Democrats’ push to bring ‘caste’ into US politics, their opposition to India’s CAA, and the revocation of Article 370 have alienated many Indian Americans. Democrats’ overt support of racial quotas, diversity, and equity, and the scrapping of standardized tests in college admissions also hurt Indian Americans.
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in New York on 20 June2023, aboard Air India One, India was the world’s most populous democracy and the third-largest economy based on purchasing power parity (5th in nominal GDP). It was also the first time in US history that an Indian American was already second in line to occupy that coveted chair in the Oval Office. Moreover, two children of Indian American immigrants were in the race to unseat President Biden next November. Also, for the first time.
MrModi was in the US on his 3-day state visit, his eighth to the US as India’s PM. As usual, Mr Modi kept a tight schedule from the get-go. He was President Biden’s and the First Lady DrJill Biden’s guest at the White House for a state dinner. Mr Modi led the International Day of Yoga event under the aegis of the United Nations. He addressed the joint sitting of the US Congress and participated in a joint press conference with POTUS Biden. He met with several intellectuals, thought leaders, and business and tech executives.
Before boarding his night flight to Egypt, PM Modi’s last stop was the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Washington, DC. The rumour was that a significant diaspora event would happen in Chicago. But evidently, things did not work out. Due to security concerns, the organizers had to move the event inside to a much smaller area at the Reagan Building.
Despite setbacks, there was no shortage of excitement. People from all walks came to D.C. dressed in their Indian best. “The phenomenal response to this event suggests Diaspora’s support for the deep commitment to a close partnership between these two great nations,” said Bharat Barai MD, the spokesperson of the US Indian Community Foundation. The Foundation had organized the event.
Mary Millben’s rendition of the Jana GanaManaelectrified the crowd, and 16-year-old Riya Pawar’s Star-Spangled Banner brought everyone to their feet. Mr Modi praised Mr Biden as a simple and experienced leader. He talked about his initiative Make in India but added Make for the World. He said he’s making India a hub in the supply chain. These initiatives, Mr Modi said, will take US-India ties to a new height.
India will also open a new consulate in Seattle, WA, said Mr Modi. He mentioned two new US consulates—one in Ahmedabad and one in Bengaluru. Mr Modi also announced setting up a Tamil Studies Chair at the University of Houston and changing requirements for H1B visas. He also talked about his deal with the US government to return lost or stolen Indian heritage.
India’s relationswith the US have come a long way since the gloomy socialist Cold War days. Things started to brighten up during George W. Bush’s presidency. By then, India, Constitutionally still a “Socialist” country, had already implemented far-reaching economic liberalization programs under the leadership of PM P.V. Narasimha Rao. That, combined with the opening of its market of a billion strong Indians with growing aspirations and a growing middle class, made India far more lucrative for Americans than ever.
In one of her Washington Post op-eds, George Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described India as a “rising democratic power in a dynamic Asia.” That op-ed was a recognition of India’s growing clout in the world. The subsequent Obama administration carried forward that approach toward India. In his 2016 speech at the US Congress, PM Modi acknowledged that both US and India have overcome “the hesitations of history.”
According to Rich Varma, the former US Ambassador to India, the history of the Indo-US relationship is marked by “the periods of alignment, disinterest, frustration, and convergence” (Overcoming the Hesitations of History: An Analysis of US-India Ties, Ph.D. dissertation, Georgetown University, 2020).
However, during the Clinton presidency, the Indo-US relationship started moving positively. For his part, Mr Clinton initiated the de-coupling of India and Pakistan policy. Presidents Bush, Obama, and a largely transactional Trump kept that spirit going. Akhil Ramesh says the same spirit is kept alive under Biden and Modi. Ramesh is a Senior Fellow at Pacific Forum, a US-based think tank.
THE TRACK 2 SPOILSPORTS
“The New Indian Leader Comes Begging” was how a newspaper from Alabama headlined Indian PM Indira Gandhi’s US visit in 1966. In 2023, the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote: “As the new era of competition with China arrives, the US needs more reliable friends. India is a crucial one, arguably the most important in the Indo-Pacific after Japan. Let’s hope the warm welcome to Mr Modi is followed by warmer economic and security ties.”
If that wasn’t enough, the Democrat Congressman Ro Khanna, often seen as a critic of Mr Modi, took a positive view of his US visit. In a media interview, he said the “US-India partnership will be one of the most significant of this century.” Former South Carolina governor and current Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said, “It is entirely appropriate that Prime Minister Modi should address Congress and be celebrated at the White House.”
However, celebrating Mr Modi at the White House, the rousing welcome at a joint sitting of the Congress, and the euphoria of Mr Modi’s presence at the diaspora meeting presents a disconnect, a mismatch of sorts.
