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Will Trump-Modi’s courtship matter in November US elections?

Republicans have the advantage of Trump and Modi’s public courtship; Democrats the onus of their Kashmir stance.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | New Delhi |
Updated: September 27, 2020 3:28:47 pm
PM Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump at the Howdy, Modi! event in Houston on September 22, 2019 (PTI)

They have always leaned Democrat, but this time, with just over a month to go for US polls, the Indian American vote is showing the friction of politics in India. Republicans have the advantage of Trump and Modi’s public courtship; Democrats the onus of their Kashmir stance. The Indian Express on what this — and the Kamala Harris factor — could mean in a race that is entering the final lap.

We have a friend in the White House, and we would like that to continue,” says Dinesh Agarwal. One of the founding members of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), Agarwal, a Penn State professor, has been a Democrat voter for the 45 years that he has lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But, now, he’s switching from Blue to Red, and will be voting to re-elect President Donald Trump on November 3.

“My wife is upset with me, and so are my children,” Agarwal says, adding that heated debates are also going on among OFBJP founders over email. “That’s the case in many Indian families now. More and more, traditionally democratic Indian Americans, especially of my generation, are moving towards Trump.”

The numbers seem to confirm that. Results of a survey by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Data led by Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, released on September 15, show that a little over a quarter (28%) of the Indian Americans are planning to vote Republican come Election Day — a huge increase from the 16% who voted for Trump in 2016. Correspondingly, while 84% Indian Americans had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 77% for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, just 66% say they support Joe Biden.

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The swing

Indian Americans are now the second largest immigrant group in the US and the fastest growing ethnic group among the American electorate. The community has traditionally favoured Democrats for their pro-immigration stance. However, this time, there is an estimated 12% swing towards Trump.

If the undecided voters split down the same ratio, 30% of the Indian American vote could go to the Republicans.

The AAPI survey also found that the main driver of the Republican boost among Indian Americans were men. In 2016, 71% of the Indian American men had voted Democrat while 21% had voted Republican, in comparison to the 83% to 11% break-up for women. In 2020, as many as 41% of the men are estimated to vote Republican, and 57% Democrat, even as women are expected to stay steadfast behind the Democratic Party (83%), as compared to Republican (17%). (The numbers also indicate that, like others among the highly polarised American electorate, almost all Indian Americans have decided whom to vote for.)

Will Trump-Modi's courtship matter in November US elections?

“When people talk about uncles and aunties starting to vote for Trump, it’s more like just the uncles,” Ramakrishnan says.

The tipping factor

Having doubled since 2000, Indian Americans are now the second largest immigrant group in the US and the fastest growing ethnic group among the American electorate. While there has always been a small segment that has voted Republican, largely because it is seen as a party that favours lower tax rates, the majority of the community has traditionally been viewed as favouring Democrats for their pro-immigration stance.

“Do you think there is evidence that Democrats should be worried about Indian American voter attrition?” South Asia Carnegie Fellow Milan Vaishnav asked Democrat Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is on the Indians for Biden National Council advisory board, at the release of the AAPI survey. Krishnamoorthy’s reply was “absolutely”, adding that the Democrats must reach out to Indian Americans, “especially in battleground states” — which include Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida, estimated to hold a fourth of the roughly two million Indian American voters.

American presidential politics heavily depends on state-level dynamics, which can sway the Electoral College. In 2016, Trump had won all the 16 Michigan electoral votes, by a razor-thin margin of 13,000 individual votes, even though Democrats have snagged the state since 1992. Moreover, as per some researchers, the small margins by which Clinton lost many of the oscillating states in 2016 matched the number of Indians who didn’t vote that year. Krishnamoorthi calls these undecided Indian American voters in swing states “the tipping factor”.

While the growing support for Trump among Indian Americans might seem counterintuitive in light of his tough anti-immigration stance and curbs on visas, it is explained by politics back home. Many Trump voters identify with the Narendra Modi government’s stress on nationalism, and its bid, even if ham-handed, to settle divisive issues like Kashmir, terrorism, and illegal immigration, which cast an inordinately large shadow on NRI politics.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (centre) with the family of running mate Kamala Harris (second from left) in Washington. (PTI)

Says Vaishnav, “The Indian-American polarisation dynamic in the US is even more complicated because it’s not just from what’s happening in the four corners of this country, but it’s borrowing from what’s happening in India.”

The turning points

The prominent reasons most Indian Americans cite for shifting Republican all relate to either Democrats’ criticisms of Modi’s actions or Trump’s relationship with the Indian PM.

Two of those turning points came in quick succession towards the end of last year.

In October 2019, in response to a question on Kashmir, Senator Kamala Harris, now Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, said: “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world… There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.”

