- A hyphenated identity doesn’t mean we always get to play on both teams; sometimes we must pick a side. This election is one of those times.
As an Indian American, it is hard to escape the cacophony of diatribe for and against four more years of President Trump. Indian-Americans have traditionally affiliated themselves with Democrats but today their loyalties are split; two seminal events — the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and of Trump in 2016, along with the perceived friendship between Trump and Modi has drawn a wedge in the community, with both sides claiming an urgent moral right.
The opponents of Trump see his continued presidency as a threat to diversity and empowering white nationalism, continued governmental incompetence as COVID-19 wrecks havoc on lives and economy, and a level of corruption that is perceived to be an existential threat to American democracy itself. The supporters of Trump on the other hand, see his presidency as upholding a “law & order,” good for their pocketbooks and the economy, and continued unquestioned support for the Modi government policies in India. There is also a sense in the support group that Trump is better for the Indian economy and that India will enjoy a more special relationship with the U.S. under another Trump presidency. Upon closer examination, however, this turns out to be flawed thinking.
As Indian-Americans we live a hyphenated identity that tugs on our hearts in two directions. So, it’s important to learn the facts about which candidate is truly a friend of India. President Trump has proved time and again that he is nobody’s friend; his administration revoked India’s special trade partner status, levied tariffs on Indian imports, cut visas to Indian immigrants, left many Indians in immigration limbo, produced zero trade deals, blamed India’s greed for America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, falsely claimed that Prime Minister Modi asked Trump to intervene in Kashmir as well as mediate dispute with China, the list goes on.
On the other hand, it was the Obama-Biden administration that granted India a major defense partner status, signed trade deals with India worth up to $500 billion, improved immigration policies for Indians and Indian Americans, endorsed India to have a permanent seat on the United Nations’ Security Council, supported India against China’s growing influence, and encouraged and executed Paris Climate Agreement with India etc. Biden famously called the U.S.-India relationship “a defining partnership of the 21st century” and as per Richard Verma, the former US.. ambassador to India, there would have been no U.S.-India civil nuclear deal but for Joe Biden. Now, Biden’s campaign has made history by nominating the first Indian-American candidate for Vice President proving that the Democratic Party truly values diversity. The only thing that governs Trump is his own political expediency whereas Biden has a vision that extends far beyond his own nose.
Yet there is a deeper issue that’s lurking behind this debate that we must confront. Of all the topics being passionately discussed in Indian American homes all across America — healthcare & COVID-19, jobs and economy, climate change etc. — one that stands out for me is “Voting for Trump is Voting for India,” a line frequently quoted on social media among Indian-American Trump supporters along with the sentiment “for Hindus, what matters is the candidate supported by NaMo” (NaMo being short for Narendra Modi). For the record, Narendra Modi himself has not endorsed either candidate, but the quote seems to be in circulation and merits a closer look.
If, as an Indian American you find yourself thinking along similar lines, you are likely someone who grew up in India and became a naturalized citizen of America. I want you to pause for a moment and ask yourself, whose President are you voting for? Every Indian American who acquired U.S. citizenship through naturalization took the oath to absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign state, and to defend the constitution and laws of the United States. Thus, the most crucial question we should be asking ourselves in this election is whether the President we support and vote for is someone who respects and defends the very constitution and laws that we ourselves vowed to.
Insight into Another Political System
As Indian Americans we have an insight into the strengths and failings of another political system. If I ask you to name some of the failings of Indian politics, you might start with political dynasty and nepotism. Trump’s administration has had more family appointees than any other U.S. president in history — most famously his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner whose only qualification for the positions they hold in the Executive branch is their relationship to the President. Family relationship has become the new currency in a Trump administration extending to sons and daughters of Trump’s associates such as Rudy Giuliani, girlfriends of Trump’s sons are given cushy positions, and half of RNC’s key speakers were Trump family members.
Another facet of Indian politics that we share disdain for is Indian politicians lining their own pockets. Trump refused to separate himself from his business interests, proposing international conferences to be held at his resort properties, which get free advertising on top of the revenue from lodging his guards and the retinue. Both Eric and Donald Trump Jr. have continued to conduct business on behalf of The Trump Organization and openly benefit from their father’s position; Ivanka Trump snagged a valuable set of Chinese trademarks on the same day she dined with the Chinese president, Kushner family pushed visas to wealthy Chinese who invested in their properties. The revolving door between government and business has never been swung so wide and so blatantly. We have all come to accept a certain level of corruption in the halls of Congress and politics in general but a new nadir has been reached under this President.
Another major failing of Indian politics is the politicians’ general attitude of being above the law; their outright illegalities and incessant lying. There has been no American president, at least in the modern era, who has considered himself to be above the law quite like Donald Trump. This is the President who refused to follow the good-faith tradition set by his predecessors since 1974, Republican and Democrat alike, refusing to disclose his tax returns, even waging a legal battle to keep them hidden – we know now it was an attempt to hide the extent to which his businesses were losing money, further diminishing his sole claim to competency as a savvy & profitable business-man, on the contrary he appears to be an inept businessman and a serial tax avoider crushed by massive debts that put him in potential and often direct conflict of interest with his job as president. This is the President who has been involved in 4,000 lawsuits in his professional career – many of which he openly gloated to be a form of coercion against the less powerful simply as a bullying tactic. He also has at least 126 multi-state lawsuits filed against him since becoming President.
