Backlash: Are Democrats losing Indian-American support because of their anti-Modi stance?

A supporter cheers as Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi speaks at NRG Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. The rally, which U.S. President Donald Trump attended and was expected to draw tens of thousands of Indian-Americans, comes ahead of Modi's trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Getty Images)

It was a bolt from the blue for many in the Indian-American community when lawmakers, one after another, pilloried India in the Congress last month taking the Narendra Modi government to task for its alleged human rights violations against minorities, particularly its actions in Kashmir after stripping its special status under the Constitution.

It was shocking for many in the community as the scathing attack against India in the Congress on Oct. 22 was launched mostly by lawmakers of the Democratic Party who have traditionally been seen as India’s friends in the chamber. It also cut many of them to the quick because lawmakers seemed to link Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu policies to the rights violations.

This was not the first time that criticisms against Modi government over alleged rights violations of people in Kashmir following the revocation of Article 370 took place, although it was the first time that the Congress witnessed such a stringent attack on India during the Oct. 22 house sub-committee hearings.

In August this year, Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents California’s Congressional district 17, which has a high percentage of Indian- Americans and who is serving his second term, criticized the Modi government taking a firm stand against Hindutva.

Khanna tweeted, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist(s) and Christians.” That sparked an uproar in the Hindu-American community, more so after he joined the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistani Americans in August.

After last month’s Democratic bashing of India, a section of the community, especially Hindu- Americans aligning with the rightwing politics of Modi and his BJP, seemed deeply disappointed with the Democratic lawmakers, especially Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the first Indian- American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, who bemoaned the lack of religious tolerance in the country of her birth, and U.S. Representative, Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who said Kashmir is part of an overall Hindu nationalism project.

The tirade against India by the Democrats at the subcommittee hearing on ‘Human Rights in South Asia’ brought under focus the long allegiance of Indian-Americans to Democrats and raised questions among some if their traditional support in U.S. elections will continue as before. An estimated 65 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Democrats in the 2016 elections.

Indian-Americans have traditionally voted for Democrats while at the same time have backed Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party in India, at least since 2014, in what is seen by political observers as a kind of paradoxical voting behavior. But this contradiction has been a characteristic of Indian-American political behavior where they vote for liberals in the U.S. but support rightwing politics in their home country.

After Democratic party’s sharp criticism of India, that voting practice is being questioned by some Hindu-Americans. They are beginning to wonder if Democrats are true friends of India.

Adapa Prasad, vice president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, had earlier said that the Democratic party has changed since 2016 when there was greater unanimity on India. He said the “far left within the Democrats are gaining ground, adding that others in the party appear confused.”

After the subcommittee hearing, some of the Hindutva supporters felt that the Democratic Congressmen were not “fair to India” at the Oct. 22 hearings where the Modi government was portrayed in a poor light.

An emboldened right wing of the Hindutva forces in the U.S. has launched a scurrilous attack on Rep. Jayapal for her tough questioning of senior Trump administration officials during the Congressional hearing on the alleged humanitarian crisis and communications blackout in Kashmir and her disappointment over Prime Minister Modi not calling out religious intolerance in India.

“The problem is Hindu lawmakers like Jayapal are career politicians who will sell their own community for their career advancement,” Hindu-American activist Satya Dosapati, who aligns himself with VHP and RSS, said in an email he shared with rightwing activists.

“They are cowards who would not want to face the truth and speak the truths, but (are) for convenient or selective truths,” he said.

In September, an estimated 50,000 Indian-Americans turned up in Houston to attend an event welcoming Modi in which President Trump also made an appearance ostensibly to try and get Indian-Americans’ support for his own re-election in 2020. Experts, however, were not sure if the president could make a dent on the largely Democratic Indian-American voters.

But some staunch Hindu-Americans claimed after last month’s attacks against India in Congress, Democrats now risk losing Indian-American votes in the upcoming elections.

Dr. Bharat Barai a community leader from Chicago, noted that traditional Indian-American support for Democrats in the U.S. was due to their accommodation for immigrants and religious tolerance.

“I feel votes and check books of Indian-Americans will shift, not sure to what degree but many will quietly vote for Trump,” Barai, a longtime Modi friend and confidante and a political activist and fund raiser for lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, told India Abroad.

Prasad had noted that a lot of people within the Indian-American community are unhappy with the position the Democratic party is taking, especially on the Kashmir issue.

Barai said “Most Indian-Americans, except some left-wing anti-India liberal academicians, are centrists and they will certainly take pride in being pro-nationalist for Indian government,” adding that “radical Islamic terrorism and global Jihad will shift some votes of Indian-Americans (to the Republicans and Trump).”

