Why you should care
America’s wealthiest ethnic community has clout and money that neither party can ignore.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally of 50,000 Indian Americans in Houston last month, a planned guest appearance by President Donald Trump stole the headlines. But a telling moment arrived when the announcer at the event — called Howdy Modi — began reading a prepared list of members of Congress who had been expected to attend. Among those named was Texas Rep. Al Green, a Democrat. But Green wasn’t there. A day earlier, he had announced in a statement that he was bailing from the event, calling it a “photo op” for Trump. He wasn’t alone.
India, a key strategic partner, has for decades enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. But the growing public bonhomie between Modi and Trump and rising concerns over the Indian government’s lockdown on Kashmir are creating tensions between sections of the Democratic Party and New Delhi. And that could open a rare window for Republicans to target Indian American voters in 2020, say some leaders of the community, which has decisively leaned Democratic historically.
While political commentators focused on Trump as he stood by Modi, the Houston event was marked by the absence of multiple Democratic members of Congress who turned down invitations even as the White House announced that the president would be attending. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Rep. Brad Sherman and presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were among those who chose not to attend, citing prior commitments. Sherman had previously been actively tweeting to ask his constituents to attend the Houston rally. Gabbard, the first Hindu member of Congress, has attended multiple past events with the RSS — the Hindu nationalist parent organization of Modi’s BJP party. In 2014, she had even gifted Modi her childhood copy of the Bhagavad Gita. But amid a presidential campaign focused on Trump, it isn’t easy for Democratic candidates to attend events where the president is a star attraction.
People within the community are unhappy with the position the Democratic party is taking … especially on the matter of Kashmir.
Adapa Prasad, Overseas Friends of the BJP
It’s not all about Trump, though. Three Democratic presidential candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke — have publicly raised concerns over India’s decision in August to strip Kashmir of its special status and suspend telecommunications there. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that Modi used his Houston platform to publicly lavish praise on Trump, who Modi said was committed to “make America great again.” That deviation from diplomatic norm — world leaders steer clear of appearing to endorse a candidate in a foreign election — might also resonate with some in the Indian American community, says Adapa Prasad, vice president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, the Indian party’s international support base that was involved in organizing the Houston event.
“A lot of people within the [Indian American] community are unhappy with the position the Democratic party is taking … especially on the matter of Kashmir,” says Prasad.
For Democrats, that would be bad news. Though the 4 million-strong community isn’t decisive as a voting bloc, Indian Americans are the country’s wealthiest ethnic group. By July, the community had donated more than $2 million to Democratic presidential campaigns, led by Harris and Gabbard — and another $1 million to Trump’s campaign. Pelosi might have grasped the looming challenge when, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary on Oct. 2, she emphasized the “bipartisan” support for India in the U.S. Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar also challenged perceptions that Modi endorsed Trump, while speaking at a think tank in Washington last week. To jeopardize bipartisan support would be risky for India, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of political science at UC Riverside.
But Trump’s campaign has read Modi’s comments differently. Team Trump, the official Twitter handle of the Trump 2020 campaign, tweeted on Sept. 23 that “President Donald Trump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Modi.” Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted the same.
“President @realDonaldTrump received the endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they shared a stage in Houston, walking hand in hand… to address more than 50,000 Indian Americans”‼️https://t.co/3COrvLIpO0
— Kayleigh McEnany (@kayleighmcenany) September 22, 2019
To be sure, shifting the Indian American vote won’t be easy for Republicans. In 2016 too, Trump had tried to woo the community, attending an event and borrowing from Modi’s campaign slogan to try to speak in Hindi in a video. “Abki baar, Trump sarkaar,” he had said: “This time, it’s a Trump government.” Still, more than 80 percent of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. “Our polling history shows that foreign policy and even Indian domestic politics doesn’t play a role [in the U.S. elections],” says Ramakrishnan. “The kind of issues that the community cares for are health care, parties’ stances on issues like immigration, gun control …. It is unlikely to change that much.”
But the Democratic Party has changed since 2016 — when there was greater unanimity on India — says Prasad. The “far left within the Democrats are gaining ground,” he says, adding that others in the party appear confused. Sanders has called India’s Kashmir move “unacceptable,” demanding that “the communications blockade must be lifted immediately” and asking the U.S. government to pressure New Delhi. O’Rourke has said he’s “really concerned about Kashmir.” Speaking at a Texas event in September, Harris said, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world.”
And in an apparent dig at Gabbard, California Rep. Ro Khanna tweeted in late August that “it’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and speak for equal rights.” The office of Khanna, who has since faced pressure from the Hindu American Foundation to also condemn the forced displacement of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s by militants, told OZY he does not wish to add to his tweet.
Ramakrishnan is convinced that impeachment proceedings against Trump will influence Indian Americans more than Kashmir. But Prasad warns against taking the community for granted. “We may or may not vote for the Democrats,” he says.