Talk about cognitive dissonance.
A report of a survey of Indian-American attitudes published this month by political scientists Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, and Milan Vaishnav for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found, in a nutshell, that Indian-Americans largely support Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi though the community holds a range of views about the prospects for India’s future.
In significant measure, Modi’s popularity reflects the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding investment in cultivating the Indian diaspora, starting in the 1980s, as a source of ideological and financial support for the projects of the Hindu Right. Initiatives like the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and Person of Indian Origin and Overseas Citizen of India cards that were implemented by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government further drove home the distance for the diaspora between the BJP’s prescient energy and Congress’ lethargy on this front.
Since rising to power, Modi has both acknowledged this debt and made additional rounds of investment in it through his visits to the United States. The centerpieces of his 2014 and 2019 visits were his stadium-rock performances, replete with Bollywood songs and dancing skeletons, to screaming hordes of Indian-American doctors, scientists, lawyers, motel owners, and vegetarianism-promoting students from assorted Hindu Student Councils in American universities.
Yet, the same Indian-American community largely votes Democrat, as highlighted by another Carnegie report published by the very same scholars a few months ago, on October 15, 2020. The inaugural comment on the first page of the report states, “on issues ranging from immigration to press freedom, the policy preferences of Indian-Americans line up remarkably well with those of the political Left. Indeed, the leading reason Democrats and independents cite for their aversion to the Republican Party is the latter’s intolerance of minorities.”
To whatever extent their votes counted, then, the Indian-American community played a role, even if symbolic, in rendering former US President Donald Trump a one-termer. No surprise that during his tenure, Trump and his views found many more takers among fringe and crackpot Hindu groups in India who would feed cake to cardboard cutouts of the former US President on the event of his birthday.
Now, it is indeed the case that Indian-Americans have historically voted Democrat. A 2012 article in the BBC that examined the reasons for Indian-American support for the Democratic Party highlighted strong community support for the Democrats in a survey of political preferences: “Of all the Asian American groups surveyed, Indian-Americans were the most Democratic-leaning, again at 65%.” So perhaps the contradiction between voting Democrat or disliking Trump, on the one hand, and backing Modi, on the other, should not strike any observer of Indian-American matters as particularly surprising.
And yet, given the current state of affairs in India and the uncanny similarity between the issues that bedevil the world’s largest democracies (in name, at least), the support for Modi among a big chunk of Indian-Americans, whether these are first-generation immigrants or communities with older histories in the US, strikes one as inexplicably bizarre.
India has been plagued by attacks on minorities since Modi’s ascension to the Indian prime ministership in 2014. Note that intolerance towards minorities is one of the reasons why Indian-Americans support the Democratic Party and shy away from Republicans. Trump’s cultivation of a White supremacist base, like Modi’s constant feeding of the Hindu Right monster, is what led Indian-Americans to vote for Biden in the 2020 American elections.
The Carnegie Endowment Report of February 2021 also points out that immigration and press freedom are two other issues on which Indian-American attitudes align with those of the American Left and the Democratic Party. Those are the two very areas on which Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and the BJP government have faced justified criticisms and widespread protests.
The ruthless stifling of dissent, whether of journalists in small towns across India, activists and lawyers fighting for rights, or critics on social media, has become the new normal in India under the BJP, with a pliant and terrified press quietly falling in line. For example, the resignation of Facebook’s Public Policy director, Katie Harbath, a few days ago is very plausibly a quid pro quo for the resignation of Facebook India executive Ankhi Das following complaints about the latter’s public record of anti-Muslim remarks.
Das, who reportedly expressed open support for the BJP on internal company communications, had to go to maintain Facebook’s image as a company globally committed to human rights. The resignation of Habarth, who was Das’ boss, may have been the Modi government’s pound of flesh in return for having to sacrifice Das.
Trump’s demonization of immigrants as rapists and thieves and his brutal and inhuman policies of separating children of undocumented immigrants from their families find parallels in the Modi government’s scaremongering about illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India. The BJP government also forced through the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which, combined with a proposed National Register of Citizens, threatens to disenfranchise Muslim Indians by designating them as illegal Bangladeshi or Pakistani migrants.
To cut a long story short, the similarities between Trump and Modi are remarkable to the point that they might well fit the cinematic Bollywood trope of bichchde huey judwaa bhai, or the twin brothers who get separated at a mela or fair, one of whom somehow becomes the American President and the other the Indian Prime Minister.