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Soon after, in December 2019, Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced a resolution in the US House of Representatives “urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir… and preserve religious freedom for all residents”. Jayapal, the first South Asian American women in the US House, said India’s actions in the region were “harmful to our close, critical bilateral relationship”.

Later that month, on a visit to Washington DC, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar refused to meet the US House Foreign Relations Committee because Jayapal was a part of it. “I don’t think (Jayapal’s resolution) is a fair understanding of the situation,” Jaishankar said. Harris condemned this stand, as did another prominent Democrat, Elizabeth Warren. “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris tweeted.

Then, in February this year, as India witnessed widespread protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that is seen as making religion the basis for fast-tracking the immigration process, several American city councils in predominantly liberal bases passed resolutions against the legislation.

The anti-CAA protests were followed by the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi’s history since Partition, coinciding with Trump’s high-profile visit to India, with the Modi government rolling out the red carpet. Bernie Sanders, one of the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time and seen as representing the party’s progressive face, tweeted that Trump’s refusal to comment on the violence (the President said it’s “up to India”) was “a failure of leadership on human rights”.

“We’ve given the Democrats an earful. People are very mad, including me,” says Bharat Barai, a long-time Democrat from Indiana (a battleground state) and a BJP supporter. In the 1990s, Barai had opened his home to Modi, then a party worker, during a trip to the US. He has also hosted over the years senior BJP leaders L K Advani and Prakash Javadekar. After the US decided not to give Modi visa following the 2002 riots, Barai had met influential US Congressmen to get it reversed.

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“What business do American cities have in affairs of another sovereign democratic country? Would you like India’s Parliament to pass resolutions about America violating the rights of Blacks and Hispanics? This smells of colonialism in the name of human rights. They think that India being a poor country they can get involved. We want you (the US president) to be a bridge between India and the US, not to be the mother-in-law of India,” Barai bristles.

The 71-year-old adds that he sees himself as an independent who has voted mostly for Democrats in the past. He even likes Biden, he says, and points out that his daughter is working for the Democratic campaign. “I had approached Biden when I was lobbying Congressmen on the India-US nuclear deal. No Democratic senator had signed on, and he agreed to be the first. I have good relations with him. But I am also pissed off at his Muslim agenda page. I don’t know how I am going to vote now.”

What Barai is referring to is Biden’s ‘Agenda for Muslim-American Communities’, which makes a reference to Kashmir as well as the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), another contentious proposal of the Modi government. Stating that “restrictions on dissent” weaken democracy, the agenda says measures like the NRC and CAA “are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy”.

In contrast to this, Trump has been courting the Indian Americans since his first presidential bid, and recognised Modi’s influence early. In 2016, he told a New Jersey rally by the Republican Hindu coalition, “I’m a big fan of Hindu, and I’m a big fan of India.” Trump was a prominent presence at the Howdy, Modi! event in Houston in September 2019, applauding as a fawning crowd celebrated the Indian PM in blitzy Bollywood style.

The Republican Party’s campaign videos have used visuals of Howdy, Modi!, as well as the corresponding Namaste Trump event held for the US President in Ahmedabad by the Indian PM in February this year. The BJP, however, has cautioned its members in America to not use the party’s name in any electioneering and do so in their individual capacity — it was criticised for not showing similar discretion in 2016 and potentially jeopardising Delhi-Washington ties.

“Trump is invested in the relationship with Modi and you are seeing the returns. The question is can he take a 28% Indian American vote and make it even more in the next 40 days,” says M R Rangaswami, founder of the well-known political and philanthropic network of the Indian diaspora, Indiaspora.

Wake-up call for Democrats

On September 22, at a virtual fundraiser event, a few prominent Indian American businessmen chided Biden on the stand he has taken on issues concerning India, says Sunil Puri, an Illinois real estate developer and former member of Obama’s White House presidential commission on Asian Americans. Puri says he asked the Democrat leader specifically about his ‘Agenda for Muslim Communities’, telling him: “Joe, do you even know that you’re making all these comments about (Article) 370 and Kashmir?” He says Biden promised to look into the matter, even as they pressed him to present an agenda for Hindu Americans.

Biden went on to criticise the Chinese aggression against India at the border.

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As the Democrats realise that the community is feeling betrayed, they are banking on the dynamic, young and articulate Kamala Harris, with her mixed Jamaican and Indian origins, to swing the pendulum back. Since the 77-year-old Biden picked her as his running mate, following her own failed presidential nomination bid, Harris has often talked about her Indian mother and how she was her role model.

