- While most Indian Americans will still vote for Democrats, experts believe several factors will determine if Republicans can siphon some of the community’s support.
Over the years, the Indian American vote has become increasingly important in the U.S. political landscape. Indian Americans are part of the larger Asian American population, which is the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters among the main racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, more than 11 million will be able to vote this year, making up nearly 5 percent of the nation’s eligible voters (for this analysis, U.S. citizens ages 18 and older). They are also the only major racial or ethnic group in which naturalized citizens – rather than the U.S. born – make up a majority of eligible voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines an Asian American as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”
2017 Pew Research Center data shows that Indian Americans are among the second-largest immigrant group in the U.S., after the Mexicans. And about half of that population identifies themselves as Hindus.
Because of their rising clout — both economic and political — President Trump and his administration have been heavily wooing the Indian Americans.
Trump has hosted Diwali celebrations at the Oval Office, and has appointed Indian Americans to numerous high-ranking positions in his administration. Adding to this is his bonhomie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the optics of their recent public gatherings, both here and in India.
Last September, Trump and Modi showered praises on each other in their addresses at the ‘Howdy Modi!’ event in Houston attended by over 50,000 Indian-Americans. This February, during his maiden visit to India, Trump complimented Modi and highlighted India’s achievements as well as the contributions of Indian Americans in the U.S.
Right from his 2016 presidential campaign, Salabh “Shaili” Kumar of Illinois has been among Trump’s ardent supporters. Kumar was instrumental in establishing the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) in 2015, which aimed to be “aunique bridge between the Hindu American community and Republican policymakers and leaders.”
It was at a 2016 campaign event in Edison, New Jersey, held under the aegis of this RHC, that Trump made sweeping vows to work with Indian Americans. News reports at the time said that over 10,000 people, mostly Hindu Americans, attended the event.
Taking these factors into consideration, Indian American supporters of the Republican party, especially the Hindu right, hope that in the 2020 presidential election, some Indian American voters would swing toward the Republicans.
A 2018 survey by Asian American and Pacific Islanders Data found that 50 percent of A 2018 survey by Asian American and Pacific Islanders Data found that 50 percent of Indian Americans identify themselves as Democrats and just 18 percent as Republican. According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), in 2016, Indian Americans voted between 77 percent and 84 percent for Hillary Clinton. AAPI data reveals that in 2016, 16 percent of Indian Americans voted for Trump. That year, about 1.2 million Indian American were registered to vote, according to AAPI Data. The number is expected to rise to 1.4 million in 2020. The same data reveals that Trump’s favorability among Hindu Americans is 35 percent, and 32 percent among Indian Americans.
Eric Wilson, a Republican strategist who was digital director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, told Politico that just because Indian Americans have generally voted for Democrats doesn’t mean some of them can’t be persuaded to vote for Trump this time. “Every vote counts and helps,” he said. “Even if you can reduce Democratic support from 80 percent down to 75 percent, you have taken a vote from the other guy.”
Will the personal dynamics between Trump and Modi galvanize a section of voters? Will the apparent friendship between Trump and Modi translate to votes for Trump?
While several factors including Trump’s friendship with Modi, his close business ties to India and his anti-Muslim rhetoric could play well with Hindu Americans aligned with the rightwing politics of Modi and his BJP, a majority of Indian Americans are still expected to vote for the Democrats. However, political observers this correspondent spoke with said they expect a split within the community this November.
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C, observes that Trump is viewing Indian Americans “as a favorable voting population,” and has made “robust efforts” to draw their support.
“Trump has made very overt efforts to appeal directly to Modi, who is popular within the community,” Kugelman says.“Trump understands that for Republicans there is strong need to make a better effort to secure votes from the large Indian community.” But whether that will shift the votes, remains to be seen, he adds.
There could be other dynamics at play as well.
Rohit Chopra, Communications professor at Santa Clara University in California, says that most Indian Americans want to reap the benefits of being a minority here and a majority back in India. “In India, they are pro-Modi, and here, they are Democrats,” he says. “Their politics tends to be conservative back home, and more liberal in the U.S., which is a natural stand for migrant communities to take,” he notes. Chopra believes that it’s these “contradictions” of the Indian American community which will make the November elections “interesting.”
A.D. Amar, a management professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says that Indian Americans are drifting toward the Republicans. In January 2016, Amar formed a political action committee — Indian-Americans for Trump.
He believes that some values of the Republican party resonate with Indian Americans. While it’s mostly Trump’s economic policies that align with the community, he feels the Trump and Modi dynamic adds to the equation.
Modi has been charming Trump, especially during his last visit to Houston. When Trump found out how the Indian community has organized 50,000 people for Modi, he wanted to go, Amar says. “Modi showed him confidence, and that signal gave Trump some momentum.”
Social media and various community events indicate that there is a significant section of the Hindu American community which not only supports both Trump and Modi, but also believes that there is a gradual shift to Republicans within the community. However, several of them who have mobilized the community for both Trump and Modi, declined or ignored interview requests by American Kahani.
In an interview with India Abroad last year, Dr. Bharat Barai, a community leader from Chicago, noted that traditional Indian American support for Democrats in the U.S. was due to their accommodation for immigrants and religious tolerance. “I feel votes and check books of Indian Americans will shift, not sure to what degree but many will quietly vote for Trump,” Barai, a longtime Modi friend and a bundler for Republican and Democrat lawmakers, said.
