Indian-Americans as a population have always leaned towards the Democratic party in US presidential elections. The choice of Kamala Harris – the first-ever person of Indian origin to be featured on major party ticket – as the vice presidential candidate for the Democrats would have you thinking that the Indian-American vote might be even more solidly behind her and Joe Biden’s party.
And yet, on some corners of the internet and among certain sections of the Indian-American community, there has been a push in the other direction. Much of this effort rests on the suggestion that the Biden-Harris, which is comfortably ahead US President Donald Trump in the polls, would be “anti-India.”
The presumption here is that Biden, Harris and the Democratic party has been critical of some moves made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, such as the unilateral stripping of autonomy and subsequent political crackdown in Kashmir as well as the discriminatory Citizenship Act amendments in 2019.
This coupled with Trump’s perceived close relationship with Modi, who all but endorsed the US president at a rally in Texas in 2019, has prompted some to proclaim that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have “an anti-India stance” – which, in their reading, also overlaps with an “anti-Hindu position.”
But do Indian-American believe that a Biden-Harris administration will be against India’s best interests?
A recent report, published by AAPI Data, a group that researches Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in collaboration with the nonprofit Indiaspora, suggested that a higher number of Indian-Americans are likely to vote for President Donald Trump in the upcoming general election when compared to 2016.
The survey supports an emerging narrative that Indian-Americans are defecting from the Democratic party towards the Republican party over concerns that a Democratic administration — with presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris at the helm — will be “anti-India.” However, experts believe that this is not necessarily true.
Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – which is helping conduct a separate poll of Indian-Americans – is skeptical of the narrative that a Biden-Harris administration will be “anti-India.”
He thinks that Trump’s relationship with Modi, and by extension the Republican party’s affinity for the Indian government, is being played up by the Republicans to peel off Indian-American voters from the Democrats.
“There may well be a shift towards the Republicans, but in my opinion it will be pretty modest,” said Vaishnav, especially since sitting presidents up for reelection are no longer unknown political figures.
Sanjeev Joshipura, a former Republican who is now national director of the Indians for Biden National Council, agrees.
“While there is a small but perceptible shift towards President Trump, it is nowhere near the outlandish claims being made by Indian Trump supporters,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, those are vacuous pronouncements.”
These include claims like the fact that Trump spoke to 10,000 Indian-Americans on a special phone call, or that over 50% of the Indian-American vote will go to Trump.
In reality, the AAPI and Indiaspora survey states that 66% of Indian-American voters support Joe Biden, and 28% support Trump — up from 16% in support of Trump in 2016.
The survey doesn’t explain the reason for the shift, though many Indian-American Republican supporters believe it could be because the Democrats take a more hardline stance on Indian domestic issues as opposed to Trump’s wholehearted embrace of Modi.
“[Trump] has really invested time and energy in our community,” said MR Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora and a Silicon Valley investor, referring to the “Howdy Modi” event in Texas, 2019 and the Namaste Trump event in Ahmedabad, 2020. “It’s not surprising to see the increase in his voting share.”
On the other hand, Joe Biden has criticised the Indian government’s decision to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act and has stated his disappointment over the National Register of Citizen’s implementation in Assam. Kamala Harris has also been critical of the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir.
In response to a question on human rights abuses in Kashmir while she was still in the presidential race in September 2019, Harris said that “we are all watching” the situation, and that the United States needs to re-appoint an Ambassador to Pakistan to have any meaningful influence in the region.
Additionally, the Democrats stood behind Representative Pramila Jayapal and extended support to her when Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar refused to meet her during a visit to Washington D.C. because of her stance on Kashmir. She introduced a Congressional resolution in December 2019 urging the Modi government to end communication restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir, and preserve the religious freedom of all citizens. Harris tweeted her support of Jayapal, and stated that it was “wrong” of a foreign government to demand that Jayapal should be excluded from meetings on Capitol Hill.
Puneet Ahluwalia, a business consultant who is now running for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, thinks the shift among Indian-American voters away from the Democrats is natural, and a testament to the Republican party’s policies.
“I believe Indian-Americans are seeing the values that the Republican party stands for. We stand for less regulation, less taxes and strong defense: for example, the Chinese incursion along India’s border has opened the voters’ eyes to the fact that India needs a reliable partner with strong defense. The [Republican Party] has always been strong on defense and national security,” said Ahluwalia.
Rangaswami, the head of Indiaspora, says that this shift is due to older voters — immigrants above the age of 50 who were born in India and moved to the US — for whom a relationship between both heads of state is important. According to him, younger immigrants are more liberal, and Indian-Americans born in the US are less tied to Indian domestic politics.
Joshipura, who has managed a Republican US Senate campaign in Illinois and was an active volunteer on various other Republican campaigns until 2014-15, says that Biden and Harris are a much better option for the Indian diaspora and for India-US relations when compared to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“If you look at the campaign platform that Biden and Harris have released, you will come away convinced that this ticket is by far the better ticket for Indian-Americans,” he said. “Granted that there is bonhomie and glitzy optics between Trump and Modi; however there is a massive gap between the rhetoric and the reality,” Joshipura added, citing Trump’s comments on Indian tariffs, his hateful language towards immigrants, and recent visa changes including a freeze on H-1B visas.
According to Vaishnav, AAPI’s survey isn’t fully representative of Indian-American voting patterns because of its small sample size and large margin of error. He also says that the survey’s comparison between post-election data from 2016 and pre-election data from 2020 doesn’t provide an accurate picture of the current sociopolitical climate. However, his assessment that foreign policy tends not to be a primary determinant of vote choice on election day lines up with the survey’s findings.
Of the issues relevant to Indian-American voters in the survey, foreign policy in Asia has a low priority. Instead, bread and butter issues like education, the economy, healthcare, and the environment rank highest with racial discrimination, police reforms, national security and immigration coming next.
“At the end of the day, Indian Americans vote like everybody else,” said Vaishnav.