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PM Modi and The Indian-American Vote: Changing The Narrative?

Historically Democratic voters, the Modi-Trump ‘bonhomie’ may cause Indian-Americans to vote Republican: Research.

Updated
Modi and Trump at the rally in Houston in September 2019.
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"The Asian American community has historically supported the Democratic Party in presidential elections", notes a paper by researchers Safiya Ghori-Ahmad and Fatima Salman for the US-based Think Tank, The Atlantic Council.

However, this voter demographic the paper argues, is transforming. A large portion of the Democratic Indian-American voter is being swayed by the Republican camp, and a lot of this can be attributed to the Modi-Trump friendship, or "bonhomie" as the paper labels it.

Historically Democratic

The democratic leaning can be allegedly affirmed by Kamala Harris' nomination as Democrat Biden's running mate and vice presidential candidate. Harris' nomination was met with elation on social media amongst some factions of the Indian-American community.

"Harris’ upbringing as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants has been a big part of her appeal since her bid to run for president early last year," notes the research paper.

Kamala Harris sits draped in a sari during a visit to her family in India, with sister Maya Harris.
Kamala Harris sits draped in a sari during a visit to her family in India, with sister Maya Harris.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Maya Harris)

"Someone who looks like us!", social media celebrated. "Many [Indian-American voters] have the same picture of sari-clad relatives as immigrants in America", states the paper.

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"In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections, Indian Americans raised over $10 million towards the Democratic ticket, enthusiastically endorsing a bid for a Clinton presidency."

"Exit polls from 2016 indicated that four out of five (79 percent) Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, while only 18 percent voted for Trump. And South Asians (most of whom are Indian-American) were among Clinton’s strongest supporters, with 90 percent voting for the Democratic candidate", states the paper.

This statistic, in the past four years, has evolved in Trump's favour.

A recent survey found a notable increase in the support for Trump among Indian-American voters at 28 percent in 2020 from the 16 percent in 2016.

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The Republican Momentum

"The increased attention and evolving Trump-Modi dynamics, in addition to prominent Indian American Republicans like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal may be contributing to an increasingly shifting Indian American political base", argues the research paper. This may account for the increased demographic support for Trump in the last four years.

The symbolic friendship between Modi and Trump has benefitted India, argues the paper. It "has led to significant advancements in the bilateral relationship, including expanding the two countries’ defence partnership and official visits by President Trump to Delhi and Prime Minister Modi to Washington – all against the backdrop of a simmering trade deal".

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From a foreign policy perspective, especially with reference to China, "India has been the linchpin of the US Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China [since 2010]. Not only has India been seen as a useful tool for containing Chinese influence in the region but supporting India has also become good politics in the United States, at least with a large subset of the Indian American diaspora."

This support for India by the Trump Administration is crucial against the backdrop of the present India-China standoff.

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PM Modi and Donald Trump at the 'Howdy Modi' event.
PM Modi and Donald Trump at the 'Howdy Modi' event.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter @narendramodi/Facebook MEAIndia)

Recounting the iconic image of Modi and Trump walking out of the 'Howdy Modi' event holding hands, their friendship in full view "brought down the house", Ahmad and Salman argue.

Despite Harris' Indian heritage, "The Biden-Harris campaign are likely concerned that some of the very same Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and donated to her campaign were the same people cheering at the “Howdy Modi!” rally. The unrelenting support Modi continues to garner in the United States with a number of Indian American voters is significant and should not be overlooked."

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The Modi Factor

"India and Indian-related policies figure significantly into [Indian-American] voting decisions", the study states.

"The Democrats have continued to make critical remarks about the state of religious freedom in India and Kashmir more generally", which the study argues may not sit well with the Indian-American voter, pushing them to support Trump.

"Harris has continuously stated that she supported strong ties between India and the United States, although she was critical of Modi’s revocation of Article 370, stripping the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir."

"Harris also stood by fellow Congresswoman [Pramila] Jayapal on human rights issues in India, and a recent incident highlighted her position when India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar refused to attend a meeting if Jayapal participated.

PM Modi and The Indian-American Vote: Changing The Narrative?
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Neeraj Antani, a Republican member of the Ohio state legislature has attributed Trump's growing popularity among the Indian-American electorate to his outreach within the Indian community, travelling to India, his friendship with Prime Minister Modi, as well as his neutrality on issues like CAA and Kashmir, "as opposed to Vice President Biden's opposition on those issues".

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Not A Monolith

Despite these claims, it is important to remember that "the Indian American community is not a monolith and there are large swaths of the community that see themselves in Senator Harris’ story".

"There is a subset of Indian American voters that have been increasingly critical of the policies of the BJP-led government", whose ideology aligns better with the narrative of the Democrats.

A recent survey has found that despite the Modi-Trump "bonhomie", Biden continues to hold the lead among Indian-American Voters.

This begs the question, "Will having an Indian American on the ticket be enough to keep Modi-supporting Indian Americans from defecting to Trump, or will Senator Harris help turn out Indian American voters for the Democratic ticket?"

"Only time will tell. In the meantime, the Biden-Harris campaign should prepare itself for a demographic leaning more across the political spectrum than in 2016 – with some confirming that India and Indian-related policies figure significantly into their voting decisions", concludes the study.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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