There are of course contrarians who see differently the possible impact of last month’s Democrats’ attack in the Congress on India and its religious intolerance.

Prof. Sangay Mishra of Drew University and author of the 2016 book “Desis Divided: the Political Life of South Asian Americans,” noted that within the Democratic party there is a section that has been taking a “strong stand “on what is happening in Kashmir and other parts of India as far as the minorities are concerned.

“Some of the Indian-American Democratic members of the Congress have been very vocal on that issue and Rep. Pramila Jayapal is an important voice, no doubt. That is creating problem for people, particularly those who are supporting the BJP and Modi — people who are active and more engaged in politics of BJP and the RSS in India,” Mishra told India Abroad.

But he said at this moment it is not clear such criticism of the Democrats will automatically translate into Indian-American votes for Republicans.

A longtime political strategist for the Democratic party, who did not want to be identified, admitted that the Hindutva movement in India and the way pro-Modi groups are organizing themselves in the U.S. is a factor in the upcoming election that Democrats are not losing sight of.

He noted that presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign is emboldening these Hindu networks, adding that this Hindutva movement has really hooked on to the Gabbard campaign that has helped them build their movement.

According to data released in May this year by the University of California, Riverside, which publishes policy research on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, in the first quarter that ended March 31, Gabbard, had raised more than $237,000 from the Indian- American community and Indian green card holders in the U.S.

Political consultant Toby Chaudhuri, who has worked in the Obama administration — advising the White House’s race-based Initiatives and democracy and governance projects around the world for the State Department — said that he still does not yet see Trump emerging as the candidate for Indian-Americans.

Noting that no one speech defines the future, Chaudhury said “the fight over our community’s priorities and presidential attention” has only begun.

“Both the GOP and BJP are preparing for their next elections, strengthening their coordination with the Sangh Parivar and a modern conservative movement that has consolidated power through a very intentional strategy that preyed on racial and cultural division,” Chaudhuri told India Abroad.

Chaudhuri said it is an extraordinary moment where Indian-Americans are on the rise in every region of the country, emerging fast in an increasingly more diverse America.

He said what’s at stake in the election is the survival of the very philosophy that attracted many to the U.S. — the American promise of a democracy where if one works hard, one can do well enough to raise a family.

“Progressive activists Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal are raising the heat enough that people sit up, pay attention and deal with the real threats and challenges facing them. They’re forcing people to take responsibility for tackling hard issues and bringing conflicts occurring behind closed doors out into the open, speaking to people’s fears of cultural division and their hopes for a more promising future.

“They’re also keeping the heat low enough to prevent a disastrous explosion, unlike the counterproductive turmoil created by the combined force of the Sangh Parivar and the Republican Party, which together is becoming a lightning rod for the conflict,” Chaudhuri, who served as deputy press secretary to Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said.

Sunita Viswanath, cofounder of Hindus for Human rights, a group opposed to the rightwing Hindutva and who attended the Congressional hearing last month said maybe there will be some small percentage Indian/Hindu- Americans that feel their allegiance to Hindutva requires them to desert the Democratic Party.

“I don’t think this will be a large group though. For the most part, I think Indian/Hindus will continue to align with the Democratic party because it is friendly to immigrants. The real question is one that Ilhan Omar posed at the Congressional hearing: “At what point do we no longer share values with India?

“At what point — after how many mob lynching, after how many undemocratic and Islamophobic government actions and policies will Indian/Hindu-Americans wake up to the horror of Hindutva, and see the utter hypocrisy of asking for immigrant rights here while supporting Modi there?”

Both Mishra and Chaudhuri make one important point — that the Indian-American community consisting of roughly 4 million people — is not one huge monolith comprising only Hindus supporting BJP and the Hindutva.

Both of them feel that there are many groups and diverse networks within the Indian-American community that do not buy into the larger Modi narrative and are capable of thinking independently.

According to a Pew research report, only about half (51 percent) of Indian-Americans are Hindu, while about 18 percent identify themselves as Christians and 10 percent are Muslims.

“It is possible that some of the votes might shift (from the Democratic side), but at this point they are trying to play defensive and to defend the Modi government and trying to push back. But beyond that I don’t see any attempt to mobilize Indian- Americans against the Democratic party,” Mishra said.

“Even if they mobilize, I feel that Hindutva lobby has limited appeal in terms of swinging domestic votes, in terms of persuading people to not vote for their actual preference and vote for somebody else because of how they are reacting on Kashmir and other issues.”

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