By Dr. D. K. Giri
The presidential elections in the United States generate a good deal of interest across the world. The ensuing election in November next is drawing more attention than usual for the re-election of the mercurial incumbent Donald Trump. In India, Trump has been quite a toast for the press for his personal equation with our Prime Minister, but the nomination of Kamala Harris as the vice presidential candidate of the Democrats has got considerable publicity here for her Indian ethnicity, from her mother’s side.
Curiously, Indian observers have commented extensively on the possible impact of Kamala Harris, should she win, on Indian Diaspora, American policy towards India and American politics at home. Alternatively, if Trump who has been so far behind his opponent Joe Biden in the opinion polls wins, what will it mean for the Indian Americans and India? A lot has been written so far. I wish to engage with these four concerns in terms of the praxis of international relations, the realpolitik sans any emotions associated with the candidates.
Indian Americans are now 4 million strong, in terms of overall percentage of Americans, they constitute 1.3 per cent, but are sizeable in swing States and thus are able to be a deciding factor in the elections. Out of 50 States, in 16 States Indian Americans are more than 1 per cent- New Jersey 4.1%, Rhode Island 3.36 %, New York 1.88 %, Illinois 1.81%, California 1.8 %, Delaware 1.61%. Since the American President is elected by electoral college consisting of States, not the popular vote, it is quite likely that concentration of Indian Americans could clinch either way.
Both Trump and Biden-Harris have been wooing the Indian American electorate. Trump has issued the images of him with Modi jointly addressing rallies in Houston and Ahmedabad. He has claimed that he has more Indians than Harris. Trump has identified closely with ‘Hindu Indians’, largely the supporters of Modi. Some would argue that a lot of older Indian Americans who have been Democratic Party supporters have switched to Trump for his pro-Indian stances in South Asia and India-Pacific region.
At the same time, Kamala Harris has invoked her Indian origin, her mother hailing from Tamil Nadu. Many observers contend that Harris is decidedly a black American in her ethnic features and her association with Black ethos, community and culture. She studied in a college set up for mainly for the black community. Even in her policy posturing she has been often critical of India. Yet, in the run-up to the elections, she is identifying with her mother’s clan and the Indian community. Her aunt, mother’s sister was present in her nomination rally.
Obviously, Indian Americans are not a ghetto voting population, they are varied in their political preferences; they will be concerned with polices that affect them, like H-1B visa, taxations policies, racial harmony etc. Trump has been perceived as a white supremacist. But Indian Americans have no cause for worry, as the racial tension has affected Blacks more than Asian Americans. Also, Indian Americans are professionals and well-off, thus escape being the targets for racial attacks.
Indian Americans will vote for the party supporting India than its domestic policies. The ethnic population anywhere feels nostalgic, more so the Indians for their reluctance to give up their own culture and embrace the culture of the host country. In America, the country of immigrants, there is no definite host culture to absorb the Indians. That brings us to the second point of concern, the India policy of the candidates that is influenced by the Indian American voters as wells as nudging them to vote for either of the two parties.
Arguably, the ethnic population in a particular country could influence the foreign policy of the host country in favour of their country of origin. The super-wealthy Jews in America sway the American policy towards Israel. Turks in Germany contribute to Germany policy toward Turkey, which has been long in negotiation to join the European Union. So Indian Americans with their professional clout can tilt America towards India. Quite a few Indian Americans are in to positions in the governance system of America. On the second aspect, their voting decision will be dictated by the respective leadership’s position towards India.
In this column, I have written a full length article titled “Donald Trump is the best friend of India”. Many observers are uncomfortable with Trump for his unpredictable utterances. I was calmed by one of the Trump admirers in America, “judge Trump by what he does, not what he says”. He has an inimitable style of lulling the opponent into complacence by seductive words, drawing them in and then squeezing them into compliance etc. At any rate, the Republican Party has been more pro-India than the Democrats. The civil nuclear Agreement was signed by George Bush the Jr, and distancing from Pakistan was done by Trump. Both Bill Clinton and Obama kept Pakistan and China on good humour.
The current Bidden-Harris leadership has been critical of India on Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 and other so-called human rights issues. There has been no attempt from the Democrats to build bridges with the Indian government. Trump on the other hand has gone full distance with Modi in publicly declaring his support. David Cameroon, the former British Prime Minster of Britain went on stage with Modi at Wembley in March 2019 and swung the 1.5 million-strong Indian Britons in favour of his party. Trump would have done the same with his two stage performances alongside Modi.
Democrats have made amends to their Indian policy and have said ‘they will invest intensively consolidating the bilateral relations with India”. It seems too late and little as Trump Administration has been very vocal in support of India in our border stand-off with China. Democrats seem to have an ‘India’ problem despite Harris on board.
What will it mean for American politics? America is a melting pot, occasional racial tensions notwithstanding. They have elected and re-elected a Black American, Obama as the President, his mother was white Native American. If they elect Harris, she will be first one with complete immigrant origin. It is not unlikely. Her elections will sooth the bruised tempers of Black Americans who have been victims of racial hatred and violence of late. ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement will bring voters to Democrats, but it may also consolidate white voters for Trump. In any event, on both sides of the bi-party political spectrum in American politics, for the first time perhaps, India and Indian Americans figure prominently. In addition to sizeable segments of Indians in swing states, India has risen in geopolitical calculations of America as it locks horns with China for the supreme position in the World. We watch with great interest how the election unfolds in the most powerful country of the world.
The author is Prof. International Politics, JMI