How will Indian Americans vote on November 3?

South Asian Americans are now more visible on the political stage than ever before, but their loyalties remain diverse, resisting easy classifications.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs US President Donald Trump as they give joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, June 26, 2017. [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs US President Donald Trump as they give joint statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, US, June 26, 2017. [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

South Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States, and their participation in politics has increased significantly in recent years.

Bobby Jindal served as the governor of Louisiana from 2008 to 2016, and Nikki Haley was Trump’s first choice for the role of US ambassador to the United Nations. Huma Abedin was Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman during her presidential campaign, and Saqib Ali served as a state delegate in Maryland when Obama was president. Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna are serving in Congress, and the number of South Asian Americans active in local politics is also on the rise. Belal Aftab is running for city council in California, and last year, Sadaf Jaffer became the first South Asian female mayor in America. Most importantly, Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, is the first-ever Black and South Asian vice presidential nominee.

While South Asian Americans are now more visible on the political stage than ever before, their loyalties remain diverse, resisting easy classifications.

Recent polls have shown that while most Indian Americans will vote blue in the upcoming election, 28 percent gravitate towards Trump, a notable jump from the 16 percent that voted red in the last presidential election.

Despite Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards minority communities and immigrants, the support he continues to receive from a significant percentage of Indian Americans is not surprising.

Unlike South Asian Americans who come from Muslim countries, Indian-Americans, especially those who are not Sikh or Muslim, have not been subjected to the same levels of racialised surveillance as part of the US government’s ongoing global “war on terror”. While Indian-Americans have certainly faced racism, their roots in secular India afforded them a level of acceptance in America that Muslims fundamentally lack. As a result, while most Muslim Americans oppose Trump for his pernicious Islamophobia, Hindu Indian-Americans are more open to pledging their support to him.

Trump, after all, has pandered to the Indian-American vote, forming a close political friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi has built his entire political career on the basis of Hindu nationalism (also known as “Hindutva”), an exclusionary ideology that asserts India is a homeland principally for Hindus, and consequently denigrates marginalised religious groups, ethnicities and castes.

Earlier this year, Trump embarked on a two-day visit to India, where he praised Modi for protecting “religious freedoms” in the country and underscored the importance of US-India ties in the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism.” When Trump reached New Delhi, the city was burning in a pogrom against Muslims, which left more than 50 people dead. The violence came on the heels of nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), laws that institutionalise exclusion of Muslims from Indian citizenship and violate the country’s secular constitution.

In 2019, Modi was re-elected as prime minister by stoking nationalist sentiments – threatening war with Pakistan and revoking the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, which its inhabitants consider to be under military occupation. That same year, Trump welcomed Modi in a Houston stadium, drawing 50,000 Indian-Americans in rapturous support.

Today, the spike in Indian-American support for Trump is likely linked to the political alliance between Trump and Modi that was built on their shared hatred of Muslims, policies of increased neoliberal privatisation, and right-wing populism.

But while Trump and Modi’s diplomatic friendship is now at the centre of US-India relations, support for Hindu nationalism, and normalisation of its adherents in US politics, is not limited to conservative circles.

Liberal politicians from the Democratic Party, who claim to champion democratic values, inclusion and multiculturalism, also have deep ties to Modi, which is reinforced by the network of Indian-American organisations that support him. These organisations are linked to the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term that encompasses Hindu nationalist groups, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its paramilitary progenitor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, widely celebrated as the antidote to Trump, or viewed as the lesser evil in yet another election that fails to offer new options for American voters, may not appear to be as enthusiastic in cooperating with the Indian prime minister as his conservative opponent. But Trump was not the first president to honour Modi with an invitation to the White House.

In September 2014, just a few months after Modi’s ascent to the top of India’s government, then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden welcomed Modi to Washington, DC, with full fanfare, including a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr memorial and a lunch prepared by an Indian-American chef at the State Department.

The day before, 19,000 Indian-Americans had greeted Modi at Madison Square Garden in what Secretary of State John Kerry called “a rock-star reception”. Prominent liberal Indian-American personalities, such as Nina Davuluri, the first South Asian American Miss America and contributor to Michelle Obama’s public health campaign, and Hari Sreenivasan, a PBS anchor, hosted the gathering.

Throughout Modi’s visit, neither the members of the Obama administration nor the Indian-Americans celebrating his arrival, tried to take Modi to task for his actions during the Gujarat pogroms. Modi had been banned from entering the US for nine years – from 2005 to 2014 – due to his alleged complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in his home state of Gujarat, which left more than 1,000 people dead. The policy was implemented thanks to the efforts of Indian-American Muslims and Sikhs, according to Kashmiri-American intellectual Hafsa Kanjwal, but was swiftly overturned when Modi became prime minister.

America’s diplomatic alignment with Modi – or any leader at the helm of Indian democracy, even as it slips rapidly into fascism – remains bipartisan, and Biden himself has been at the centre of efforts to form a strong economic and security partnership with India since his days as a senator. The Democratic presidential hopeful was one of the primary architects of the US’s nuclear trade agreement with India in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which laid the foundation for the current political and economic partnership between the two countries. During this time, India started to receive aircraft, naval ships and other defence technology exports from the US.

