Will Modi-hugging Trump gain Indian-American political support?

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other after their joint statement, at Hyderabad House, on February 25, 2020 in New Delhi. (Getty Images)

Indian Americans seem to have suddenly become the darling of the eye of Donald Trump after the President came back from his first ever State visit to India along withFirst Lady Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jarred Kushner last week.

Trump’s campaign team has launched a new social media campaign targeting IndianAmerican voters who are variously estimated to number between 2 and 2.3 million voters, according to experts.One Facebook ad features Trump and First Lady Melania Trump standing in front of the famed Taj Mahal in India which they visited during the Feb.24-25 trip.

“Indian Americans are titans of business, masters of the arts and innovate technology like few others,” the ad reads. “Your contributions have strengthened our culture and economy. I will always fight for YOU!”

Another ad says, “America LOVES India,” and features a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi together. “Our economies have never been better, and the United States is eager to build a strong partnership with India.”

A third features Modi alone and lists education policies the Trump administration backs, including tax breaks to support private — and religious-school scholarships.

Such social media promotion was absent in the past as Trump’s campaigns had sought to reach out to the Indian American community largely through in-person events or other outreach efforts.

During the 2016 election campaign Trump addressed a rally organized by a group called Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey where he spoke aggressively against Islamic terrorism. The rally witnessed a celebration of Bollywood culture and dance. Trump in that rally pitched India and the U.S. as best friends Political analysts are not sure how much the public relations exercise helped translate into Indian American votes going for Trump in 2016.

Traditionally, Indian Americans have voted for Democrats, even if they had supported Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party in elections in India. Many voted for the Democrats despite business or other relations with Trump.

According to a 2016 Pew Research report only about 13 percent of Indian Americans lean towards Republicans. Reports say more than 60 percent of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Many Indian American supporters of the Republican party hope that in the 2020 presidential election that pro-democrat leaning of voters would change after Trump’s visit to India where he complimented Modi and highlighted India’s achievements as well as the’ contributions of Indian Americans in the U.S.

“Trump made all the positive noises in India, and if you look at the chemistry between Trump and Modi, it has given the feeling among people both in India and the U.S. that these two countries and their leaders are closer than in the past and that bonhomie and closeness, the images of which have been watched by people in the U.S., have seemingly encouraged Indian Americans to vote for Trump. So, I think there can be some support for President Trump,”Krishna Reddy Anugula, president of OFBJP, said in a cautious comment.

Reddy also noted that some of the recent criticisms of Democratic Party leaders like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal on the violence in Delhi and Citizenship as well as Kashmir issues have not been received well by the community. He felt the combined effect of that may be more Indian American votes going in favor of Trump in the 2020 election.

Sanders last week criticized Trump for not showing “leadership” by raising the issue of Hindu-Muslim riots during his visit to India in which so far at least 38 people have been killed and scores injured.

Trump in Delhi during his news conference declined to take a public position on the citizenship law, saying he preferred to “leave that to India.”

Professor Dinesh Agrawal, a former OFBJP president who teaches in Penn State University, was more upfront when asked about the impact of Trump’s visit on the electoral choices of Indian Americans in the 2020 presidential election.

“In his speech, Trump profusely praised Modi and India for almost 20 minutes in Ahmedabad and for good reasons. But let me tell you that Trump was not actually addressing Modi or India in Motera stadium. In India he was addressing the Indian Americans in the U.S. because he needs their votes, especially in the states where there are a lot of Indians like in New Jersey or Texas. I think that was the main reason why Trump went to India. Other things were secondary in importance,” Agrawal, an IIT Kanpur graduate teaching materials science in Penn State University, told this correspondent.

Dr. Sampat Shivangi, Chair of Mississippi State Board of Mental Health, and a veteran leader of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), who was to accompany Trump during his India visit but did not go because of indisposition, said he was very positive about Indian Americans voting for Trump this time.

Shivangi, who is organizing along with seven other Indian American physicians a breakfast fundraiser March 8 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida where a table for eight will cost $50,000, said the community members have changed their minds about voting for Democrats and will definitely support Trump in 2020.

“As far as AAPI is concerned I can tell you that Trump is going to get 70 to 80 percent of its support and this will be true of other large Indian American organizations as well and in the rest of the country. That is why Trump is going to all social media and promoting his candidacy among Indian Americans. He knows how much the Indian Americans are worth in terms of their voting power and so he is trying to woo the Indian Americans,” Shivangi who will serve as delegate for Trump at the Republican National Convention this summer, said.

Like Agrawal, some other academics and experts also believe that Trump went to India with an eye on garnering Indian American voters’ support in the 2020 elections and that his association with Modi and visuals of the two leaders standing next to each other in bear hug may deliver some benefits to the U.S. president in the presidential election. It can help perhaps in weaning away some Indian American votes for Democrats.

“After HowdyModi event in Texas last year, this was another event in India when they were trying to push this idea that closeness between Modi and Trump would lead to some kind of change in the voting pattern of Indian Americans. At least a claim is being made to that effect, but it is hard to predict on this point as to what is going to happen,” Sangay Mishra of Drew University and author of the 2016 book Desis Divided: the Political Life of South Asian Americans, told this correspondent.

Despite the brouhaha over the visit, one of the reasons for the uncertainty about Indian Americans all turning in favor of Trump during the 2020 election has been the sectarian violence in Delhi over the controversial citizenship law that erupted when Trump was wrapping up his visit and the president’s silence on the issue. Some Indian Americans felt strongly that Trump did not condemn such violence, because he didn’t want to say anything to overshadow his “fantastic” trip to India. Trump also declined to criticize Modi’s new citizenship law.

"We are devastated by the murder and carnage in Delhi. I don't believe that Trump will get more of the Indian American votes because of his camaraderie with Modi. I think Indians care more about social security, Medicare and H1 visas than about Trump! Frankly, Hindutva can do more damage at the donor level than at the voting booth,” Sunita Viswanath, a New York-based community activist and co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, said.

Referring to the Delhi violence, Professor Audrey Truschke, Assistant Professor Department of HistoryRutgers University-Newark also said that the trend of escalating anti-Muslim violence is an expected outcome of the BJP's virulent hate speech.She noted that so far, nobody has been held accountable for the violence and the government has openly retaliated against judges and others who dared to oppose assaulting and murdering of Muslims. “This is a dark moment for India, especially Indian Muslims,’ she said.

Abraham George, Vice-Chairman of the IOC, USA, said he was doubtful if the Trump visit to India would lead to Indian American votes turning in his favor in the upcoming election because the demographics of the diaspora does not support such assumption.

“Out of the four million people who have immigrated to the U.S. in the last five decades, fifty percent areMuslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others, non-Hindus who are wary of Modi's policies back home. They are even more skeptical of Trump's policies that pretty much parallel Modi's own when it comes to promoting nationalism or railing against immigrants. Therefore, it is doubtful that a massive switch will have taken place favoring Trump because of his recent visit to India,” George said.

Modi supporters like Professor Dinesh Agrawal felt that President Trump, who mentioned in his speech in Ahmedabad that India is the biggest victim of Islamic terrorism, resonates with a lot of NRIs very positively and that is going to be one of the factors that will get Trump extra votes of the community.

During the Howdy Modi event standing next to Modi in last September in Texas, Trump promised to “take care of our Indian American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country” and also raised the radical Islamic terrorism issue earning him applause from the 50,000-odd largely Indian American crowd.

Mishra noted last week that although in the last three or four elections Indian Americans have been largely Democratic supporters and their closeness to democratic party “has been strengthening rather than weakening,” a question remains: Is this a moment when Indian Americans’ political preferences is going to shift because of the Trump visit?

