Jatin Upadhyay (47) has fond memories of the first time he voted for a presidential candidate in the United States. It was 2008 and the excitement over the possibility of a first Black president was running high. He had been an immigrant in the country for more than a decade and had acquired citizenship just a couple of years back. “At that moment, I did not think or do a lot of research before voting. One or two things mattered to me. The fact that Obama being a Black candidate was important to me,” says Upadhyay, who currently works at a technology company in the Silicon Valley.
Twelve years later, as yet another presidential election is round the corner, it is his daughter, Stuti Upadhyay (18) who is voting for the first time. “It is a crazy election to be voting in for the first time. The stakes are really high, and I fear that Trump would come back to power again,” she says.
She says as a first time voter, she has been having quite a few discussions with her family on political developments, but that she often does disagree with her parents’ point of view. “Perhaps it’s because they are immigrants and have grown up in India, and I have been educated here, our perspectives differ on certain matters,” she says.
Her father agrees. “For instance, we would be more inclined towards a candidate that is supportive of India. Stuti would take a more holistic approach and examine the candidate’s opinions on other issues as well,” he explains.
However, the father-daughter duo does agree on the fact that in the present political climate, racial equality is one of the most important issues for both of them. Reportedly, millions are voting for the first time in the US presidential elections this year. For the citizens of Indian descent voting for the first time, rising racial tensions, a raging pandemic and a struggling economy are some of the key issues on which they are deciding their vote.
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For 22-year old Maya Desai, the hatred and oppression created in the last four years of the Trump administration is reason enough to not think twice before voting in favour of anyone standing against him. Desai was born in the US, but moved to Ahmedabad in India when she was 16. Being far away from her country of birth, she says, has played a role in disconnecting her from US politics. “However, in the last four years, social media has played an important role in helping me see the problems created by Trump,” she says.
Desai, however, is also disappointed seeing her relatives in the US, many of whom are inclined towards the re-election of Trump. “They are just kind people that I grew up with and I don’t understand why they are voting for him. It is mainly because he was a businessman before becoming president, and many people have high hopes for the economy from him,” she says.
Smitha Samuel and her husband Shyju Samuel, who became citizens of the US just two years back, agree that the Trump administration’s economic policies and tax cuts are good for a middle class family. “But I want my children to be in a nation where there won’t be any racism or white supremacy. That is why I plan to vote for Biden,” says Smitha (41), who lives in Houston, Texas.
Being devout Christians, the couple initially vested their interests in Trump since they felt he shared many of their values and beliefs. But with the issue of racism finally taking centre stage in the United States, both Shyju and Smitha believe it may be time for change.
For Shyju, the decision ultimately boils down to the question of character. “If your heart is in the right place, yes, you can lead a country, you can lead the entire world. So I think that is the difference,” says the 43-year-old, who works as a data analyst at an oil and gas company. “I don’t think either candidate has the right character or attitude. So I’m in a mixed position right now.”
Being new citizens, the elections also meant that the couple has been spending the last few weeks poring through news articles, scrolling down campaign websites and listening intently to heated presidential debates and town halls to learn all she can about the two candidates vying for the White House.
Indians form the second largest group of immigrants who have got citizenship in the US in the last four years and those from Mexico. The number has also consistently risen in the last four years. While 42,213 Indians got citizenship in 2015, the number rose to 46,188 in 2016, 50,802 in 2017, 52,194 in 2019 and 64,631 in 2019.
New York-based writer and international security expert Ankit Panda, who acquired citizenship in the US in 2019, is also excited to vote for the first time. He says that although he became a citizen fairly smoothly under the Trump regime, his was an unusual case and it’s not that common or easy for Indian immigrants in the current political climate. “I am not really deliberating between the two candidates. I would be voting for Joe Biden and my primary concern is to see a peaceful transfer of power after the elections,” he says.
As an expert on international relations, Panda says US-India relations in the last two decades has seen a steady upward trajectory, and I feel that would remain the case if Trump were to be re-elected or if Biden comes to power. Speaking about Biden’s statements towards Indian issues like the government’s policy towards Kashmir, Panda says, “most Indians in America are voting as Americans, and this is not something that would affect their choice.”
“My main concerns are to get the coronavirus pandemic under control and help the US economy get back on its feet,” he says.
The presidential elections in America this year is of special significance to India and Indians across the world on account of the fact that for the very first time, an American with Indian descent is running for the post of vice-president. Does her appearance in the electoral stage impact the way the first time Indian-American voter is thinking of their voter? Panda stops for a moment to think. “I like Kamala Harris, but I don’t know if it’s because of her background. Nonetheless, the fact that she has an Indian descent is only a positive,” he says.
Stuti Upadhyay on the other hand is immensely excited about Harris’ running for vice president. “Indians and minorities in general are so rarely at the political stage at such a large level. I am interested in political science but I have never come across a political figure who is Indian in the US,” she says. “I am so excited to see an Indian as one of the most important officials in the country.”