In 2014, Biden praised Modi’s “support for economic reforms” which, as of 2018, enabled a trade relationship worth $142b between the two countries. To this day, India remains the fifth-largest market for American defence exports.

Biden is the only alternative to four more years of a Trump presidency, and his acceptance of Modi and lack of sensitivity to Kashmiri, lower-caste and Indian Muslim suffering appear still to be as strong as they were six years ago.

In February, the Biden campaign appointed Amit Jani, an Indian-American political organiser with strong family and political links to Modi and the BJP, as director of outreach for the Asian-American Pacific Islander community; his duties included Muslim outreach.

Jani’s ties to the BJP surpass mild apologia or well-intended ignorance of Indian politics. His father, Suresh Jani, is a founder of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), an organisation lobbying for Modi’s BJP in the West. In 2019, his mother, Deepti, actively campaigned for Modi’s re-election in India. When Modi visited the US, he stayed at the Janis’ Jersey City home.

Amit Jani does not dissociate himself from his parents’ ideology or activism. In fact, he appears to support it. In a 2014 article for The Huffington Post, Jani glorified Modi for reviving interest in Indian politics among the diaspora and compared his election win to that of Obama.

In May 2019, Jani was listed as an organiser for an event celebrating the Indian government’s draconian decision to revoke the special status accorded to Indian-administered Kashmir in its constitution. As Jani was working to organise the celebratory event, Modi had already put Indian-administered Kashmir under lockdown, cutting the region’s internet and electricity, and deployed thousands of troops there to quash protests.

Given Biden’s strong political relationship with India and past praise of Modi, his appointment of Jani, a Modi supporter, was hardly shocking, but it poured salt in the wound of Muslim Americans, especially those of South Asian descent, as well as Dalit Americans.

A hashtag calling for his dismissal, #RejectAmitJani, trended on Twitter and Equality Labs, a South Asian progressive organisation, published an open letter calling for Biden to “terminate Amit Jani’s employment from the campaign”, which drew signatures from several grassroots Asian-American groups and respected academics.

Following the backlash, Jani was relieved of his duties and a former Muslim adviser to the 2016 Clinton campaign, Farooq Mitha, was assigned to do outreach within the Muslim American community. Mitha’s appointment also stirred some controversy, as he is a board member of the controversial organisation Emgage, which has been criticized for its ties to pro-Israel lobbies that have tried to censor the work of Palestine solidarity activists.

Biden has since catered to the Muslim American vote by name-dropping various atrocities against Muslims around the world in his online agenda for Muslim-American communities, such as the Uighur internment camps in China, the Saudi war in Yemen, and human rights violations in Kashmir. In July, Biden’s foreign policy adviser promised the presidential hopeful would put pressure on India to change its policies regarding Kashmir and the civil liberties of Indian Muslims.

Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, has also criticised Modi’s annexation of Kashmir and has said that American cooperation with India is possible only with an appreciation for human rights and “religious pluralism.” Harris is of Indian descent, but traces her roots to Tamil Nadu in South India, while most of the BJP’s base is concentrated in the northern part of the country.

However, despite rhetorical support for progressive activists fighting the BJP’s fascism, the constant underlying factor in both Biden and Harris’s views is the importance of the US-India partnership.

If Biden truly wanted to hold Modi accountable for human rights violations, he probably would not have elevated an open Modi supporter on his campaign team. Biden aims to win both Hindu-American and Muslim-American votes, especially when lobbies, community leaders, and organisations in each demographic are powerful, moneyed donors to political campaigns.

Modi will be in power for the next few years, if not more, and a Biden-Harris presidency will inevitably broker an alliance with him, regardless of whether he changes his policy towards minorities facing occupation and/or marginalised by Hindu nationalism.

For liberals and leftists, who want all voting Americans to unite against the evil of Trump on the day of the election, the siren song of Modi’s fascism is too far away to inspire any real outrage. Perhaps it is an indication of the conservatism of the dominant political system that both Biden and Trump possess equal proximity to a right-wing populist encouraging violence against India’s minorities and steamrolling military occupation in Kashmir.

But all is not lost. The assault on minorities in India has inspired progressive Democrats to take a stand. Ro Khanna, an Indian-American congressman from California, stated that Hindu-American politicians have a “duty” to reject Hindutva. Pramila Jayapal introduced a resolution recognising human rights abuses in Kashmir and also sponsored a Congressional hearing on caste oppression in the US, and Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have criticised the Modi government for its violence against Kashmir and Indian Muslims.

Thousands of South-Asian Americans and their allies protested against Modi this year, and a multicultural resistance demonstrated in solidarity with Kashmir when Modi spoke at the UN last year.

The mobilisation to seek unity against Trump will end on November 3. Once that happens, young South Asian Americans will focus less on voting, and return their efforts and attention to movement-building instead.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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