Indo-US relationship unlikely to sway the Indian American vote

The Indian American community is sophisticated, knows and understands the domestic political compulsions and will not allow themselves to be led around by short term promises, writes Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami for South Asia Monitor

Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami Oct 20, 2020

Barely two weeks to go and the main candidates along with their backers are getting energized but in different ways. The incumbent Republican President Donald Trump has brushed aside many a poll that shows him trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden substantially in national and battleground states; he is confident of a Red Wave on November 3, something that many within the Grand Old Party is willing to hedge a bet on.

The Democratic nominee on the other hand is plodding on methodically, not showing signs of being carried away with the trends. After all everyone, especially the media pundits remember very well what happened in 2016.

Kamala Harris factor or is it?

There is no doubt that the Biden camp must be energized at the Indian American community’s support in all ways - from going about canvassing for the Democratic ticket to fundraising, the community has done exceedingly well, according to all reports. There was no doubt excitement in the announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate; but as a recent poll of the Indian Community showed only 45 percent pegged their support and enthusiasm to the Kamala Harris factor.

The bottom line message is that Biden could have chosen anyone; the Indian American community would still have gone with the Democratic ticket.

Indian Americans: The second-largest immigrant community

Less than one percent of the American population and a voting bloc of about 1.9 million, the Indian American community have traveled a long way to make itself known in the political spectrum to the point that the second largest immigrant community has been wooed by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

In the latest poll of the community, Biden is said to have received 72 percent; and the incumbent Republican 22 percent. While an argument will be made that these are substantial numbers, it would have to be remembered that Biden’s tally among the Indian Americans is about twenty points less than what former President Barack Obama got in 2008. In 2016, Senator Hillary Clinton is said to have received 80 percent of the Indian American vote.

The Modi factor

And between 2008 and 2020 there has been a perceptible shift in the voting and support attitudes of voting Indian Americans in the United States. And some part of Trump’s uptick in the community has been attributed to the strong personal relations the American leader shares with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

The wishful thinking in Trump has been that the bonds of friendship between him and Modi are all going to translate into votes on Election Day. That is not going to happen as there is a body of Indian Americans who do not rate Modi high, personally, in terms of policies and governance.

The lowest ‘warmth’ for Modi, according to the survey, has come from the supporters of Biden. Still, a satisfying point for President Trump must be that his support from within the Indian American community has gone up from 12 percent in 2016.

The recent survey of the community has also brought to the fore yet another aspect that has not attracted much attention: that Indian Americans are more concerned with the issues faced by America like the economy, health care and racism. In fact, immigration issues too could be added to the list particularly those pertaining to H1B visas, the Green Cards, and processing time from Green Cards to Citizenship.

By and large, while the South Block bureaucrats may get excited over what official Washington may have to say, the least of the priorities of Indian Americans are the status of the relationship between India and the United States. There is some concern in the community on the recent back-and-forth on the H1B visa that Biden has said he would address if he is in the White House. But Trump in his own way will hammer away with the idea of an America First policy especially when it comes to jobs. 

Extending greetings to Indian Americans for the Hindu festivals of Navaratri, Durga Puja or Deepavali is something of a routine these days among American politicians with Biden and Harris doing the routine as well ahead of the elections. But there has always been this element of apprehension with Democrats amongst a segment of the Indian Americans of a tendency to unnecessarily needle New Delhi on issues pertaining to Kashmir, Article 370, human rights, and so on.

Domestic political compulsions

On October 22, Trump and Biden are to debate - if it takes place at all - on issues of climate change and national security as a part of six topics that have been identified. If Trump is looking for last-minute cross overs from the Indian Americans, he will undoubtedly hammer away at China, Pakistan, terrorism, cross-border aggression, terrorist incursions and make Biden looks weak and lost in the Asia Pacific.   

Biden and Harris are not about to lose the leverage of the Indian Americans no matter what the limitations of the Democratic ticket are. The Indian American community is sophisticated, knows and understands the domestic political compulsions and will not allow themselves to be led around by short term promises.

But Democrats too will have to ponder about something about the slow erosion of the Indian American base, from the 90s to the 70s and over a period of about a decade. At the national level, the Republicans are worried about losing supporters who may never return to the party; and both Republicans and Democrats will have to think deeply about losing large immigrant groups and permanently at that.

(The writer, a former senior journalist in Washington DC, is currently Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at

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