There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to lawsuits against Trump – sexual misconduct, financial manipulation, employee payment, charity fraud, you name it. This is the President who has been accused by not one, not two but 26 women of sexual misconduct; some of those allegations include rape. This is the President who lies so much that his entire campaign and presidency is propped up on disinformation — by July 9th 2020 the fact checker database keeping the score registered 20,000 lies. This is the President whose key advisors, aides, donors and campaign staff have admitted to crimes, some have even been convicted by a court of law only to have been pardoned by the President himself in a direct contradiction to his claim as a “law and order President.”
Another aspect of Indian politics that many Indian Americans find regressive is the creation and fueling of minority voting blocs called “vote banks.” If we stand against the narrow-minded self-interest perpetuated by voting blocs and the corrupt favoritism such process entails, then we should not ask what the candidates from either party in America can do for “our minority bloc,” rather we should focus on what we can do for America as our adopted country.
Immigrants in an Adopted Land
Many of us left our country of birth and came to America in search of “better opportunity,” is it possible we might have found better opportunity in India itself, if its political system was not rife with greed, corruption, nepotism, being “above the law” and vote banks? How can we turn our face away from the uncomfortable parallels the Trump administration has with the corruption we encountered and suffered in India? How does this President’s sense of legal impunity not offend our sense of right, our sense of law and order? How can the brazen nepotism and corruption rife in the Trump administration not affect our support for him? Four more years of this presidency risks dragging the American political system down to a level par with some of the most corrupt countries in the world, with immense ramifications. What will happen to this “land of opportunity” then?
We are at a time of great upheaval around the world and especially in America. COVID-19 has laid bare the incompetence of Trump’s administration and brought America to its knees. No matter what claim Trump makes, the numbers don’t lie. This is the President under which America is facing the worst economy since the Great Depression and the worst civil strife since the 1960s. This is the President, who on a daily basis, sows hate about minority groups, peddles lies about the greatest pandemic the world has seen in a century, refuses to wear a mask & holds rallies undermining the hard work state governors are doing to keep their people safe, and “takes no responsibility at all” for the mayhem and for the lives lost. Eisenhower famously had a sign on his desk “the buck stops here”, but not this President; he would do anything to shirk responsibility.
This is the President who undermines science and scientists every day, whether it comes to dealing with the Pandemic or dealing with climate chaos without any regard to the havoc and destruction his actions and inactions wreck on real lives. We must open our eyes and see for ourselves that the America we love is currently leading the world in all the wrong ways. Some are calling it the end of the American era , that’s shameful and heartbreaking, a situation that must be fought and reversed by all we hold dear. A Biden presidency cannot possibly solve all our problems. But another 4 years under the leadership of a man who is unable to take responsibility, listen to scientists, or lead by love will simply dig the hole deeper.
As Indian-Americans we have the good fortune to be one of the “model minorities.” But we must not forget how we got here. It was the liberalism of America that gave us the very seat at the table upon which we have made our perch. Liberalism of Lyndon Johnson is what passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that paved the path for a new generation of Indians arriving in America – who despite the color of their skin were not relegated to separate schools, lunch counters or restrooms — a fight won by the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans, a fight that Kamala Harris’s Indian mother participated in and that we should proudly own.
In the ensuing years, both Republican and Democrat presidents supported immigration, the H-1B visa was started under George H.W. Bush and enhanced by Bill Clinton ushering in the second wave of Indians to this country. Bush Jr. was famously pro- immigrant. But under Trump the Republican party has morphed, no longer immigrant friendly. Trump’s rhetoric fans the flames of white nationalism instead. Trump’s party is the only major political party in the world today that stands on the wrong side of the war against climate change; the apocalypse that comes exponentially closer every year we don’t act – and won’t act under another Trump Presidency. If you must consider India in your vote for the U.S. President, then consider that Trump’s policy on climate change threatens the very habitability of India and ultimately its existence.
The uniqueness of America is that it allows and fosters a hyphenated identity. Yet there are limits to this allowance. We are all aware of the awful decision to move Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II because their loyalty to their adopted country was under doubt. If “voting for Trump is voting for India” – aren’t you breaking the oath of allegiance, willfully distorting a domestic election for the benefit of a foreign power? If you are going to indulge in what could be construed as potentially treacherous or at minimum disloyal behavior, how will you defend against the white nationalist viewpoint that is already unfurling signs calling “Diversity = White Genocide” with impunity under a President who calls them “very fine people”?
Jews were the educated and affluent minority – some would say “model minority” in many parts of Europe before the nationalists came to power in Germany in the 1930s. Those “model minority” traits made them the enemy of the nationalists who found them an easy target for their hate and resentment. Many Jews living in the 1930s tried hard to “work with” the rising tide of nationalism around them, the problem with the monster of nationalism is that once unleashed eventually devours everything in its path. To support President Trump and his fostering of white nationalism without stopping to consider its potential outcome for minorities including us is naïve thinking at best.
A hyphenated identity doesn’t mean we always get to play on both teams; sometimes we must pick a side. This election is one of those times. If you are asking the question which candidate is better for India, you are asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is which candidate is better for America, and hope that it aligns with Indian interests. If you simply cannot separate Indian politics from American politics, if Indian politics is all that matters to you, you might as well go back to where you came from and vote there.