Against the backdrop of what many consider one of the most tumultuous election cycles in US history, Indian Americans campaigning for President Donald Trump and his Democratic contender Joe Biden had their work cut out this time. With less than 24 hours to go for the US’ election day, the Indian American voter community is as divided as the rest of the United States. For Biden abettors, a Trump win in 2020 would mean a win of bigotry and White supremacy while those vouching for Trump’s re-election are focusing on the economy, jobs and Indo-US ties.
Dallas-based conservative Indian American advocacy group US IMPACT believes that Trump’s re-election is just what their community needs. Apart from lowering taxes and pushing for law and order, co-founder Amit Warkad says under President Trump, US-India strategic relations have thrived like never before. Earlier this year, they were approached by the ‘Trump Victory 2020’ national campaign to help broaden their outreach to Indian American voters. The group has already reached out to tens of thousands of American desis and encouraged them to cast their ballot for President Trump.
Meanwhile, the Indian Americans for Biden-Harris campaign has been deploying volunteers with the aim of targeting undecided voters within the community. “These are people who do not want to vote for Trump, but do not know enough about Joe Biden,” said Sasha Virk, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Biden-Harris campaign in Sacramento, California. “The campaign then comes in and aims to answer all their questions or queries in an unbiased manner.”
With the country’s coronavirus caseload and death toll steadily surging, campaigning efforts were largely relegated to the digital realm for both camps. Door-to-door canvassing, where volunteers visit the voters’ homes to hard-sell a presidential candidate, has taken a back seat because of the threat posed by the deadly infection.
According to US IMPACT co-founder Warkad, this was not necessarily a bad thing. “I found that the pandemic created a level playing field as far as campaigning is concerned, because for better or for worse everyone was suddenly focusing on the virtual,” he said.
Apart from extensive phone banking, the group has also developed an algorithm that helped the Trump campaign carve out data on Indian American voters from the country’s total voting population. Other campaigning methods like block walking and poll greeting were adopted on a smaller scale in the weeks leading up to polling day.
The volunteers of the Biden campaign in California have been actively involved in door-to-door campaigning to distribute pamphlets detailing Biden-Harris policy proposals, but with strict Covid-19 regulations in place. These means of campaigning are “extremely important to decrease the ongoing confusion and help voters make an informed decision,” Sasha said.
For Dev Makkar, a retired banking executive from New Jersey and founder of the registered Political Action Committee (PAC) ‘Indians for Trump’, the last few months have been jam packed with scheduled Zoom calls and livestreams. He was forced to keep his campaign strictly digital since most members of his group are senior citizens. “I am over 64 years old so I can’t go out. Everyone is working so when we can over the weekends we try to squeeze in a meeting on Zoom,” he told indianexpress.com.
The political tide is slowly changing amongst Indian Americans, a majority of whom have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, according to Khushboo “Khush” Rawlley, co-founder of US IMPACT and now a member of the advisory board for the Trump Victory campaign’s ‘Indian Voices for Trump’ coalition. “I see a huge wave of people who are openly coming out and supporting Trump, which I didn’t see in 2016 when Trump was a political novice. But now I’m seeing that people are definitely understanding what his policies are,” she said.
Biden-supporter Sasha agrees to an extent, suggesting that the chaotic nature of this election has left traditionally democratic voters conflicted. “It’s very important to raise awareness on where Biden stands on key issues like healthcare, climate change, immigration among others,” she added.
Dev Makkar, too, has noticed a shift in attitude towards the President. He claims he was one of the first Indian Americans to openly support Trump when he was nominated by the Republican Party in 2015. “Back then, the community’s darling was Hillary Clinton. Everyone in the Indian community thought that Trump was a rebel so they started criticising me saying that I always go against the community,” he recalled.
However, according to a recent survey 72 per cent of Indian American voters said they would vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, while 22 per cent plan to vote for the incumbent. The Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS), which included 936 respondents of Indian origin, suggested that there is “little indication of a shift towards the Republican Party”.
Unlike any election before, political activism among the Indian American community is higher due to what is at stake, says Loveneet Kaur Sidhu, a political science major at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside who is actively involved in the Biden-Harris campaign. “The last four years have shown us what America under Trump is like,” Loveneet said, referring to the rise in hate crimes against people of colour. Having spent her entire life in the swing state of Wisconsin, Loveneet has first-hand experience of the rise in systemic racism since the state went red in 2016.
Based on their interactions with Biden supporters and campaign members, issues like immigration — specifically the H 1-B visa ban — and vandalism of religious places like temples, mosques and gurdwaras were top concerns raised by both Loveneet and Sasha.
In the Obama-Biden administration “they had the FBI expand their hate crime statistics to count Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists. Biden has stated if he is elected president, he will address the topic of hate crime offenders and firearms,” Loveneet said responding to a question on Biden-Harris policy proposals that are set to benefit Indian Americans.
Another hot button issue that has caused many a conflict between Republicans and Democrats is immigration. “I believe a Biden administration will ensure fast tracking of citizenship or guaranteeing some form of permanent residency to undocumented immigrants which includes over 600,000 Indians,” Sasha says.
But ‘Indian Voices for Trump’ board member Khushboo Rawlley disagrees. The staunch Republican believes that the current US President has done more for immigrants than most other administrations. “Trump supports merit-based legal immigration which helps Indian visa holders. It is also in alignment with the S386 bill which Indians have been trying to pass since years,” she said.
The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, or the S386 bill, has been blocked in the Senate ever since it was first proposed last year. The bill seeks to remove the country-wide cap on issuing employment-based green cards to reduce the growing backlog.
According to AAPI Data, there are around 1.8 million Indian American voters who are eligible to vote. But in the upcoming election, Sasha says the community has one of the lowest turnout among minority groups. “I go around targeting Indian Americans to understand the reason behind this low turnout, and a common reply that I get is that they don’t feel welcomed, this has become even more profound with the Trump administration,” Sasha notes.
“The election goes way beyond jobs or money, it’s a question of survival,” Sasha succinctly said.
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