- While the trend within the Indian American community is a shift to the right, most of them still identify as Democrats. It might have to do with the Bradley effect,* thanks to the younger generation that is more progressive and lean Democrat.
Indians who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were mostly focused on their professions, working hard to move up the career ladder. They spent their time between work, family, and friends. Most of them were social conservatives and carried the family values they learned back in India. They tried to instill the same values in their kids, which they learned in India. It included ensuring that their kids regularly visited the temples, would dress in proper Indian attire during festivals and other Indian national holidays like the Independence Day. They would also enroll their kids in programs teaching different Indian cultural art forms like classical dance, theater, and even Bollywood dance/songs. Their involvement in American politics was minimal and primarily triggered by concerns around immigration. Democrats were pro-immigration, so a lot of them identified themselves as Democrats.
Indian Americans’ views on politics back home during that period were focused on India doing well economically and being considered a significant player on the world stage. Politics in India was dominated by the Congress party, which was a center-left party. The only opposition was from other left parties like the communist parties and the coalition of smaller parties like the Janata Dal. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had just formed the BJP out of the ashes of the experiment called the Janata Party.
The 1990s brought a seismic change in politics in India. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brought back the Congress Party to power at the center, after a series of failed non-Congress coalitions. Two things that happened soon after have defined India as a country since then. The first, I would argue, has been the most positive development post-Independence. The second did just the opposite. It has kept India in the news for all the wrong reasons. The first was the economic liberalization necessitated when India’s foreign reserves became very low, and the country came close to default on its international payment obligations. The second was the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots that followed. It catapulted BJP as a major player in Indian politics, with most Hindus voting for them.
Indian Americans were following developments back home very closely. The economic liberalization was like a dream come true for most of them. They could finally say with pride to their American colleagues and friends that India was no longer a developing country but an emerging one. But they were divided on support for BJP and its Hindutva agenda. These changes in India did not affect their political views and support for the Democrats. Issues of immigration still drove it. In the 1990s, Pete Wilson, two-term Republican Governor of California, advocated Prop 187, which established state-run citizen screening to prevent illegal immigrants from availing social services. It did not go down well with Indian Americans and further moved them towards the Democratic party.
The political affiliations of Indian Americans started changing with the advent of the 21st century. The dot-com boom had made a lot of them very rich. It also meant that they were paying a lot more taxes. At the same time, George W. Bush became the President. One of his first moves as President was to enact significant tax cuts that benefited high-income taxpayers. A lot of Indian Americans benefited from these tax cuts. Bush also projected himself as a compassionate conservative and was considered soft on immigration. It made some Indian Americans start looking at the Republican Party in a new light, and some did cross party lines to become Republicans. However, the majority were still with the Democrats.
Around that time back in India, BJP was quickly becoming a mainstream party and winning multiple state elections on their own. One of the states was Gujarat, whose Chief Minister was Narendra Modi, a charismatic but controversial leader. His silence on the Gujarat riots didn’t help and further alienated India in the world’s eyes. The U.S. banned him from entering the country. But in the eyes of Indians abroad, he came across as a man who would stand his ground, especially against the minority Muslims who many perceived as a threat and looked upon with suspicion. It also helped that Gujarat as a state was economically doing very well. Many attributed it to Modi’s able administration. So, when BJP announced Modi as their Prime Ministerial candidate, most Indians in the U.S. not only supported the move but also poured in money to help BJP win the election.
Here in the U.S., a lot of Indian Americans had acquired green cards and citizenship. For them, immigration was no longer an issue close to their hearts. They were realizing their American dream by buying homes in the suburbs and having families. Now for them, issues like education of their kids and crime in their neighborhoods were more important issues. Illegal immigration from Central and South American countries was considered the primary cause of crime in communities. Legal immigration was also looked upon with suspicion by some Indian Americans as they felt that H1-B holders were taking away the jobs from their kids. The Republican Party was considered the part of law and order and tough on immigration. It was a massive factor in a lot more Indian Americans crossing over to the Republican party.
With the election of Donald Trump, things became more complicated and divided for the Indians in the U.S. Some liked his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Most of them loved his tax cuts, which again benefited them a great deal. Most of them, just like the rest of Americans, we’re not sure what to make of Trump, the man. His lies, his immoralities, and narcissism repelled a lot of them. Not very many Indians had supported him in 2016. For the 2020 elections, the jury is still out. Trump haters within the Indian community are very vocal and open about it. There are very few Trump supporters in the community who are coming out openly to support him. But there are many more of them who are probably not coming out openly in support because of fear of backlash.
So while the trend within the Indian American community is a shift to the right, most of them still identify as Democrats. It might have to do with the fact that the younger generation who are more vocal are Democrats. However, the older generation has steadily been moving to the Republican camp because of the reasons mentioned above. In Indian politics, the movement is almost totally to the right and increasing. They identify completely with Modi’s politics, making India a Hindu state and his projection of being tough against his enemies.
(*The Bradley effect posits that the inaccurate polls were skewed by the phenomenon of social desirability bias. Specifically, some voters give inaccurate polling responses for fear that, by stating their true preference, they will open themselves to criticism of racial motivation.” — Wikipedia.)
Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 26 years. He has led engineering in startups before and currently heads one of the engineering groups in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter.