When President Donald Trump decided to join Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ‘Howdy Modi!’ rally in Houston on Sept. 22, it was seen as a win-win situation for both the leaders.
For Modi, it was to be an opportunity to renew his connection with the Indian diaspora in the U.S. who have contributed to his election campaign this year, both financially and with phone calls and email messaging from the U.S.
Trump jumped on the Modi bandwagon in the hope it would provide him an opportunity to appeal to Indian-American voters, particularly in Harris County, which has been at the heart of Texas' gradual shift from a reliably Republican to a competitive battleground. After all, Trump would not let go an opportunity to address 50,000 people under one roof at the NRG Stadium in Houston ahead of the election year that could pay him political dividend.
While after the gathering of an unprecedented number of Indian-Americans under one roof made both leaders happy — with Modi reconnecting with his supporters and Trump reaching out to potential voters – community watchers wondered if their appreciation of Trump’s gesture would actually translate into votes for the president and the Republican party in the 2020 election.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Texas is home to the fourth-largest Indian-American population in the country after California, New York and New Jersey. Indian-Americans in the U.S. mostly identify themselves as Democrats and an overwhelming majority of them voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 election, but at the same time, most of them, especially the Hindus among the 4.5 million-strong community, are said to support Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party in India.
Outside the NRG Stadium in Houston, where thousands from the community listened with rapt attention to Modi and Trump’s mutually-applauding speeches, an elderly Indian-American sounded pretty impressed with Trump’s words: “Indian-Americans enrich our culture and uplift our values. We are proud to have them as Americans.”
The man, identified in a report in The Atlantic as 74-year-old Girdhar Agarwal, said Trump is doing a lot of things for immigration and things like that. “Then he lowered his voice, watching his words: “Trying to keep our ... our ... you know ... people in and illegals out.”’
Agarwal was alluding to Trump’s address standing next to Modi, in which he promised to “take care of our Indian American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country.” The crowd at that point gave him standing ovation.
In the wake of the rally, an opinion seemed to gain ground among some that the joint appearance has now opened up the potential for Trump to count on the support of a sizeable number of Indian-American followers of Modi. This view became somewhat popular after Modi tacitly endorsed Trump to get re-elected for a second term paraphrasing his own election slogan – ‘Abki baar Trump sarkar.’
Some people like Yogesh Pandey, president of the Overseas Federation Of Indian Diaspora (OFID), who attended the Houston event, claimed many Democratic supporters are now rooting for Republicans and supporting President Trump for his second term. “I spoke to several people after the event and I can say with confidence that Indian-Americans are going to vote for Trump,” Pandey was quoted as saying in South China Morning Post.
Despite such claims, Trump’s plan to revoke the H-4 work permit for the spouses of H1B visa holders, which will render thousands of Indians unable to work in the U.S. and a sharp decline in U.S. visas provided to highly-skilled workers, has admittedly affected Indian-Americans adversely and has been decried by the Indian-American community.
At the event, there were six Democrats among the 21 lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – who joined Modi on stage. Also present were Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.; and Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL 8th District).
According to the Asian American Voter Survey, Trump’s approval rating was 28 percent with Indian Americans registered to vote in 2018. Despite that, Trump was seen as appealing to win the support of some members of the community.
In a similar bid to garner support of the community, Trump attended a fundraiser in New Jersey before the 2016 election in Edison, N.J. though it was attended by a much smaller crowd compared to the huge Houston gathering. At that event too, Trump sought to woo Indian-American voters, saying “The Indians and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House, that I can guarantee. I have great confidence in India. Incredible people, incredible country.”
Despite such efforts by Trump to crack on the Indian-American vote bank, community watchers, however, say Trump’s efforts are unlikely to be very fruitful at this stage.
“A big majority of the Indian-Americans are democratic voters and Trump may have persuaded some of them to look at him, but the core values of Democrats are so different that it is not likely that Indian Americans en masse are going to switch their loyalties and allegiance to vote for Trump or the Republicans,” M.R. Rangaswami, an entrepreneur and corporate eco-strategy expert who attended Modi’s private luncheon at the Howdy Modi event, told this correspondent.
He said just one meeting by Trump doesn't make it “a landslide shift in allegiance” to Republicans, adding that the reaction of the community as far as Trump speech is concerned is mixed.
“Trump definitely sent a message in terms of immigration to the community but as the proverb says the proof of the pudding is in eating. Our community is pretty smart, and they want to see the result,” he said, adding that Trump's position on H1B and visas for the spouses of H1B workers has not been very popular among the community while on the other hand, it is a known fact even among the community that the Indian Americans are estimated to be the second largest undocumented population in the U.S. after the Mexicans. “Both issues cause concern and the community wants to see action and results on both,” Rangaswami said.
