Home and the World: Indian Americans and their “unnatural” Political Comfort Zone

Even though the Republicans are quite akin to the Narendra Modi led BJP government in terms of their respective assumptions regarding cultural superiority, the Indian American population finds the Democrats to be their “natural political ally.” Koli Mitra interrogates ….

There is an old American adage: “all politics stops at the water’s edge” (usually attributed to WWII era Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg).  What it really means is that all domestic political squabbles are set aside in favour of a unified national stance in the context of international relations and diplomacy. In the past, American foreign policy has largely lived up to this principle. But things have changed significantly over the past three or four decades, as American political culture has become increasingly polarised. Growing global interconnectedness has probably also contributed to the transmission of ideological battles beyond national borders, since everything is always visible to everyone in the world and the pretence of national unity hardly seems valid anymore.

In the last few years, well, before Narendra Modi became the Prime minister of India, he was being courted by American conservative groups as an ally in their global economic agenda, even while their country had officially barred entry to Mr. Modi and considered him guilty of serious human rights violations. These groups had something else in common with Mr. Modi’s party, the BJP. Both groups adopted – perhaps as a strategy to enlist the support of people who have no incentive to buy into their economic theories – a posture of cultural and religious supremacy in behalf of the dominant group in their respective countries. But how do two culturally different groups sustain an alliance when both of them rest on the foundation of their own cultural supremacy? And what about the fact that the Indian American community, Mr. Modi’s natural “constituency” (so to speak) in the United States, is politically at war with these groups back at home?

The domestic political proclivities of Indian Americans are very often at odds with their foreign policy preferences with regard to US-India relations. Historically, they have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party, which has long been a champion of ethnic diversity and minority rights and more lenient immigration laws. Yet, the particulars of America’s India policy favoured by many of these same Indian Americans have often cut against the Democratic Party’s positions. John F. Kennedy was the last Democratic president to be cozy with New Delhi in a way that was not just rhetorical but backed up in concrete terms (like supplying India with American weaponry in the 1962 war against China, significantly increasing economic aid to India, and, rather incredibly for an American president at the height of the Cold War, supporting Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment stance).

But since then (with the exception of Richard Nixon) Republicans have taken foreign policy directions that are ultimately better received in India than any Democratic foreign policy. In large part, perhaps, due to the shift in India’s own policies away from a socialistic and self-contained political economy toward a more capitalistic and globally integrated one. Republican president George W. Bush – who commanded a miniscule portion of the Indian-American vote in 2000 and 2004 – was probably the most pro-India American president since Kennedy, at least as measured by how well his policies lined up with New Delhi’s agenda. The Bush administration successfully executed a US-India nuclear deal, lifted restrictions on technology transfers to India (including those related to India’s space program), looked up to India as a strategic partner to contain China as well as “Islamic terrorism” (most notably, by ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan) and pushed for increased trade and corporate investment in India.  Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, has advocated more robust bilateral cooperation, including transfers of military technology and free trade agreements between India and the United States. He has criticised the Democratic president Barack Obama, the darling of Indian Americans, for failing to give India priority in his “Pivot to Asia” platform. Far from being hollow rhetoric from someone who doesn’t understand Indian concerns, this is a complaint echoed by Indians as well as significant numbers of Indian Americans, despite their unwavering support of Mr. Obama.

Among earlier Republican leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, were largely indifferent toward India – something that was certainly irksome to New Delhi – but they also didn’t do any serious damage. By contrast, the Democrats (even those who seem to love India and Indians in a personal capacity, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama) have been quite tough on India through the years on a number of matters including Kashmir, nuclear weapons development and testing, the environmental impacts of India’s rapid development, and various human rights issues.  Today’s Democrats tend also to be bitterly critical of American companies for outsourcing many technical and business-process support operations to India, a practice that Democrats like to characterise as “foreigners taking our jobs”.

Given this striking evidence, it would be easy to misread the voting choices of Indian-Americans as a prioritising of domestic issues over foreign policy. But in reality, India policy is not entirely “foreign” policy for this group of Americans. They are relatively recent immigrants with strong ties to, and interest in, the ancestral homeland. Their close attention to the Indian Parliamentary elections and extravagant reception of the newly elected Indian Prime Minister seem to prove this fact.

And, speaking of the new Prime minister, his popularity among Indian Americans shows a comfort level (if not affinity) with political conservatism that precludes the other obvious explanation for their overwhelming support of the Democratic Party – namely, substantively progressive ideological leanings (pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-affirmative action, etc.) that are identified more with Democrats than Republicans. Even aside from the Modi-wave, American edition, there is plenty to indicate that Indian Americans, as a broad group, are more conservative than their party affiliation might suggest.

It is true that, as with other demographic groups, there are many young, left-leaning idealists who are Indian Americans. Given that higher education and professional, upper-middle class status (as opposed to extreme wealth) tend to be correlated with progressive activism among young people, it also makes sense that Indian American youth are proportionally more strongly progressive (and therefore, Democratic) than others of their age cohort.  But it is the durable Democratic allegiance of older, more established Indian Americans – as well as that of Indian Americans of all ages who are not particularly driven by or sympathetic to progressive ideology – that is more baffling. By most indicators, Indian Americans should be just as likely if not more likely to be conservative than progressive. They are financially well off, they have traditional marriages and family structures, and unlike many minority groups, they are highly unlikely to seek or receive the benefits of affirmative action. Some commentators have suggested that the Democratic leanings can be explained by the fact that Indian enterprises, like small IT companies, get favourable treatment due to their “minority-owned small business” status when seeking public-sector service contracts. This is an utterly specious argument which grossly exaggerates the influence of a very narrow concern of a very tiny minority of Indian Americans. The vast majority of Indian Americans have never even heard of this benefit; nor do they care to. Most of them make their money in professions rather than in small business ownership and those who do own businesses are mostly in the hospitality service and retail sectors – motels, gas stations, and convenience stores – which have nothing to do with government contracts and have much to gain, financially, from more regulatory flexibility in terms of employee benefits and health and safety standards and from lower taxes (all classic Republican preoccupations).

Indian Americans have the highest median household income at $88,000 annually (well above the national average of $49,800), one of the highest rates of personal savings and property ownership, and low levels of household debt. Among most ethnic groups of European origin, individuals and families who attain this level of wealth and face the corresponding onslaught of tax burdens – income taxes, estate taxes, and capital gains taxes – are significantly likely to switch their support to the Republicans. Yet the Indians have hardly budged.

And the puzzling fact isn’t just that Indian Americans, as a group, exhibit so many characteristics that are predictive of political conservatism. When we look at specific issues like the environment, taxes, welfare, affirmative action, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc., we find that Indian Americans’ actual views are as likely – perhaps even more so – as any other similarly situated ethnic group to line up with conservatives rather than progressives.

Incidentally, more Indian Americans were outraged by how the (Democratic) State Department handled the police mistreatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade than were outraged by Khobragade’s alleged mistreatment of her housekeeper.

On national defense spending, Indian Americans tend to be skeptics, like most Democrats, but this has not been an overarching issue for them; not nearly enough to begin to explain their extraordinary party loyalty. Since this is an issue on which the security and interests of India figure prominently in Indian American preferences, it would be logical to see increasing support for (or at least less opposition to) a strong American defense budget as we move farther and farther  away from the memories of the Cold War (when India worried about Pakistan’s special status in America’s military strategies in the region) and as American defense priorities become more and more trained on things that India cares about, like (a) terrorist organisations professing “Islamic” fundamentalist ideologies in places like Pakistan and (b) possibly deterring an increasingly powerful China (with its expansionist history that it doesn’t quite pretend to have entirely abandoned).

However, these changing priorities of Indian Americans, in relation to both their domestic and foreign policy concerns, seem to translate more into lobbying and negotiations from within the Democratic Party fold rather than any real shift toward the Republican Party, which some exasperated conservatives  – like Indian American journalist Sadanand Dhume – insist is their “natural political home.”

Interestingly, there is no appreciable pressure from India for the diaspora to change its political habits, unlike, say, Jewish Americans, who are extremely diverse in their political views and party affiliations but there is little doubt about whether Israel would approve or disapprove of those affiliations. In some sense, although Republicans have been “better” for India than Democrats on the specifics and they possibly also offer more of the kind of domestic economic policies that many Indian Americans want, there is nevertheless an unspoken, and mostly unconscious, sense, not only among Indian Americans but also among Indians in India that it really is the Democratic Party which is their “natural” political ally regardless of anyone’s individual position on specific issues.

I think the key factor here is identity. Republican critics may agree with my use of the word identity in this context, but I do not mean it in the same way that they might. I do not level at Indian American Democrats the tired conservative accusation of the “identity politics” of racial minorities, allegedly borne of the ideology of victimhood and susceptible to exploitation by Democrats giving lip service to diversity. No – what I mean is that, in the best progressive and liberal, center-left traditions of American politics, there is a space where you, along with every other kind of hyphenated American, are accepted –absolutely sincerely, non-cynically accepted – as an authentic American, without having to renounce or stifle the part of your identity that comes before the hyphen. Some of the other people there may not even like you or your culture, but they accept your right to be of that culture without questioning your patriotism or your Americanness. This has nothing to do with socialised medicine or reproductive choice or unemployment insurance or marriage equality or global warming or drilling for oil in the Arctic. And it has nothing specifically to do with bilateral relations with India.

This is simply not the case in American conservative culture. For all the talk of being a “big tent” a large part of their cultural philosophy seems to be built on the tacit – and sometimes openly stated –idea that “real America” is white and Judeo-Christian, and that “other” Americans, even when embraced and celebrated, are essentially accorded honorary membership, conditioned on their willingness to shed their “other” ways. The two most high-profile Indian American Republicans Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley exemplify this point by emphatically rejecting the cultural and religious identities of their birth – even to the extent of changing their “Indian” sounding given names – and having little to do with the larger Indian-American community. I have no intention of criticising their personal choices, but I do wonder if their success in the Republican Party would be possible without sacrificing those elements of their identity.

India, for its part, would obviously prefer to deal with American leaders who “deliver the goods” when it comes to India’s own national interests. Yet, all other things being equal, many Indians, even conservatives, instinctively gravitate toward progressive Americans – mostly Democrats – while keeping conservative Americans – mostly Republicans – mentally at arm’s length. This has to do with the baseline values that American politicians express. It’s a given that the leadership of any country will put its own national interests above others, even their allies. But the current brand of American conservatism – with its high dose of socio-religious ideology and presumptions of cultural supremacy – is by definition untrustworthy to anyone outside of that culture. While the current popularity of economic neoliberalism in India may superficially appeal to American conservatives, there is a sense in India that American conservatives see India and Indians as fundamentally, intrinsically inferior and expendable, to be used strategically and discarded when expedient. American progressives, by contrast, come across as people who will basically deal with Indians as equals, sometimes as fierce adversaries with whom to drive a hard bargain, but essentially equals. I personally think these characterisations are not entirely unfounded.

I honestly believe there are many conservatives who do not buy into the this cultural superiority business, but they have been willing to accommodate such views in the interest of electoral viability for so long that their credibility has worn very thin. Unless they are being willfully blind, it cannot be a surprise to them, that those who don’t share their demographic features will not find this kind of accommodation to be just so much harmless pandering for the sake of an economic agenda – no matter how much they like that economic agenda.

In elections, I almost always support Democrats – the most notable exception being that one time when I voted for a Green Party candidate.  Unlike many of my fellow Indian Americans, my views are socially liberal and moderate to progressive on economic issues, so this is “my natural political home” by anyone’s formula. But there are many problems on which I would prefer private, social solutions rather than government intervention, something that should attract me to the Republicans. But it doesn’t. In part, it’s because I find their “small government” claims to be spurious – as they routinely advocate quite draconian government interference in some aspects of people’s private lives. Also, their “small government” preoccupation attaches itself almost exclusively to concerns about government interference in pecuniary matters, whereas my primary concerns about an overreaching big-brother lie elsewhere. But even if I imagine myself caring more about taxes than the environment or so afraid of another 9/11 that I don’t mind being strip-searched at the subway station, I still feel I would rather work on convincing Democrats to support such policies than work on convincing Republicans that I am a “real American.”

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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