Indian Americans, while broadly still supportive of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have mixed opinions about India’s trajectory as a democracy, according to a new report released on Tuesday.
The Indian American Attitudes Survey, conducted in September 2020, recorded the responses of 1,200 Indian Americans to a series of questions on how connected they are to India and how they view Indian political developments. A significant 39% of the respondents believe India is currently on the wrong track, while 36% believe it is on the right track.
With a population of over 4 million, Indian Americans are now the second largest immigrant group in America, and wooing them has been an important element of the Modi government’s foreign policy. Support for him, the survey shows, is highest among Hindus and Republicans in the diaspora.
The survey, which is a collaboration between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Johns Hopkins-SAIS and the University of Pennsylvania, found that respondents are most concerned about government corruption and the economy in India. On average, they take a more liberal stand on issues like religious freedoms and immigration when it comes to the US but take a more conservative turn on similar issues in India.
Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the report’s authors, said that concerns over government corruption and the economy might resonate with the diaspora because it points to why many moved to the US in the first place.
“One of the most consistent refrains during Modi’s first term was that he really put India on the map,” he said. “There has been a sense amongst the diaspora that India has been seen as a large country, but not a particularly important one – and they believe that under Modi, India has the potential to be both large and important.”
Who Is A Modi Supporter?
The range of political awareness and opinions among the survey’s respondents reflects the diverse demographics of the diaspora.
“Overall, our sample supports Modi more than they don’t,” said Sumitra Badrinathan, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the report. “But when you break that up, you see stark differences by religion, age, education, etc.”
Modi’s support is highest among self-identified Republicans and Hindu members of the diaspora: almost seven in 10 Hindus approve of Modi’s performance, while only one in five Muslims approve of it. His approval rating is highest among those above the age of 50, while 43% of the survey’s youngest respondents (those aged between 18 and 29) disapprove of him. Modi is also more popular among recent immigrants when compared to those who have been in the US for over 25 years. Interestingly, respondents who disapproved of former President Donald Trump are divided in their opinion on Modi: 41% approve of him, while 38% disapprove.
Many in the diaspora are more liberal on issues of rights and freedoms in the US but assume a more conservative stand when those issues arise in India. For example, while 90% of Indian Americans believe in the equal treatment of people belonging to different religions in a general context, only 49% oppose the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act. On the question of illegal immigration, 69% of Indian Americans generally support liberal policies towards undocumented immigrants – but just 45% of the respondents expressed opposition on the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens.
“The survey reveals that people have one view in India, and a very different view in the US,” said Badrinathan. The authors asked questions on Hindu majoritarianism in India, and white supremacy in the US. “People say that Hindu majoritarianism is a problem in India, but a larger proportion say that white supremacy is a problem in the US,” she said.
In other words, Indian Americans believe white supremacy is a greater threat to minorities in the US, where they are a minority, than Hindu majoritarianism is to minorities in India. Hinduism is the most common faith amongst Indian Americans. Only 40% of the survey’s Hindu respondents see Hindu majoritarianism as a threat to minorities in India, compared to 67% of the non-Hindu respondents.
The difference of opinion also extends across generations. Second-generation immigrants and younger immigrants are known to be more liberal and progressive than their parents, and are also slightly less connected to the country of their parents’ origin. According to Vaishnav, this distance from India allows younger Indian Americans to have a more removed perspective on Indian politics.
“I think many are quite taken aback by some of the signs of democratic backsliding that we see in India,” he said. “Issues like the crackdown on protesters and freedom of speech resonate with young people.”
Badrinathan also pointed to the role social media plays in both creating political awareness and helping youth to organise. Most Indian Americans get their news on Indian politics from social media, which older members of the diaspora would not have had when they first immigrated.
“We’re connected in ways we never were before. One tweet can reach pretty much the whole world and people become aware of news,” said Badrinathan, referring to popstar Rihanna’s tweet on the farmers’ protests in India. “Younger people are better at using social media to organise, and so even though they’re a smaller minority, they might be a louder minority.”
The report reveals that most respondents generally believe that US-India relations are going well, and found that foreign-born respondents are more supportive of the US strengthening India’s military as a check on China. The report also explores how connected the diaspora is to India: one in two Indian Americans feels personally connected to India, and this connection is stronger among those born outside the US.
“The Indian diaspora has always been seen as an important bridge-builder [between India and the US],” said Vaishnav. “So, the larger takeaway for me is that there is a fracturing within the community.”
“If anything, this data shows that the diaspora is not a monolith,” said Badrinathan.