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USA-India: Who Are the Modi Democrats?

Wednesday 28 October 2020, by siawi3


Who Are the Modi Democrats?

Indian Americans lean to the left, while many also support India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister.

by Reena Shah

October 27, 2020

Michael Wyke/AP Photo
Photo: Attendees at the ‘Howdi Modi’ event, September 22, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston

*Indicates a name has been changed at the source’s request.

In September 2019, Vijay Mehta attended “Howdy Modi,” eager to see Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The Houston rally drew more than 50,000 people, a rare mass gathering for an elected foreign leader in the United States. It featured over 400 musicians and dancers, Bollywood-style fanfare, and a visit from President Trump. The two leaders caused a Secret Service frenzy with a surprise hand-in-hand walk around the stadium, footage the Trump campaign is now using to court Indian American voters.

Mehta, a retired surgeon from Temple, Texas, is a big Modi fan. “I was awed by Modi. I had tears in my eyes,” he says. He is also enthusiastically voting for Biden/Harris in November. “Trump invited himself last minute. Most people in the audience didn’t even know he was going to be there.”

On the surface, Mehta seems to defy conventional wisdom. Modi’s hard-line immigration and citizenship laws and his tacit approval for Hindu fundamentalism seem well aligned with Trump’s policies. But for many Indian Americans, particularly Hindu Indian Americans, who shift from being the majority in India to a minority in the United States, voting for a Democrat and supporting Modi are not mutually exclusive political identities.

That Trump is trying to leverage his relationship with Modi to gain favor with the community is no surprise. The nearly two million eligible Indian American voters are a highly educated, wealthy, and fast-growing voting bloc with sizable numbers in critical swing states. By some accounts, Texas now has the second-largest population of Indian Americans in the country, after California.

Yet voters like Mehta are quick to find daylight between the two men. “Trump is a blind nationalist while Modi is a compassionate nationalist,” he says. “Trump can’t even denounce white supremacy when asked directly. In Modi’s 15-year career [as a politician] he hasn’t said a single anti-Muslim thing.” (Modi is a more careful, self-controlled speaker than Trump—though he is also strategically silent during instances of communal violence, and clearly bigoted speech thrives within his party and among his own appointees.)

Others, like Dilip Desai*, a staunch Elizabeth Warren supporter in the Democratic primary, insist that focusing on Modi’s record on human rights and religious minorities in India ignores India’s problem with corruption and the country’s lack of political choices. Congress, now India’s opposition party, ruled the country for nearly 50 years after independence mostly under the control of a single family, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The party even ran the same candidate—Rahul Gandhi—in the last two elections, despite resounding defeats. “If there was someone better than Modi, then I would support that person,” says Desai. “Modi is not personally corrupt and in India, that’s enough.”

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that Indians in the diaspora tend to give Modi a long leash on social issues because of his perceived disinterest in personal wealth and their frustration with cronyism. But in the United States, Trump’s bid to reduce H-1B and student visas, his crude, racist rhetoric about minorities, and the vocal, Christian evangelical base have made the GOP the party of intolerance in the eyes of many Indian American voters. “Because Hinduism is not traditionally a proselytizing religion, there’s a sense of wait a second, we respect all faiths but you can’t all of a sudden shove yours down our throats. This is a long-term problem for the Republican Party,” says Vaishnav.