Indian American Political Tango

Trust Indians to add a touch of exaggerated theatrics to the U.S. presidential elections.


Trust Indians to add a touch of exaggerated theatrics to the U.S. presidential elections. A Twitter handle called HindusforTrump, created last December, shows a picture of Donald Trump seated like a demigod on a lotus flower in shades of the American flag. An Om sign, complete with stars and stripes, is engraved on the flower with petals being showered on Trump. A rebuttal Twitter handle, which cropped up in April this year, called HindusagainstTrump, has as its cover photo, a picture of Lord Rama, pointing his bow and arrow at Trump, who is dressed in war armor perhaps as a member of rakshasa army!

While, none of this demagoguery is representative of the popular Indian American sentiment, it nevertheless offers an amusing and titillating sideshow that captures the growing alacrity with which Indians are jumping into the hustle bustle of American popular political culture.

As the nation gears up for the United States presidential elections, scheduled on Nov. 8, Indian Americans, uncharacteristically, are starting to become engaged in the political process, which this year is being fought in part along the fault lines of immigration, an issue particularly dear to a community in which nearly eight in 10 are first generation immigrants.

Asians Americans, the fastest growing and most affluent minority group in the country, are an increasingly coveted voting bloc, even though they constitute just 4 percent of the voting population.

Both the Democratic and Republican Conventions in July saw a record number of Indian American delegates and alternates. San Francisco lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party, delivered the invocation with a Sikh prayer at the start of the second day of the Republican National Convention. Subba Rao Kolla, a real estate agent and Virginia delegate, greeted the GOP convention with a Namaste, as he announced the state’s roll call to a national audience.

One week later, the Democratic National Convention was electrified by a provocative speech denouncing Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump by Pakistani American Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun was killed while serving with the U.S. army in Iraq. Neera Tanden, a close confidante of Clinton and president and chief executive officer of the progressive Washington, DC, think tank Center for American Progress, was among the speakers at the Democratic National Convention to take the stage to endorse Hillary Clinton, soon after she became the first woman nominee of a major political party.

Traditionally, Asian Americans have among the lowest voter participation rate of any ethnic group, just 48 percent in 2012, against 66 percent for African Americans and 64 percent for Whites, according to U.S. Census data. A Pew Center analysis found that under one-third of eligible Asian American voters cast ballots in off year elections, well below the national average.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is considered odds on favorite to win Illinois’ 8th U.S. Congressional District general election in November, says: “Indian Americans do not vote as much as they should, which is crucial to increasing their representation. I believe in the adage: ‘If you don’t have a seat on the table, then you are on the menu.’ We need to realize the importance and come out in great numbers.”

Krishnamoorthi’s polled 57 per cent of the votes against his rivals — State Senator Mike Noland (29 per cent) and Deb Bullwinkel (13 percent) in the March primary, in what is considered a safe Democratic district.

Neera Tanden, of the Center for American Progress, says: “We need a more active participation from the community. As first generation immigrants, it sometimes takes longer for people to get involved, but particularly in this election with the Republican rhetoric we can see how much of a difference it will make. It’s vital we recognize it and make sure that the whole family is being registered to vote.”

Peter Jacob, Democratic Party candidate in New Jersey’s 7th U.S. Congressional District, adds: “Indian-Americans make up 1 percent of the total U.S. population. The highest concentration lives right in my home state of New Jersey. However, only 20 percent of Indian American citizens vote. We have excelled in fields like engineering, medicine, and business. Yet, New Jersey has never had an Indian American congressperson.”

Activists exhort Indians to go beyond voting and become involved at the community level. Shekar Narsimhan, chairman and founder of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Victory Fund, which seeks to promote Asian American civic participation, says: “We aim to do so by registering voters and persuading them. This needs to be done by finding out where the voters are, talking to them in their language when required and about the issues they care about.”

Peter Jacob
He adds: “It requires sophisticated data analytics, use of online tools and social media. Our goal remains to increase the participation rates by eight percent in registration and 5 per cent in turnout, which can have a substantial effect in the outcome in swing states.”jacob

Khyati Y Joshi, chair of the New Jersey South Asian Coalition, is heartened by the involvement of second generation Indians: “Those whose parents came to the U.S. post the 1965 Immigration Act had no role models to believe that they can make a difference, but things have changed since then.”

Joshi encourages Indians to wet their feet first in local politics, instead of becoming bedazzled by national politicians: “They should contact and become their county committee member. It may not sound ‘sexy’ but it gives you much more say in matters of your daily life.”

One of the major reasons behind low community participation in politics is that Indian often discourage political ambitions in their children, emphasizing education instead. Indian Americans have the highest educational qualifications of any group in the United States; they are twice as likely to have a bachelor’s degree and five times as likely to have a master’s, professional or doctoral degree.

Adi Sathi, vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party, who was active in student politics at the University of Michigan, where he served as president of the Student Government Association of the School of Social Work, says few young Indians are politically active. He says: “Finding passion for politics at young age is rare in our community. Even when I got involved in politics, I got a backlash from fellow Indian Americans as it is unchartered territory. Our priorities are to become financially stable. Politics may be interesting, but not something we would spend time and energy on.”

But as Indian Americans discover political success, things are beginning to stir within the community. Kannan Srinivasan, secretary of Democratic Asian Americans of Virginia (DAAV), a caucus of the Democratic Party of Virginia, says: “Both the parties recognize the growth in the Indian American population in various large metro areas and are willing to engage and do outreach to the community. Even though we are a very small percentage of the overall population — if you look at the areas where the concentration is, the community could be the winning margins in close elections.”

Subba Rao KollaSubba Rao Kolla, a Virginia delegate, told Little India on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Virginia that he was tapped to announce Virginia’s roll call at the GOP Convention at the last minute by John Whitebeck, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, to showcase the minority face of the party and because Indians are perceived as a crucial swing voting bloc in Northern Virginia.

Political Paradox

The Asian community is overwhelmingly Democratic — 50 percent identify or lean Democratic, against just 28 percent Republican, according to a 2012 Pew Center study. Indians are the most Democratic leaning of all Asian groups — 65 percent against 18 percent for the GOP. The Spring 2016 Asian American Voter Survey, conducted by the Asian American Justice Center, Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote and National Asian American Survey, found that 55 percent of Indian Americans identified as Democrats and just 8 percent Republican.

Indian Americans in the survey favored Hillary Clinton three to one against Donald Trump — 63 percent to 22 percent. In the 2012 elections, 88 percent of Indians voted for Pres. Barack Obama, against his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to the 2012 Post Election Survey of Asian American and Pacific Islander Voters. In 2008, 84 per cent of Indian Americans voted for Obama.

Ironically though, Indian Americans have achieved greater success in the Republican Party. Bobby Jindal, former governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, current governor of South Carolina, are Republicans. Both, however, switched their religious affiliations to Christianity, which made them far more palatable to the Christian evangelical base of the GOP.

Democrat Ro Khanna, who is hoping to knock of incumbent Mike Honda in California’s 17th Congressional District 17 in California, says:

Raja Krishnamoorthi“Things are definitely looking up and better. We have strong candidates, like Raja Krishnamoorthi in Chicago and some more. As the community is looking forward and getting more involved we will be looking at a bigger representation.”

Shekar Narsimhan, of AAPI Victory Fund says, “We have had three (Congressmen) in 60 years, but in 2016 itself it could be three more.” He rejects the idea that Republicans are providing a bigger platform to Indian Americans: “Those who have succeeded in the Republican Party have done so through their sheer individual effort and partly by repudiating, not embracing their heritage.”

Adi Sathi, of the Michigan Republican Party, disagrees: “Democratic Party may give leadership titles within the party, but does not necessarily create a place for Indian Americans in the office.” Pointing to his own journey, he says, “Even I come from a different background, but share the party ideology and hence they have supported me.”

On the reasons Jindal and Haley dissociated themselves from their roots, he says: “While they are pretty conservative, especially Bobby, I don’t think they have completely shut off their roots. Nikki has spoken about growing up in a Sikh household. And if they have a stand that appeals to their electorate, then there could be no harm in it. It’s not that they are alienating themselves, they are just listening to the voices of the people in their electorate.”

Many Indian Americans are turned off by Haley and Jindal repressing their identity to succeed in American politics. Nevertheless, Republican activists have long argued that Indian Americans are a more natural Republican constituency and are surprised that they identify so strongly with the Democrats. Indians have strong family ties, are socially conservative and very affluent, traits that are more commonly associated with Republican voters.

The GOP’s perceived hostility to immigration is its principal Achilles heel among Asian Americans, including Indians. In the 2016 AAPI Voter Survey, 40 percent of Indian Americans repudiated candidates employing anti-immigrant rhetoric while 59 percent rejected those directing anti Muslim rhetoric. The survey also found that Indians overwhelmingly support many bedrock Democratic positions, including the Obama Healthcare Act (74 percent), college affordability (62 percent), gun control (85 percent), and raising the federal minimum wage (79 percent).

Khyati Y JoshiEven so, although Indians tilt liberal (30 percent, against 18 percent who identify themselves as conservative), a majority (52 percent) identify themselves as moderate. Donald Trump’s charged rhetoric is unlikely to endear him to the Indian American electorate, according to the AAPI Voter Survey.