“I think it is important to note that there is a push by the Trump campaign to reach out to multiple non-white communities and they have been trying to reach out to the Blacks, maybe a little more successfully to the Latinos, Cubans and other Latin Americans. Their thinking is that if they can slash a little bit of support among the non-white population for Democratic party,” he said .

“They do not imagine completely making it a majority-Republican voting, but their attempt is to gain a little bit, and with that I think what they're looking at is to see if they can shave off 5 to 10% of Indian Americans’ traditional support for Democrats,” Mishra said.

Mishra believes that is entirely possible for Trump to get some Indian American votes because the Republicans’ attempt is not to be able to completely change the voting pattern of Indian Americans. “I would say definitely their strategy is to drive down the turnout and shave off a little bit of non-white votes for Democrats. That is what they're trying to do,” Mishra told this correspondent.

In a report in February the Guardian newspaper noted in a report about Trump’s India visit that it was not solely a display of solidarity with Modi and his BJP government. “Trump approached India not as another nation state, but rather another state to turn red, and one more stop on his 2020 campaign trail. And his trip was strategically designed to stoke themes of nationalism and protectionism for those with a foothold in both countries.”

People like Shivangi and Agrawal saw nothing wrong in Trump’s addressing the crowd in India with an eye on potential Indian American voters for his own re-election.

“No harm if you can hit two objects with one arrow and I think he's a smart guy and he can do both and that is why the moment he came back he probably started this media promotion in the social media because he understands that he has a lot in stake in the Indian American support,” Shivangi said.

Mishra said referring to the attempt by the BJP and the Hindu Nationalist network to decry Democrats over their criticism of the CAA and NRC in India that the BJP and the Hindutva networks have adopted the strategy to attack elected officials and presidential primary candidates of the Democratic Party who are taking a position on the citizenship amendment act and the position on the recent deadly riots in Delhi.

In India, BJP’s national general secretary B.L. Santhosh tweeted to Sanders last week, saying that he or his party may interfere in the U.S. elections.“How much ever neutral we wish to be, you compel us to play a role in presidential elections. Sorry to say so… but you are compelling us,” he tweeted.

Mishra said, “Their whole strategy is to push back directly or indirectly against Democrats and in favor of the Republicans.I cannot say with certainty, but my sense is that even within Hindu nationalist network there is a split among people and they're not all aligned with Republicans and their policies.”

A somewhat similar analysis about lack of unanimity of opinion about Trump within BJP came from Agrawal who said that while the relatively older generation of Indian Americans are all for supporting Trump, he is not sure the same would be equally true about the young voters, especially the millennials.

“I think the young generation of Indian Americans will not support Trump no matter whether one is born here or is an immigrant for a number of reasons, including whatever comments he has been making in the past four years and his personal life. The young generation kind of hates Trump and even if he is talking about India and Modi. They like Modi and India but somehow, they don't like President Trump, unlike the older generation who understand much better the importance of India,its heritage and how we should consider India’s interests more and thus support Trump,” Agrawal said.

To a question, Mishra said Indian Americans’ voting choice in the presidential election may not be uniform throughout the country even if one assumes that Trump’s India visit will have some beneficial impact for the Republican party’s vote gathering.

“People vote in the elections in the U.S. based on largely domestic concerns, but we will have to see how much impact Trump’s foreign policy and relation to India can have on the election results.It is hard to predict but I think states like Pennsylvania will be important because in Pennsylvania there is a large population of Indian Americans and that is a swing state. So, it would have local dynamics because in those states the Trump campaign will try harder to reach out to voters who would possibly going to swing,’ he said.

“On the other hand, in California I don’t imagine that Trump campaign would make a very concerted effort to change Indian American voting behavior because it does not matter because even if it swings a little bit to Trump, it will not impact anything. I think in the states where it matters, they would reach out harder. So, it will have a little bit of dynamics because of the nature of the U.S. elections.

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