“I think Trump needs to work consistently with the community on issues and he needs to come back many more times so he can show the progress. If he does that, some people may be convinced to make a change in their political preference, but this is going to be the first step. He needs to do many such events with the community,” he said.
Referring to the NRG stadium meeting, Rangaswami said this is just the time to start influencing people and it will take a long time to translate that influence into votes for Trump, and one must keep in mind that the election is far away, at least a year from now and there may be so many things happening between now and then. “But overall, I agree that this may be the first stage or the beginning of a potential shift in the attitude of Indian American voters towards Trump.”
Others like Professor Sangay Mishra of Drew University and author of the 2016 book “Desis Divided: The Political Life of South Asian Americans,” felt that although claims are being made in some quarters that this “truly unprecedented” event, he is not sure that this could sway the voters, although he admitted there is no way to know currently how this event will have a political impact on Indian-American voters in future.
Mishra said one of the reasons why Indian-American voters are unlikely to move towards Trump and the Republican party is because immigrants have historically voted differently when voting for candidates in American elections and while casting ballots in their native county.
He said when people come out after attending a rally, where the leader of their home country in this case Modi, has shared the platform with the leader of their adopted country like President Trump, it is easy for them to jump to conclusion that community’s love for one leader from India will also somehow automatically encompass the American leader and will reflect during election. But history, he said, does not corroborate such assumptions.
“It is clear the Republican party has slowly turned itself into a party where there is very little space for immigrant communities, for people of color and people who are non-Christians. For all these reasons, the Republican party at this stage is not very hospitable to non-white immigrants, and with Trump the situation has become even more accentuated where Indian immigrants by and large do feel targeted by Trump's policies,” Mishra told India Abroad in an interview.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D.-Calif.), a frequent Trump critic whose parents immigrated from India, said that if Trump thinks embracing India’s Prime Minster was going to lead to significant changes in Indian Americans’ politics, he does not understand the community well.
“It’s the Gandhian philosophy of pluralism, of respect for fellow human beings, of dialogue for peace that define the values of the Indian-American community,” Khanna said last week on MSNBC. “The president is misinformed if he thinks showing up at this rally is going to help him with the Indian-American vote.”
According to a Washington Post report quoting Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California at Riverside who studies the political interests of Asian Americans, said the crowd’s response to Trump shouldn’t be misinterpreted.
“My interpretation is that he got a respectful, warm reception, but it wasn’t like people were wearing MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats,” he told the Fox News. “It wasn’t a pro-Trump rally atmosphere. This is a crowd that was probably more Republican and more conservative. Who knows how many (of them) are even U.S. citizens?” Ramakrishnan pointed to Modi’s “good working relationship” with President Barack Obama when people suggest he and Trump have entered some type of political bromance.
In the interview Mishra said people who work on immigrant communities and transnational connection have found in empirical studies that there is always a difference in the way an immigrant to the U.S. chooses a party or a candidate to vote in American elections than s/he would be voting in his or her home country.
“While casting votes in the U.S. an immigrant will always think in the context of his country of residence, the problems and the issues here than when voting, say for example, in the country of origin like in Mexico or India,” Mishra said.
“Even if they are great supporters of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, while voting in U.S. presidential election or any election for that matter, India will not be the center of their consideration or concern but rather how Trump is relating to the immigrant communities and what he is doing on immigration, for people of color and issues that are of real interest to them,” Mishra said.
He also gave the examples of Turkish people living in Germany and the Jewish people living in the U.S. who he said vote in quite a different way in their adopted land than when voting in their home countries. He said most Jewish people living in the U.S. are Democrats but when they vote in elections in Israel, they tend to vote for rightwing conservatives, and not liberals.
“Similarly, a Hindu American as against an Indian-American – as not all in the community are necessarily supportive of Modi’s government and policies – will not necessarily become pro-Republican and vote for Trump in U.S. election even if they saw Modi standing along with Trump and virtually endorsing his re-election,” he said.
Mishra’s argument is borne out by examples of people like Mumbai-born Sonal Shah, a former senior Obama administration official and co-founder of Indicorps, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s policy director. Shah is a former national coordinator of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, and her father was a former OFBJP vice president. Similarly, Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden’s Asian American Pacific Islander national vote director, Amit Jani, is a Modi supporter, and his father was a co-founder of the Overseas Friends of the BJP.
“Immigrants in the U.S. are Janus-faced in terms of their political beliefs and allegiance, especially how they vote in U.S. elections and in their home countries. There is a kind of dichotomy between their political preferences in their homeland and their adopted land, but that is a reality that cannot be denied,” Mishra told India Abroad.