- Indian Americans are not a monolithic group. There are big differences in attitudes among those born in the U.S. who tend to tilt towards the left and those who are naturalized.
The voting behavior of Indian Americans has become a subject of great interest in this election season. Even though they make up less than one percent of registered voters in the country, they have as a community attracted unprecedented attention from both the political parties.
Indian Americans or Asian Indians, as they are also called, were for long a grossly understudied group. But the community’s high education and household income levels make its members valuable campaign contributors and potential mobilizers. Also, their numbers are growing rapidly, making them the second largest immigrant group in the U.S.
Most importantly, the realization that Donald Trump had won the 2016 elections by very narrow margins in certain swing states, has put the spotlight on Indian Americans who, in key swing states, can make a big difference to the election outcome. Therefore, both parties have been wooing them assiduously.
In this political season, the Republicans under Donald Trump began the courtship game first. Building on the ‘Hindus for Trump’ campaign in 2016, they have been recruiting volunteers, running campaigns in five Indian languages and running targeted digital ads.
Reaching out to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with the glitzy ‘Howdy Modi’ event at Houston in September 2019 and visiting Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad for ‘Namaste Trump’ extravaganza in February this year, appear to have even won him Modi’s endorsement.
The Democratic Party has been the traditional favorite of the Indian American community and has always voted for it in much larger numbers than other Asian groups. The Democrats’ criticism of growing religious intolerance India and its Kashmir policy were seen to dampen the community’s support for the Democrats. But President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and his moves to slash family reunion provisions and H-1B visa — the skills-based visas under which Indians have entered the U.S. in large numbers — did not help.
However, a recent survey conducted by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in collaboration with YouGov, a research and analysis firm, has found that none of these factors are very important to Indian Americans.
The findings of the “Indian Americans Attitudes Survey” belie the emerging narrative that Indian Americans are shifting their loyalty to the Republican Party. In fact, Indo-U.S. relations are low priority for most Indian Americans, compared to nationally salient issues like the economy, healthcare, racism, taxes, government corruption and the environment.
The selection of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate has added to the Democrats’ appeal. Her choice seemed to galvanize the community.
The survey has, predictably, found Indian Americans continue to overwhelmingly (72 per cent) favor the Democratic Party. A majority of Indian Americans view the Republican Party as ‘unwelcoming’ and intolerant of minorities. Opposition to gun control and legal immigration and economic policies on healthcare, taxes, social security, climate change and business regulation are other reasons they do not support Republicans.
Just like in the wider voting public, the survey found, there is intense polarization along party lines in the community and a high degree of animosity towards the other.
The Republicans among Indian Americans (22 per cent) disapprove of the Democratic Party’s economic policy, weak stance on crime and illegal immigration and fear that it is too influenced by the extreme left and too focused on identity politics.
It is clear that Indian Americans are not a monolithic group. There are big differences in attitudes among those born in the U.S. who tend to tilt towards the left and those who are naturalized are more muted in their political stance.
Prof. Aseem Prakash of the University of Washington says Indians are not a cohesive and organized group. Quite unlike other voting blocs like the Jews, the Armenian Americans or the Muslim Americans, Indians have diverse opinions, are vocal about them and are quite argumentative. Even their language to communicate with each other is English and this is only reflective of the diversity that exists in India.
There are also divisions along religious lines. Some Indian Christians find a consonance in the Republicans’ Christian evangelical values, which the rest of the community does not.
Prof. Iqbal Akhtar at Florida International University’s International Affairs, says, Muslims are clearly Democrat. Among the larger community, he feels there is a bifurcation as on one side are those who aspire to ‘whiteness’ with their educational and economic achievements. Giving the example of Bobby Jindal who was Republican governor of Louisiana from 2008-2016, he says, they aspire to find a place in the power structures and go along with the dominant political group.
On the other hand, there are those like Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala Harris’ mother, who were inspired by Gandhi or Ambedkar, or in recent times, there are those who have studied at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or similar progressive institutions. They are multicultural, idealistic, pushing for progressive values, and they get involved in struggles of the Blacks for civil rights and for equality.
The aspirational Indian Americans, on the other hand, like to have political patronage for their business and therefore support the party dominant in the state or regions. Thus, their loyalties may be determined more by expediency than by ideology.
However, Prof. Prakash strongly disputes this view. He says Indian Americans like Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley and others subscribe to Republican values and should not be seen as opportunistic. They have their core beliefs that favor free markets and small government. Opposition to affirmative action is another issue that draws members of the community to the Republicans, he added.
‘Trump may have made certain overtures, but the Republican Party is still not seen as embracing the Indian American community. It is a missed opportunity for them’, he said.
There is, however, one variable that may not have been factored in by pollsters and surveyors — what percentage of Indian Americans hide their support for the Republicans to avoid backlash from the desi Democrats who dominate the social media. We will know soon enough.
(Top photo: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning among South Asian American constituents in Queens, N.Y.)
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami.