Republican or Democrat? Indian-American politics at crossroads

NewsRepublican or Democrat? Indian-American politics at crossroads

Democrats, most notably those belonging to the far left ‘progressive’ wing of the Party, have taken anti-India and anti-Hindu stands in the recent past.


As the US presidential election heads for the homestretch, Indian-American (IA) politics finds itself at the crossroads. There is a perceptible level of anxiety and confusion among most IA voters. They seem to be torn in their electoral preferences, perhaps for the first time. This is a relatively new phenomenon in a historically one-sided affair.

The 2020 presidential election season started with a sense of excitement for the IA diaspora as Kamala Harris, the Senator from California, and Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawaii, entered the race. Despite some early successes, Harris’ campaign lost steam midstream. The Indian diaspora’s initial enthusiasm with Harris also fizzled out as she rarely claimed her Indian ancestry overtly. Harris’ mother was born and raised in India prior to coming to the United States for higher education.

In many ways, Harris reminded the IA community of Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. A son of a Punjabi Indian immigrant and a Christian convert during his high school days, Jindal had run an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2012. He had famously said that he was tired of “all this talk about hyphenated Americans”. His campaign never got any traction in the IA diaspora.

The case of Gabbard was a bit different. Born into an interracial non-Indian family and a follower of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (ISKCON), Gabbard was the first practising Hindu to run for the top US office. Right from the get go, Gabbard was subjected to an intense smear campaign from both within and outside the Democratic Party. While former Senator and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called Gabbard a “Russian asset”, some others, including her congressional colleagues openly criticised her for being “sympathetic” to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and “Hindutva”.

Gabbard called some of those attacks on her “Hinduphobic”. While talking about her faith did not bother her, what concerned her most was that such smear campaigns “may discourage other Hindu Americans from running for office”. This unfair treatment of Gabbard by the Democratic establishment angered many Indian Americans.

Historically, the Indian diaspora in the US has been a loyal supporter of the Democratic Party. At roughly 1% of the US population, the Indian diaspora is quite insignificant in terms of numbers. However, according to some estimates, almost 75% of IA voters lean Democratic. Not only have the IAs voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidates at all levels, but they have also shown their clear preference in making political contributions to Democratic candidates’ election campaign funds.

According to the Los Angeles Times (15 July 2019), Indian Americans had contributed more (about $3 million during the reporting period) to 2020 presidential candidates than the “coveted donors of Hollywood”. Out of those $3 million, roughly 2/3 went to the Democratic candidates. Not surprisingly, two top netters among Democrats were Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard. Both of them have suspended their presidential campaigns and have subsequently withdrawn their candidatures since then.

There are indications, however, that this unbridled loyalty may be showing signs of strain and the events of the past few months have not helped resolve the situation. Many Democrats, most notably those belonging to the far left “progressive” wing of the Party, have taken what many would call anti-India and anti-Hindu stands in the recent past. Prominent among them are former presidential candidates and strong contenders Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris; Congressman Ro Khanna; Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Pandering to the Islamist lobby within the Party establishment, many Democrats have been very critical of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by Indian Parliament. They have also gone on to hold hearings against alleged “human rights violations” in the Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In so doing, they have failed to give any consideration to the plight and the genocide of Kashmiri Hindus as well as the persecution of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christian minorities in India’s neighbouring Islamic Republics of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, who had largely stayed away from making any offending comments so far, sent Indian Americans looking for answers when he criticised India’s CAA and National Register of Citizens in an outreach to Muslim Americans. Biden also remained silent when his campaign’s young Hindu-American staffer, Amit Jani was attacked by the radical left-Islamists for his father’s relationship with PM Modi.

It is to be noted that Hindu Americans, despite their minuscule number, played a significant role in the defeat of a blatantly anti-India/Hindu Bernie Sanders in the crucial phase of the primary elections.  The IA community had hoped that Biden would stay neutral, if not overtly sympathetic, on these issues, but are thoroughly disappointed by his recent remarks, making it difficult for people to support him. Atulya Tankha, a Seattle-based community leader and a long-time Biden supporter said he was “extremely disappointed to see Biden pander to Islamists to win support from the far left”. Raj Koul, a Chicago-based Kashmiri Hindu too was disappointed to see the Democrats, who “advocate equal rights for everyone but conveniently forget Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities of Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, who have been ethnically cleansed, oppressed and persecuted”.

This feeling of disappointment, anger, and a sense of abandonment by the Democratic establishment is sweeping through the Indian diaspora. Many see striking similarities between the Labour Party of the UK and the Democratic Party in the US in dealing with the Indian-American issues in general and Hindu-American issues in particular. They are looking for redemption similar to the recently concluded UK parliamentary election that handed the Labour one of its worst defeats in history. Indian diaspora’s anger played a significant role in the Labour’s defeat.

On his part, the incumbent Donald Trump has played his cards very well. His open embrace of the Hindus had pulled a significant number of voters away from the Democratic fold even in 2016. Trump’s appearance at the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston and a mammoth rally in India with PM Modi have solidified his pro-Hindu image. Amid hard-core and oftentimes acrimonious bargaining on several trade-related issues, Trump has stayed away from making any offending comments either against India, Hindus, or PM Modi.  A newer and younger crop of IA leadership is also emerging and challenging its stereotypical left-liberal image. They do not shy away from speaking with a pro-India and pro-Hindu tone. One of them is Ritesh Tandon, a Republican, who is challenging the high-profile Democrat, Ro Khanna, in the Silicon Valley congressional district. Growing disenchantment with the Democratic Party in general and its increasingly vocal “progressive” left-wing in particular have put Indian-American voters in a precarious situation. The next few months will be challenging for Biden as he navigates the US electoral landscape. The next few months are also poised to define the future course of Indian-American politics.

Avatans Kumar (Twitter @avatans) writes frequently on the topics of Indic knowledge tradition, language, culture, and current affairs. He is a JNU and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus.


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