Krishnamoorthi says: “Trump represents exactly the opposite of what we are. We should be building bridges of hope and prosperity. We should be uniting not dividing. Look at our 550-member strong Olympic team who come from different background and ethnicities. Our diversity is our strength. We do have challenges, but we need to come together and tackle them.”

Instead, Krishnamoorthi says, “We have a candidate in Trump who believes in attacking Muslim, belittling women and what he said to a gold star mother is what hurts the most.”

Narsimhan denounced Trump as xenophobic and un-presidential: “Most of us are wondering how he got here with the level of discourse being so profane and virulent.”

Republican Adi Sathi acknowledges that Democrats have done a far better job of reaching out to minorities and “creating a branding.” In April this year, a nationwide grassroots organization, Indian Americans for Hillary Clinton, was launched by Clinton’s campaign in Maryland. Her campaign manager John Podesta promised a more elevated relationship between India and the United States in a Clinton Presidency. Indians are also tantalized by the prospect of the first Indian American cabinet appointment. Neera Tanden, who spoke at the DNC, and is tipped for a spot in a Clinton cabinet, says, “I know Hillary for 20 years. She will have a seat on the table for everyone.”

Political Gridlock

On the issues that matter to the general public, Congressman Ami Bera, who is currently the only Indian American member in Congress, says: “People are frustrated when politicians in both parties blame one another without offering solutions,” adding that the needs of the people in Sacramento, which he represents, are his biggest priorities.

Bera’s office touted his efforts in helping recover more than $3.3 million owed to area taxpayers, and claims he hosted 21 events in 2016 alone to connect residents with local resources.

Though the expectations of most Indian Americans are similar to the broader public, according to Krishnamoorthi, immigration and education have particular resonance in the community.

He is also advocating strengthening services for seniors, especially social security and Medicare. An entrepreneur himself, he is promoting initiatives geared toward small business and entrepreneurship.

Ro Khanna
Ro Khanna cites education and jobs as the primary concerns of the Indian American community and he is backing Hillary Clinton, as she offers effective proposals for creating new jobs and is enthusiastic about strengthening schools and opportunities for everyone.

Republican Adi Sathi says: “The number one request from Indian Americans that our congressional office gets is about immigration issues. Also Indians who take a deeper interest in foreign policy are concerned about United States selling weapons to Pakistan military. Indian Americans are worried about their country of origin and its security. Those deeply involved in political issues know that Pakistan has been a bad ally and are wary. For the rest it the day to day affairs that matter most.”

Immigration is top on the minds of most Indian Americans, says Shekar Narsimhan: “As estimated 400,000 Indians in the U.S. are living without proper documentation and there are issues with high skill immigration, such as H1B and its dependents. Family reunification can take years today. The law needs to be written in a way that it addresses the needs of our community along with others.”

On the options during this cycle, Kannan Srinivasan, of the Democratic Asian Americans of Virginia, says, “The choice before the American People is very clear in this election — between a candidate with a dividing message and a candidate who stands for unity. It is also a historic opportunity to elect the first woman president”

As for the electoral prospects of Indian American candidates, he says: “The Obama administration has had a high number of Indian Americans serving in various positions. It is likely to continue or even increase in a New Democratic administration. We have Dr Bera who is the Congressman from California’s 7th District.

We have some strong congressional candidates running this election cycle — Raja Krishnamoorthi in Illinois’ 8th District and State Sen. Pramila Jayapaul in Washington’s 7th District.”

Adi Sathi
Add to that, Ro Khanna, who is hoping to knock off Mike Honda, an eight-term congressman, who defeated him in 2014. Asked why he would take on an entrenched incumbent from his own party, Khanna responded, “The President has refused to endorse Mike Honda and he is under an ethics review.” Honda and his staff are accused of using taxpayer resources in support of his 2014 reelection bid, an allegation currently under review by the House Ethics Committee, following a recommendation by the Office of Congressional Ethics that “there is substantial reason to believe that Representative Honda improperly tied official events to past or potential campaign or political support.”

In the March 2016 California primaries Khanna pulled off an upset, defeating Honda by 2,200 votes. Under California’s open primary system, Khanna and Honda, as the top two candidates, will now face off in the November general election.

Narsimhan is quite hopeful of the prospects the Indian Americans running for Congress during this election cycle: “I see an Indian American cabinet minister and Supreme Court justice around the corner. And perhaps a U.S. President of Indian heritage in my lifetime.”

Reaching for the stars perhaps!

Obama Job Approval

2012 Presidential Election Vote

Source Post Election Survey of Asian American and Pacific Islander Voters in 2012

Candidate Favourability

Source: Spring 2016 Asian American Voter Survey

Achal Mehra contributed to this report

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