In a video that went viral, the 55-year-old cooked masala dosas with another Indian American success story, actor Mindy Kaling, as the two reminisced about growing up in similar households. Much has been made of Harris’s use of the Tamil word “chittis” at the Democratic National Convention.

While he admits the Trump campaign made early gains into the Indian American vote, Shekar Narasimhan, who founded the AAPI Victory Fund to garner support for Democratic candidates, sees Harris making a difference. “Republicans are exploiting the fact that the Democrats are in principle for human rights. Yes, many Democrats have expressed concerns about Kashmir, Article 370, the CAA. But it seems to be affecting primarily the older uncles, and some of the fears of the drift of Indian Americans to Trump are greatly exaggerated. Especially as Harris has made a move to lean into her Indian heritage,” he says.

Chanda Parbhoo, the founder of a Texas Democratic organisation called SAAVE (South Asian Americans for Voter Education Engagement and Empowerment), also acknowledges running up constantly against arguments that “If you like Modi, you gotta like Trump”. Parbhoo has been trying to counter this by disassociating the two. In phone calls with Texan South Asians, she says, she harks back to her own Gujarati roots to underline that she understands Modi’s importance. “We really need to concentrate on what affects our country and not pay attention only to what’s happening an ocean away,” she keeps asserting.

However, Parbhoo adds, it all boils down to Kashmir. “People say that India needs to be supported there, or the country will crumble.” She was surprised when during Modi’s trip to Houston in 2019 she had to take down some of her Facebook posts on the Indian PM as matters heated up in her organisation’s group.

It’s “unfortunate” that some Indian Americans are “buying into the optics of the Trump administration and not looking at its actions”, says Neha Dewan, the National Director of the organisation ‘South Asians for Biden’, which is officially recognised by the Biden campaign.

Democrat leaders like her and former US Ambassador to India Rich Verma remind voters about Obama’s ties with India (he is the only US president to have travelled to India twice while in office), Trump’s revoking of India’s preferential trade status, and the overwhelming green card applications backlog. “He’s stabbing India in the back while courting Indian Americans at Howdy, Modi! rally,” Dewan says.

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Verma has emphasised that Biden, as Vice-President under Obama, set the target of $500 billion in two-way trade between India and the US, and that the Obama-Biden administration signed new defence sales and trade records with India and worked with the country on the Paris Climate Agreement.

At a seminar on Harris and the Indian American electorate at Princeton University on September 18, Western Washington University Political Science Professor

Dr Bidisha Biswas referred to the fact that Indian politics was at “an inflection point” to underline the importance of her candidature. “As Indian Americans look to shape US-India relations, having Kamala Harris there as vice-president could really influence how that journey builds,” she said, arguing that Harris gave a chance for Indian Americans “who are troubled by Prime Minister Modi’s policy (but) are very vociferous supporters (of his)” to matter in Washington’s relationship with Delhi. In contrast, she said, “Trump doesn’t care either way.”

New vs old immigrant

Indian Americans are not the only ones deeply divided as the Trump presidency polarises the US. However, unlike other racial demographics, the defining aspect of Indian American fissures is not age, but whether they were born in the US. According to AAPI data, those born overseas are 15% more likely to vote Republican this time compared to 2016. Among those born in the US, the shift is much less: 7%.

Sampat Shivangani, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, is clear about this difference. “It’s not that I like Trump’s personality, but I like that he is standing for India. Meanwhile Kamala avoids claiming she is Indian American. My views are India-centric, ‘Who is good for India?’. My daughter says she hates Trump, but then I say, ‘Do you like India?’. The younger people who never saw India, they are Democrats. But whether we like or dislike Trump, we like our Motherland.”

This leads to a jagged age correlation. Among Indian Americans, 81% between ages 18 and 34 are Democrat supporters. This drops to 56% in the 35-49 age group, before rising again to 72% among those 50 and above. Corresponding Republican support is 17%, 43% and 28%.

Incidentally, a majority of Indians immigrate to the US in their 20s and 30s — carrying over nostalgia for the Motherland that is translating into Republican support.

“I was struck during the Howdy, Modi! event that people of my parents’ generations were so excited, waiting in line to see Modi, while their kids were out protesting,” remarks Vaishnav, who is set to release multiple surveys on the Indian American electorate in October. His family came over from Gujarat in the late 1960s.

However, Vaishnav points out, the 50,000-plus who packed that stadium in Houston might be a dwindling proportion. “I have a long-term hypothesis that the Indian American community that the government of India has come to know, today’s aunties and uncles, are not the same as the next generation,” he says. Noting that 1.5 lakh Indian Americans become eligible to vote every year, Vaishnav says, “These new voters might not be interested in India at all.”

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