So, what gives? In seeking to unravel this mystery, two crucial facts should be noted. First, the dominant groups among Indian-Americans happen to be Hindus and, second, they happen to be upper-caste Hindus. The history of migration from the Indian subcontinent to America reveals a much more diverse set of groups in terms of class, caste, region, and religion, as the work of scholars like Maia Ramnath on the Gadar Party, Nayan Shah on the intimate relationships between different communities of global migrants, and Vivek Bald on ‘Bengali Harlem’ and Indian Muslim immigration to the US shows.
Yet, the economic and ideological dominance of upper-caste professional migrants, especially those working in the STEM fields, among Indian-Americans has meant that they have become the face and voice of the community at large and that their views, perspectives, and interests have shaped self-serving and self-sustaining myths about the community.
These myths will be well known to anyone of Indian origin in the US and are routinely repeated and celebrated in India or ‘back home’ as well. Indian-Americans are hard working (unlike, by implication, other immigrant communities), with the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US. Indian-Americans have made it on their own steam, embodying the American dream and the principle of merit. Indian-Americans are model minorities. Indian-Americans excel at hard subjects in university and in hard fields. Indian-Americans are ideal immigrants and ideal expatriates too.
And, perhaps most perniciously, Indian-Americans do not believe in casteism, religious discrimination, or any kind of bias, even if, well, they proudly wear their caste identities on their sleeves or support Modi. All they want is for India to have a strong and confident leader who will help it develop into a global superpower.
But the rhetoric of technocratic communities devoted to apolitical excellence and the emphasis on the ideology of merit serve to draw a veil over the reality of immense privilege enjoyed by much of the Indian-American community, including Modi-supporting Democrat-leaning constituents. In her recent work, the scholar Ajantha Subramanian explores the relationship between caste and the notion of meritocracy that is so central to the self-image of elite Indians and elite Indian-Americans.
Subramanian shows how the fact of upper-caste identity and privilege has been rendered invisible in conversations about and within Indian communities, thanks to a dominant narrative that these groups have, in fact, escaped discrimination in India and made it to the land of the fair and free where, mostly unhindered by reservations for lower-castes, they have flourished. The upper-caste Indian is, like all privileged and dominant groups, constructed as the universal Indian, just as White identity is the assumed, invisible norm when it comes to race in the US.
Duplicity of perspective
At the same time, Indian-Americans, or more specifically, upper-caste Hindu Indian-Americans, have managed, in the American context, to have their identity cake and eat it too. We do not hesitate to reap the benefits of affirmative action and generally support the policy, though we oppose it where we feel it works to the disadvantage of our children. We embrace secularism, separation of church and state, and freedom of religion and expression in the US because that allows us to be who we are, to celebrate our heritage, culture, and identity, to worship as we please. We talk a fine and woke game about the cultural appropriation of yoga, neem, basmati rice, or haldi dudh. We outrage about the stereotyping of Indian accents, as in the case of Apu from The Simpsons.
Much, indeed most, of this is well within our rights and reasonable. Like any other group in the US, we are entitled to equality, freedom, respect, and dignity. But, on what basis then, do we, or sections of our Indian-American community, enthusiastically endorse and support those in India, whether the Hindu Right, RSS, BJP, Modi, Shah, or Twitter trolls, who have denied Indian caste and religious minorities their constitutional rights and made everyday life violent, anxiety-ridden, and utterly inhospitable for them?
Those who are guilty of this duplicity of perspective, after all, include in their ranks very accomplished people, who, one would surmise, are too smart to not see the contradiction.
Such blindness, however, itself stems from the extreme privilege of which it is a symptom. And that privilege melds easily with a self-valorising hypocrisy. Upper-caste Indian migrants, for example, see themselves as rooted in an Indian ‘middle class’ which had to fight against handouts to Dalits and Muslims to make it to the US.
It is this story, repeated endlessly in Indian drawing rooms and Indian-American living rooms which allows many privileged upper-caste Indian-Americans to believe that their experiences, rather than those of the Dalit community in India, have much in common with the political and social struggles of the African-American community. The Hindu Right’s narrative of Muslims as invaders and, in a post-9/11 context, as terrorists, enables Indian-Americans to see themselves as a victimised majority in India while also being a vulnerable minority in an America in which White supremacy has been resurgent.
For all the rigours of the excellent technical education that many Indian-Americans have received, their inability to see their own hypocrisy demonstrates an utter lack of imaginative empathy with the situation of minorities in India today. Perhaps, one day, when the thrill of Modi dancing on stage has worn off and the oceans of praise about Indian greatness routinely generated by the community have calmed down, we will see minorities in India with the same lens through which we see ourselves here.
Rohit Chopra is associate professor of communication at Santa Clara University.