A new survey may show that the Indian-American community is solidly behind Democrat candidate Joe Biden in the upcoming US presidential elections while national polls put President Donald Trump well behind him, but that hasn’t deterred Danny Gaekwad, a Florida-based entrepreneur.
“I saw that President Trump is wounded in the race. So I’m spending my own money to support him,” Gaekwad said on October 8.
Last week, Gaekwad launched a “Trump Hai to Safe Hai” campaign, meaning ‘with Trump around, we’re safe’, to galvanise support for the US president. An ad titled “Ek Bar Aur, Trump Sarkar” – ‘Trump once more’ – features Gaekwad saying: “Why Trump? Very easy. He is a friend of India. He has proved himself, he is a friend of India.”
Gaekwad is one of a number of vocal Indian-Americans who, citing Trump’s close ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his attitude towards illegal immigrants and what they perceive as an anti-India platform from the Democrats, have put their weight behind the controversial Republican leader.
The very visible and vocal support has even created the impression that the Indian-American community – which has historically tilted heavily in favour of the Democratic party – might witness a small shift towards Trump.
A survey of Asian-American attitudes appeared to lend this narrative some credence earlier this year, before the more comprehensive 2020 Indian-American Attitude Survey made it clear that the community remains solidly behind the Democrats and is unlikely to consider Indo-US ties a key issue in the upcmoming election.
Nevertheless, those Indian-Americans who have come out in support of Trump are hopeful.
“A number of Indians who were earlier hardcore Democrat supporters, even registered Democrats, are now supporting Republicans either vocally or tacitly,” said Deven Mehta, a founding member of the Republican Hindu Coalition.
Others continue to pin their hopes on outreach, as the campaign heads into its final stretch.
“Almost every Indian-American has already been reached by the Trump campaign, and will be reached again multiple times,” said Khushboo Rawlley, an advisory board member of Indian Voices for Trump, a coalition of groups recently founded by the Trump Victory Campaign 2020.
Rawlley is also a board member of Indian American Republican Women, and the co-founder of US IMPACT, an Indian American advocacy group that was launched in 2014. “Huge things will happen this month as far as outreach is concerned,” she said.
Points of contention
As part of Joe Biden’s campaign, he released an “Agenda for Muslim-American Communities” denouncing the Indian government’s unilateral stripping of the autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the passage of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019. That, combined with several members of his campaign including Kamala Harris – Biden’s vice-presidential nominee – condemning the Indian government’s crackdown on civil rights, are the issues that Indian-American Trump supporters tend to mention as the reason why the community might be swayed.
“This election is seeing a major swing towards the right,” said Amit Warkad, president and co-founder of US IMPACT. “This swing could be attributed to two points: Anti-India messaging from the Democrats’ camp, and the positive relationship being built over the last three-and-a-half years of President Trump coming to power.”
Several Indian-American Republicans interviewed by Scroll.in said that anti-Citizenship Act amendment resolutions passed in largely Democratic city councils such as Seattle, Saint Paul, Cambridge, and San Francisco had upset sections of the diaspora. They claimed that Trump offers an example that, compared to his Democratic counterpart, will not interfere in Indian matters, or support the Indian government’s policy interests.
“Joe Biden has made his views public about India, Kashmir and CAA, and that has not resonated well with the Indian-American community at large,” Warkad said.
Rawlley, who is an entrepreneur and activist, qualified this view, saying that Trump supports Narendra Modi’s stance on foreign policy issues such as China, Tibet, Pakistan, and the Indian Ocean, which is a “matter of pride” for Indians. “It has become a very emotional thing – a matter of self-respect – when President Trump stands with Mr. Narendra Modi and talks positively in India’s favour on these issues.”
Some Democratic leaders have even urged Trump to put a hold arms sales to India, she added, whereas Trump passed a bill that helps India procure advanced weapon systems in a noticeably short period. “Indians this election seriously need to understand the difference between enemies and friends,” Rawlley asserted.