“This partnership is government to government or a Track 1 success story, not a Track 2,” says Ramesh. “As [Sabrina] Siddiqui episode illustrates,” explains Ramesh, “Track 2 is waiting right around the corner to play the spoilsport. This is where the mismatch comes to play. “While Track 1 wants to ride the moment, Track 2 wants to sabotage the relationship,” he says.
Siddiqui, a Wall Street Journal White House reporter, was assigned to ask a question at the Biden-Modi joint press conference. With many topics to choose from, MsSiddiqui wasted this opportunity by asking Mr Modi about the situation of Muslim “minorities” in India.
Mr Modi has answered such questions since 2002 and did not disappoint most Indians. Mr Modi spoke in Hindi, and with his answer, he demonstrated to his constituents back home how biased and out of sync the Western media is.
India lost agency in her narrative due to Islamic and British colonization and a Marxist stranglehold over its education after its Independence in 1947.
In the beginning, most US Centers for South Asian Studies were primarily run by the intelligence wing of the US. Many South Asian scholars were spies of the US government.
On the other hand, until 1991, according to Nicholas Dirks (Chancellor, UC Berkley), the most significant percentage of active South Asia academics were in religion and philosophy. Many of these scholars would do missionary work in India.
These South Asia departments were primarily an American affair. It wasn’t until the 1990s that more Indian scholars were hired in these departments. Even among Indians, those who came after the 1990s probably knew that pursuing a pro-India stance won’t get them anywhere. Even today, as the AEI scholar and WSJ columnist SadanandDhume writes, these scholars “understandably believe that parroting left-wing talking points… is required to succeed in their fields.”
The recent US visit of Rahul Gandhi exposed this leftwing nexus. Stanford University hosted Mr Gandhi and gave him a platform to undermine India’s democratic institutions. Interestingly, Stanford also “works closely with US national security state,” said Mike Benz, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US State Department. The university “had partnered with censorship firms who led an effort to silence populist groups on the Internet in India,” said Benz.
This author has covered Mr Gandhi’s US trip in some detail earlier.
Generations of leaders, public intellectuals, scholars, and media persons in the US have also grown up with a Pakistan focus owing to the Cold War legacy. These experts often prioritize “US-Pakistan relations” over “US-India relations.” Ramesh writes that organizations and scholars prioritizing US-Pakistan relations “have a hard time switching to US-India relations and often contribute commentary that is highly disconnected from the region.”
Most of these experts also hide their lack of knowledge and understanding of India by calling themselves “South Asia” experts.
EYES ON 2024?
Many analysts ask what political dividends Mr Biden can expect from these overtures towards India and Mr Modi.
As expected, Mr Biden has recently announced that he is running for reelection. His lacklustre poll numbers, however, give his handlers no room for error. Mr Biden is highly unpopular, including among Democrats. His approval ratings hover around 40%. Combine it with high inflation, a botched pandemic response, and mandates, a war America should have won within days of its starting over a year ago, and most importantly, the physical and mental health of Mr Biden.
The pictures could be more pretty. Biden also faces stiff competition from the rising intra-party challenger Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
It is not that Democrats and Mr Biden need the Indian American votes to win elections, except perhaps in some swing states. Their numbers are minuscule, and Indian Americans have been overwhelmingly voting for the Democrats for decades. Where Indian Americans come into the picture is with their wallets. They have the highest per capita family income of any American and are some of the biggest donors of the Democrat party. Indian Americans also run some of America’s most valued companies. Mr Biden, for sure, would like to ensure his chest remains overflowing with Indian American political contributions.
But many studies suggest that the pendulum among many ethnic groups is slowly shifting to the right. Most anger towards Democrats stems from their radically progressive policies, rising crimes, and lawlessness in America’s big cities. Democrats’ push to bring “caste” into US politics, their opposition to India’s CAA, and the revocation of Article 370 have also alienated many Indian Americans. Democrats’ overt support of racial quotas, diversity, and equity, and the scrapping of standardized tests in college admissions also hurt Indian Americans.
As the US looks to counterbalance China, a steady and stable relationship with India is the need of the hour. Indians do speak English, but it is the Indian English. It is crucial to nuance India culturally, ideologically, and spiritually as America’s political and business leaders make their next move. As Walter Russell Mead, a Distinguished Fellow at Hudson Institute, wrote in his WSJ column: “India and the US are raucously democratic societies, and their foreign policies cannot ignore public opinion. Managing this critical relationship is never going to be easy… Both sides need this relationship; we both need to focus on making it work.”
Author is a recipient of the San Francisco Press Club’s Journalistic Excellence Award in 2021 and 2022