The rise of the Indian-American voter

Beyond the major headlines surrounding the US presidential election, a little-noticed development is attracting attention both in India and among American campaign strategists. The rising influence of the Indian-American community in the United States—though barely 1% of the electorate—has made it impossible for the world’s oldest democracy to ignore the world’s largest.

Indian-Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the US, and among the fastest-growing—up by nearly 150% over the last decade. They also are more affluent and highly educated than any other ethnic group, with a median income nearly double the national average (estimated at US$100,000 in 2015). And they have been remarkably active politically, as voters, campaigners, donors and candidates. In the past two decades, two state governors, one US senator, five members of the House of Representatives and now a vice presidential candidate have been Americans of Indian descent.

No wonder both major parties are actively courting Indian-American voters, a significant number of whom reside in potential swing states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Both presidential candidates have released television commercials in Indian languages on the leading networks broadcasting Indian programming in the US, and Joe Biden used the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi to woo Indian-American voters.

On the Democratic side, Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, has openly embraced her roots, using a Tamil term to describe her Indian aunts in her nomination acceptance speech this August. She has spoken at length about her Indian ancestry, as well as visits to her grandfather and the conversations they had during seaside walks in Chennai. Moreover, Indian-American celebrities have campaigned enthusiastically for the Biden–Harris ticket, with one fundraiser in September reportedly pulling in a record-breaking US$3.3 million from the Indian-American community.

For his part, US President Donald Trump responded to the Harris nomination with a campaign ad featuring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he has lavishly praised throughout his first term. As right-wing populists with a deep suspicion of minorities and a barely concealed bias against Muslims, Trump and Modi have developed something of a ‘bromance’. They have even held joint campaign-style rallies, sharing the stage at a ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Texas and a ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

The Republicans have created a campaign organisation called Indian Voices for Trump, as well as various sub-groups to target Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Indian-American voters separately. And Trump’s handlers recently arranged for their candidate to preside over a rare White House naturalisation ceremony featuring a sari-draped Indian-born software engineer.

All of this attention has led some observers to suggest that Indian-Americans, who traditionally lean Democratic, may shift their support to Trump this election. There has certainly been a modest realignment from eight years ago, when 84% of them voted to re-elect President Barack Obama. Still, a recent YouGov poll finds that 72% of Indian-American voters support Biden, and, as one recent study concluded, ‘Indian Americans continue to be strongly attached to the Democratic Party, with little indication of a shift toward the Republican Party’. When Trump described India’s air as ‘filthy’ at the second presidential debate, Biden was quick to reply that he wouldn’t insult a friend that way.

However, there are larger fault lines emerging within the Indian-American community. India’s diaspora, though collectively influential, is deeply divided by ideology, religion, age, immigration history and even caste.

Modi, for example, is a deeply polarising figure among Indian-Americans. Those who support him do so passionately, applauding his tough stance on issues such as Kashmir and Pakistan and his advocacy of an assertive majoritarian Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) ideology. They cheered for his government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and his participation in a ceremony breaking ground for the construction of a Ram temple on the site of a demolished mosque.

But Indian-Americans of a more liberal bent oppose Modi just as intensely. While their counterparts have cheered Modi’s every appearance in America, they have protested outside his rallies, decrying his human-rights record. Modi’s popularity among some Indian-American voters probably accounts for the slight shift towards Trump, but they are still far outnumbered by those expressing support for the Democratic ticket.

Both tickets have their drawbacks, though. Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric and policies—including severe restrictions on H-1B visas, which have disproportionately hurt Indian tech professionals—certainly haven’t helped his standing in the Indian-American community. But it remains to be seen how much the Democrats will be helped or harmed by their own politicians’ unsparing criticism of Modi. Representatives Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Ro Khanna of California, echoed by Harris, have condemned the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir.

If Biden wins, Harris’s presence in the administration will ensure that India isn’t overlooked, let alone forgotten. But that attention will cut both ways. Harris is bound to be a strong voice for democracy and human rights generally, which could put her at odds with the Modi government. When politicians have special ties to another country, they are more likely to adopt passionate and principled positions towards it. But this is not always welcome within that country, as would surely be the case with Modi and his allies.

Modi’s Indian-American supporters may feel that Trump’s re-election would be ‘good for India’. But while Trump has uncritically embraced Modi and his Hindutva agenda—and there has been growing convergence on security co-operation, especially in view of Chinese assertiveness in the region—his administration has not always been helpful to India. From tariffs and immigration restrictions to environmental politics, US policies over the past four years have needled New Delhi.

Those Indian-Americans who dislike Trump can argue that a Democratic administration could hardly be worse. And Trump’s close identification with Modi will affect the votes of Modi’s Indian-American opponents.

When asked recently by a White House reporter whether he thinks Indian-Americans will be voting for him, Trump confidently replied: ‘I do.’ We’ll soon learn if he was right.