‘A Marriage of Political Convenience’
Gaurang Vaishnav of Global Indians for Bharat Vikas (GIBV) is a Modi supporter and a Democrat. He is of the opinion that Trump praising Modi or vice versa is “a marriage of political convenience,” nothing more. “Modi is just massaging Trump’s ego and his need to be constantly praised,” Vaishnav says. “Though I am an ardent supporter of Modi for decades, I detest his lowering his dignity in this manner.” And so far as Trump is concerned, Vaishnav says, “one can not rely on any of his statements. He is of a very unstable mind.”
In an entry on DataBits, a blog for AAPI data, Karthick Ramakrishnan writes that the rise of groups like Hindu Americans for Trump, and events like Trump’s Hindu American rally in October 2016 did little to improve his standing among Indian American or Hindu American voters. Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, and founding director of the Center for Social Innovation.
To understand the Hindu American community’s support for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their voting trends, Rohit Chopra delves a little bit into history.
When Indians began migrating to the U.S., in the early 1960s and 70s, most of them were from the middle class, and were focused primarily on education, fending for their families, and becoming model citizens, he says.
Things changed in the late 1990s when the BJP-NDA alliance came into power. “They ran a superb campaign,” Chopra says. “The Congress was outplayed.”
It was then that the Indian government began mobilizing the Non-Resident Indians and began an interaction with them by establishing the Ministry of External Affairs. The BJP, in turn, received support from the Indian Americans, and an “insane amount of money from the expatriate community.”
Then came the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Indian Citizen (OCI) cards. “The organization of the BJP, especially under Modi, has been superb,” Chopra says, explaining the support and adulation Modi receives in the diaspora here.
Despite all of Trump’s flaws, experts believe that the Hindu right can be counted among Trump’s loyal supporters.
“This voter base refuses to acknowledge any mistake of Trump,” Vaishnav says, be it the mishandling of fighting coronavirus, handling the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal murder by a Minneapolis police officer., his support to White supremacy, or his anti-immigration policies.
“These conservatives choose to look at every issue from the lens of Republicans v. Democrats,” he says. “All those social Hindu activists whom I know and who are Trump followers, remain steadfastly with him.”
Elaborating on Vaishnav’s point, Sangay Mishra, assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at Drew University in New Jersey, observes that many Hindu Americans are of the opinion that Trump is finally giving India its due. “Modi has put India on the world stage and Trump is taking India seriously,” Mishra says, talking about the perceptions of the Hindu American community.
Mishra, author of the 2016 book “Desis Divided: the Political Life of South Asian Americans,” says that many Trump supporters “do not want to engage with the complexities of the situation.” A lot of times, the elders of a household could be pro-BJP, which Mishra says has been a long-standing narrative in the community.
Part of the attraction for Trump among some Indian Americans, and Hindu Americans in particular, is the one of the common enemy — Trump’s anti-Muslim narrative fits with their pro-Hindutva ideologies. “Trump’s divisive and hateful agenda appeals to conservative Hindus here,” Mishra says.
Vaishnav notes that while there are times when Trump’s Hindu American supporters acknowledge his flaws, but they are encouraged by notions such as, “Trump is that good for Bharat,” and is anti-Muslim. “And that’s all that matters.” On the other hand, where former president Joe Biden is concerned, “they think of him as pro-Muslim and anti-Bharat.”
Another factor that could contribute to Hindu Americans support for Trump could be his silence on India’s controversial citizenship laws — the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Registry of Citizens (NRC).
Democrats and some progressive Indian Americans have criticized Modi over those laws which have the strong backing of conservative Hindu Americans.
Last October, several Democratic lawmakers pilloried India in the Congress, taking the Narendra Modi government to task for its alleged human rights violations against minorities, particularly its actions in Kashmir after stripping its special status under the Constitution.
After that India bashing, the Hindu right had galvanized against Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the first Indian- American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, who bemoaned the lack of religious tolerance in the country of her birth, and U.S. Representative, Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who said Kashmir is part of an overall Hindu nationalism project.
However, Raju Rajagopal of Hindus of Human Rights, notes that a number of Indian American supporters of Trump are “misreading the lines.” But at the same time, he feels that the Hindu right and the Republicans “could be natural allies,” because of their anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and racist rhetoric.
Focus on Traditional Policy Issues
Ajay Shah of the World Hindu Council of America is of the opinion that there is a large spectrum of opinions within the Hindu fold. “The [Hindu American] community is not monolith,” he says. He feels that Indian American voters, including Hindus will base their votes on traditional policy issues like access to health care, which will make them lean toward Democrats.
“Then there’s the Covid-19 pandemic and how Trump handled the entire situation and the economy, which will also be considered by the electorate,” notes Professor Dinesh Agrawal, a former OFBJP president who teaches in Penn State University.
Experts say that first-generation Indian Americans are highly sensitive to immigration issues, but they also share the same priorities as other middle-class Americans — social Security, health care, and college tuition — which explains their historic affinity towards the Democratic party.
For Vishnav, that it’s the fence-sitters who might change the dynamics. “There might be. few who will go to Trump,” says, adding that he does not see any big exodus. “If anything, those who are not rabidly pro-Trumpers might have second thoughts because of his highhandedness, and divisive and inflammatory rhetoric in dealing with the protests following George Floyd’s murder.
Kugelman says that the developments within the Democratic Party itself could also determine the support of the loyalists. One of the deciding factors, in his opinion, is Biden’s vice presidential pick. “It is imperative that since he is centrist, he should pick a progressive candidate,” Kugelman notes. “There is always the danger that the Democrats could go further left.”
Although the Democratic left is a problem only to those who are engaged in politics of BJP and the RSS in India, Mishra feels “it is not clear such criticism of the Democrats will automatically translate into Indian-American votes for Republicans.”