Her fervour for the Trump-Modi bonhomie is palpable. “Have you ever seen two powerful leaders of the world join hands and walk the entire stadium the way Modi and Trump do?”
Immigration is a complex issue for these Indian-American Republicans, themselves members of one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country.
Trump’s tenure has included severe restrictions on immigration, including on the H-1B visa that accounts for a large number of Indians moving to the United States. Biden’s platform, meanwhile, promises to ease back on those restrictions and permit more immigration.
While this should, in theory, curry the favour of Indians, there are intriguing concerns.
Many users on Reddit groups that are focussed on the Indian diaspora have been sharing anecdotes about their parents supporting Trump. Having reaped the benefits of liberal immigration policies themselves, they now want to shut doors on other immigrants.
“The argument my dad keeps making is about immigration,” a Reddit user – one of several in the recent weeks – shared on ABC/Desis. “He says he’s voting for Trump again because he says Trump will keep immigration tight and not let all these people come into the country, legally or illegally. He keeps saying that if Biden wins, the US is going to be flooded with Indians and other Asians and there will be no jobs left for Americans…”
Some Indian-American Trump supporters are even willing to talk about this.
“Biden is promising citizenship for at least 11 million illegal aliens,” said Rawlley, who became an American citizen after moving to the country with her husband as an immigrant several years ago. “[They] will compete for American jobs, worsening unemployment and depressing wages for American workers.”
To explain this contradiction, the Republican Hindu Coalition’s Mehta said that naturalised citizens don’t have the same concerns as newer immigrants in the US. For citizens, particularly those who have lived in the US for decades, issues such as H-1B and around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportations aren’t viewed in the same light as their own immigration to the country.
“For them, what matters is: What are the Republican and Democrat policies towards the values that the Indian community hold? Those values are conservative. Conservative family values, conservative economic policies… and, more importantly, the administration’s policies towards India.”
The Republican campaign is also leveraging the “defund the police” campaign led by the Black Lives Matter movement, as an opportunity to appeal to conservative values within the Indian diaspora. Although Biden has said he does not support defunding the police, Mehta claimed that it was a position held by Democrats – and one that the Indian-American community opposes.
“The Indian community is absolutely against that, because we believe in abiding by the law,” he said.
Trouble in paradise
US IMPACT has a presence in 29 states. According to leaders at Indian Voices for Trump and US IMPACT including Rawlley and Warkad, the groups plan to mobilise over 5,800 volunteers across 29 states to help Trump get re-elected with a “landslide victory” through a combination of tools. These include volunteers, phone banking, physical mails, media, and Make America Great Again meetups online in Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu, and Gujarati.
“Because of Covid-19, there are not as many people out there in person, but the virus hasn’t stopped our process of campaigning,” emphasised Rawlley. “There are various ways, thanks to technology…And trust me, the Trump Victory National team along with US IMPACT is working very closely with grassroot organisations and leaders to fetch Indian voters for President Trump in the 2020 election.”
But some of these groups are not entirely happy with the Trump campaign.
The Republican Hindu Coalition thinks there is a disconnect between the campaign from 2016 compared to this year.
If you go back to 2016, said Kayo Anderson, executive director of the RHC, it was the first time a Republican candidate had ever gone to a temple with his family, referring to a visit by Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump at a temple in Florida. “For the first time ever, Indian- and Hindu-American voters felt embraced by the Republican Party,” he said.
Since Hindu-Americans make up a significant portion of the US’s middle and upper class, they theoretically would be Republican voters in terms of policy, which Trump spent significant time lobbying for in 2016, according to Anderson.
But there has been a reversal in that tactic this year.
“If you were to ask me right now what percentage of the [Hindu-American] vote do I think are Republican Hindu voters in 2020? I’d say 10% to 15%, if elections were held today,” Anderson stated. “The same winning methodology that the president followed in 2016 has completely dissipated.”
This has meant that Democratic candidates have far better engagement with the community, both through town halls and social media, Anderson said. “If the campaign stays silent… If (Indian-Americans) feel side-lined again, it could result in a backlash against Republicans.”