In the 2007-08 US Democratic presidential primary, then-Senator Barack Obama criticised his rival Hillary Clinton as the “Senator from Punjab”, a reference to her close ties with some in the Indian-American community. In the 2012 Obama-Mitt Romney presidential contest, the Indian American vote was not in focus, and Obama repeatedly criticised Romney for offshoring jobs from “Buffalo to Bangalore”. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were comfortable in the expected around 80 per cent support from the Indian American community, but a section prominently reached out to Donald Trump and raised funds for him when he was not receiving too many mainstream Republican endorsements. Trump also spoke at an exclusive Indian American rally in mid-October that year, and his son and daughter-in-law visited Hindu temples. In 2020, this vote and funding is front and centre, and is being actively canvassed by both candidates — Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Trump has put out a video highlighting his participation, along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the large rallies in Houston (September 2019) and Ahmedabad (February 2020). Biden has also released a video targeted at the community, and a special message on the occasion of India’s Independence Day in August.
Clearly, the Indian American vote and funding now matter.
Money and votes
The size of the community is estimated to be around 4.1 million, with 1.8 million eligible to vote. The number has doubled since 2000, pushed by India’s talent strength in the IT sector, and close engagement between Indian and American companies in this sector. In 1960, the total number of Indian Americans was 13,000, restricted by US laws that earlier did not grant citizenship to South Asians. According to a survey by AAPI Data, unlike the Chinese and Philippines-origin communities (near the size of the Indian origin one) that are concentrated in the West Coast, the Indian community is now spread in some of the battleground states too: Florida (87,000), Pennsylvania (61,000), Georgia (57,000), Michigan (45,000), North Carolina (36,000), and a sizeable presence in Texas (161,000), traditionally a Republican bastion but now shifting somewhat with growing immigrant presence. These numbers matter because the states were won by smaller figures in 2016, with the winner often picking up the entire State electoral college.
The Indian American voter has normally tended to be Democratic, finding support in the party’s inclusive and pluralistic politics. Around 77 per cent voted for Clinton in 2016. AAPI polls suggest, however, that Trump has made inroads with his outreach to PM Modi. Biden is, as of now, getting 66 per cent support, and Trump 28 per cent.
In the past, the community has done some but not widely noticed funding for campaigns. This year, by July, Indian Americans had raised $3 million, with two-thirds going to Biden. According to some claims, last week, at a community big-ticket fundraiser, another $3 million were raised for the Biden and Kamala Harris ticket.
Core concerns now
Politicians assess the community concerns as driven by two broad sets of issues: US-India relations, and US domestic policies on immigration, economy, healthcare, education, etc. The India Caucuses in the House of Representatives and the Senate are the largest single-country ones, obviously as a signal by the Congressmen and Senators to their Indian American constituents. Interactions with the Indian Ambassador and Indian leaders, and advocacy for US-India relations, are projected back to constituents.
There is, however, some difference in the orientation of the first-generation immigrants from India, and the second-generation US-born ones. The AAPI polling also showed that community concerns on education, immigration, economy and healthcare (around 90 per cent), outranked concerns on US South Asia policy (closer to 70 per cent). This difference is higher in the second generation, which feels much more rooted in US politics. At a recent discussion, a second-generation community activist said that “the election is about America and our future in America”.
The community’s size and influence in the US are bound to increase further. It is now the highest median income ethnic group, with the highest level of education. It has seen an expanding presence in the US administration since 2009, including with a sub-Cabinet position (Raj Shah as Administrator, USAID) under Obama, and Cabinet-level (Nikki Haley as US PR to UN) under Trump. Till 2016, there were three elected to the US Congress historically, since then, there have been five simultaneously, through two election cycles, and the number could go up this year.
Other immigrant communities — such as the Irish, Greek, Jewish — have initially been marginal and discriminated against, but later very much a part of the mainstream. To what extent Indian Americans follow this pattern, despite being non-European, will be among the next big tests for the US ‘melting pot’. It will be an important source of advocacy for India and India-US relations, but also a challenge. Divisions in Indian politics sometimes play out in the US too. Sections of the community have argued before Congress claiming religious and caste-based discrimination. Driven by their own interest, they also expect India to work for closer relations with the US and be understanding of US policies and positions, which may not always match India’s assessment of its interests and strategic autonomy.
The author is former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post-9/11 period. Views are personal.