast, Democrats –ever since the Modi Government secured a second term – have openly excoriated some of the policies of the right-wing regime, particularly its moves in Kashmir, treatment of minorities, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and proposed National Register of Citizens. Joe Biden’s campaign website expressly criticizes the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in the north-eastern state of Assam and Citizenship Amendment Act (granting citizenship to all undocumented immigrants from the country’s neighborhood but Muslims). It also calls for the restoration of the rights of Kashmiri people and denounces measures such as shutting down the internet. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are some of the other prominent Democrats who have been critical of the Indian Government. In December 2019, Indian External affairs minister S. Jaishankar abruptly cancelled a meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation because it refused to exclude Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had introduced a resolution urging the Indian Government to lift all curbs in Kashmir.
Uncannily, both President Trump and Prime Minister Modi are leaders with great similarities. Their personal bonhomie aside, both rely on right-wing populism and divisive rhetoric, and portray themselves as strong mass leaders fighting the corruption and elitism of the entrenched establishment. Trump’s outreach to Hindu Americans includes not just his appearance at the “Howdy Modi!” rally but also his attendance in 2016 – a first for a presidential candidate – at a rally organised by a group named “Republican Hindu Coalition” in New Jersey. In another first, a virtual rally called “Hindus4Trump” recently organized by Americans4Hindus claimed attendance by one lakh Indian-Americans.
Watch: Donald Trump appeases Hindu American voters
Can Kamala Harris Sway Indian-Americans?
The news of Kamala Harris, who is of Indian and Jamaican descent, being selected as Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee enthused Indians around the world. In India, her nomination generated largely positive media attention. A photo of a young Harris clad in a sari and surrounded by her Indian family was widely circulated on social media, and several Indian politicians and celebrities expressed pride and joy. In the United States too, large numbers of Indian-Americans, Indian-American groups and well-known personalities welcomed the announcement, celebrating her rise as being emblematic of the American dream and a testament to the potential of Indian immigrants.
But that wasn’t all. As the winds of hardline Hindu nationalism blow across India, it’s hard to say that Indians living in the United States have remained unaffected. In line with the philosophy of pan-Hindu unity espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the Indian regime’s parent organization – conservative Indian-Americans have been critical of Harris for her alleged hostility to “Hindu interests”, and by default India’s interests. Like other progressive Democrats, Harris hasn’t minced words regarding her opposition to the Indian Government’s policy in Kashmir, openly stating that Kashmiris aren’t alone and that intervention shouldn’t be ruled out. Moreover, orthodox Hindu organizations such as Hindus for America and Indo-American Conservatives of Texas view her as Hinduphobic and as someone who has the backing of pro-Pakistan lobbies. Many are also skeptical of her flaunting her Indian heritage to attract votes, especially since she isn’t a practicing Hindu and in fact identifies herself as a Baptist – a Protestant Christian denomination.
In such a scenario, there is no easy answer to whether or not Kamala Harris will be able to sway Indian-American voters. What is certain, though, is that the electorate is far more polarized than in previous elections, and most may have already made up their minds about whom to vote for. In other words, Indian-Americans who see the choice of Kamala Harris as a sign of progress were anyway likely to vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election. The fact that most Indian-Americans live in urban centres like New York, California, and Chicago – areas that are traditionally Democratic-leaning – also means that the nomination of Harris may not make a significant impact. On the other hand, the Indian-Americans who have a favorable opinion of President Trump – and Prime Minister Modi – for his unequivocal anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan stance and tacit support of the Indian Government’s muscular Hindu ethno-nationalism-driven policies, will vote for him regardless of the fact that Kamala Harris shares their ethnicity.
The Indian-American Vote Matters
At just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, the Indian-American community may seem like a miniscule minority. But not only are they responsible for making considerable contributions to candidates, AAPI (publisher of demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders) Data shows that between 2012 and 2018, the population of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and North Carolina grew more than 40 percent. Indian-Americans comprise the largest group of Asian-Americans in these states, which means their numbers are significant enough to make a difference in the election.
Surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Indian-American Trump supporters remain unfazed by his immigration policies, including his recent moves against H1-B temporary work visas, green cards, and Indian students. Most are of the opinion that with COVID-19 still around, international travel is anyway restricted because of largely suspended flight operations, and that once the situation normalizes, the move will be reversed.
It seems like, for the first time ever, Democrats may have to actually struggle for the Indian-American vote. And it’s going to be a hard struggle all right.