US 2020: Indian-Americans’ Time as a Political Community Has Come 

Milan Vaishnav decodes what US 2020 presidential election means for Indian Americans & India-US relationship.

4 min read
US 2020: Indian-Americans’ Time as a Political Community Has Come 
Hindi Female

(As told to The Quint’s Opinions editor Nishtha Gautam.)

The US presidential election matters to India in at least two respects. First, the outcome will determine America's commitment to democratic norms, rule of law, and its positioning in the international community. Second, the election will impact US-India relations, though  primarily with respect to economic issues. Under either a Biden or Trump administration, I expect security cooperation to proceed apace.

There's an emerging narrative that a Biden-Harris administration would be bad for India because the United States would apply more scrutiny to India's domestic affairs. While I think a Biden administration would pay more attention to democracy in India, larger geopolitical forces—namely, China's rise—will constrain American behaviour. You might see more rhetorical emphasis on freedoms, human rights, civil liberties, but in the Indian case, I am skeptical it will mean significant policy change in practice.


Do Indian-Americans Care for India-US Ties?

One of the most interesting findings from our survey of Indian-Americans (the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey) is that foreign policy—specifically US-India relations—does not appear to be a key animating issue for voters this election year. Instead, voters are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues like the economy, healthcare, and social justice. Given the realities of the pandemic, economic crisis, and conversations about structural racism, this makes sense to us.

File photo of the US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh)

Frankly, Indian-Americans have historically tilted toward the Democratic Party, at least as far back as we have data (the mid-2000s). According to our survey, Indian-Americans by and large view the Republican party as fundamentally unwelcoming on account of its perceived hostility toward minorities. Most ethnic minorities in the United States, though not all, tend to affiliate with the Democratic Party for this reason. Indian-Americans may do so even more intensely given that they have been among the largest beneficiaries of America's open immigration policies.


Have Indian-Americans ‘Arrived’?

Indian-Americans have accumulated increasing amounts of political and economic power and the fact that presidential candidates are actively wooing them this election is a signal that their time as a political community has come. Biden's effort to reach out to the Indian-American community via festive messages and other pop moves, I think, has only helped.

Democrat Vice-President candidate Kamala Harris with Harini Krishnan, Democratic Organiser.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint/Savita Patel)

We find that younger Indian-Americans (those between 18 and 29) are the most pro-Biden in our sample. While the whole community tilts Democratic, this inclination is most visible among young members of the community. We also see that US-born Indian-Americans are more Democratic-leaning than their naturalized counterparts (we know that U.S.-born citizens are significantly younger than naturalized citizens). They identify more strongly as Democrats, as liberal-leaning, and as Biden voters.

We find that Kamala Harris has excited the community overall. While she may not be changing many votes, she is having a positive impact on Indian-Americans' voter turnout. A large percentage of our respondents say that she has made them more likely to vote and more enthusiastic about Biden's candidacy.


Indian-Americans and Healthcare Under Trump

We don't have explicit data on this, but we do find that Indian-Americans name healthcare as the second most important issue for them this election year (just behind the economy). Given that Trump's disastrous handling of COVID has negatively impacted both, it has likely hurt his prospects among many Indian-Americans.

People wear facial masks for protection against the coronavirus as they walk their dogs on the Brooklyn Bridge, Friday, 10 April 2020, in New York.
(Photo: AP)

On Modi's handling of COVID, the short answer is the survey does not ask about this. What we do know is that 48 percent of Indian-American citizens we surveyed approve of Modi's performance as Prime Minister compared to 32 percent who disapprove. The rest do not have an opinion.


Trump or Biden, Who Works Better For India’s Interests?

On security issues, a Trump reelection would likely deepen the coming together of the United States and India. However, on economic matters, "Make America Great Again" and "Make in India" work at cross-purposes. On trade, investment, immigration—we see government-to-government talks at a standstill.

Former US President Barack Obama and Democrat Presidential Candidate Joe Biden
(Image: The Conversation)

I think India hopes that an America under Biden would restore predictability from the United States, especially in terms of hope it approaches the world. Over the past four years, Trump has increased volatility and uncertainty in America's foreign relations to a great degree. Biden would revert to a more consultative, multilateral approach. I think the biggest place of hope would be on economics, where Biden may be more willing to find common ground with India. He won't be obsessed over a single data point—like the trade deficit—in the way Trump has been.

(Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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