Indian-Americans form a significant vote bank in the US and have a major role to play in the US elections 2020.

Joe Biden with his hand outstretched, Donald Trump with his hand in a fist
news US Elections Friday, October 16, 2020 - 13:11

Less than a month is left for America to vote for its next president, and for a while now, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden camps have been making attempts to woo the significant Indian-American vote bank in the US. And according to a representative online survey by Indian-American Attitudes Survey (IAAS) and analytics firm YouGov, involving 936 respondents, the Indian-American vote continues to attach strongly towards the Democratic party. Top issues for these voters were found to be economy (21%), healthcare (20%) and racism (12%) respectively, while US-India relations figured second to last on the priority list with only 3% ranking it as the most important election issue.

There are apparently 4 million Indian-Americans in the States, and reportedly, 1.3 million of them are adult citizens, which means they are eligible to vote. Indian-Americans also happen to be among the most highly educated racial or ethnic group in the country, with 70% of those above the age of 25 been found to have college degrees in 2010, and are also generally well off.

According to reports, 10% of the 23.2 million voters in the US this time are naturalized citizens, that is people of foreign origin who have gotten American citizenship. The two communities that make up a majority of the immigrant vote in the United States are Hispanics (34%) and Asians (31%). When it comes to Americans of Indian-origin, they group seems to have leant more towards the left in the past. According to the post-Election National Asian American Survey (NAAS) in 2016, 77% of Indian-Americans voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, compared to only 16% who voted for Republican candidate Donald Trump. The Democratic Party has been historically favoured by this section of population in America.

Another report by Indiaspora, a nonpartisan diaspora organization, and AAPI Data, which does data and policy research, found a similar trend to the IAAS survey – that 66% of the Indian-American voters are expected to favour Biden, while 28% favour Trump; and 6% are yet undecided. The IAAS-YouGov survey meanwhile, revealed that 70% of the respondents disapproved or strongly disapproved of Trump’s handling of the presidency. And, 68% said that they would vote for Biden, compared to 22% respondents saying they’d vote for Trump. Only 7% said that they didn’t intend to vote.

While the Republican side has touted the bonhomie between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump as a means to gain Indian-Americans’ favour, Biden fielding Kamala Harris – a senator with Indian and Jamaican parents – as a vice-presidential candidate shows that the Democrats are looking to sway the Indian-American vote their way too.

The Trump-Modi relationship seems to be one of the issues that some Indian-American voters are expected to consider while deciding their vote, a survey by Al Mason, co-chair of Trump Victory Indian-American Finance Committee found. During President Trump’s term, there have been several optics around his relationship with Modi. Both, the ‘Howdy Modi!’ rally in Houston, Texas, to thousands Trump’s first visit to India in February 2020, were attended by thousands of people. Several photo ops showed Modi and Trump side by side as well. The Trump government has also taken favour with India over Chinese incursions into the Indian territory, and slammed China for “bullying neighbours”, and has favoured India’s stance on the Kashmir issue as well.

Further, a similar line of rhetoric can be found in the incumbent administrations in both India and the US in taking hardline positions on some issues – such as Trump’s rhetoric to tackle “radical Islamic terror”, his direct appeals to “Hindu Americans” amid the larger Indian-American diaspora. An analysis by Sreeram Chaulia in Economic Times points out that comparatively, the Democrats putting out a separata agenda for Muslim American communities and Biden’s criticism of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Modi government may not sit well with a section of the Indian-origin voters. The latter could also be seen by a section of the voters as the US interfering in India’s sovereign matters, which older, conservative Indian-Americans could take contention with.

However, what could work against the Republican Party is the Trump administration’s growing stance against immigrants. The tightening norms around H-1B visas as well as H-4 (visas that allow spouses of H-1B visa holders to work), as well as the position the Trump government took against foreign students in the US during the pandemic has left a sour taste in the mouths of many ethnic populations in the US.

According to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy, between 2015 to 2019, the denial rate for H-1B visas for “initial” employment was found to have gone from 6% to 24%. For H-1B visas for continuing employment too, the denial rate had gone up from 3% to 12%, and was much higher for companies like Indian companies including Infosys and Mahindra when compared with American ones like Amazon and Apple. While Indian-origin voters in the US are not directly affected by these immigration laws, their families and the Indian community overall are. The IAAS survey found that 7% of the respondents named immigration as their top issue.

On the other hand, one poll by AAPI data has reportedly revealed that Indian-Americans are not as bothered by the American policy in South Asia. Education meanwhile, was listed by 94% of Indian-Americans surveyed as extremely important to very important; jobs and economy figured second (92%), followed by healthcare (92%), environment (88%), racial discrimination (84%), policing reforms (84%), national security (84%), and immigration (80%). US foreign policy figured way lower on the list at 66%. 

An analysis by Anu Mandavilli and Raja Swamy in Economic and Political Weekly also makes a similar argument – that despite posturing and hype around rallies and Modi-Trump relationship, and the favour towards Hindutva politics, a significant proportion of Indian-Americans have been actively involved in the issues of social justice, working class and marginalized communities in the country. They are also part of several progressive organisations tackling caste, gender, ethnicity and sexuality-based discriminations, which show a left leaning nature of this community.  

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