Indian-Americans, a group that includes me, are one of the most visible and successful global diasporas. With the highest per capita income of any ethnic group in the US, we’re often called a ‘model minority’ in America. But what can be said about our politics as a group?
Historically, we Indian-Americans—and here I’m speaking primarily of Indians who’re naturalized US citizens or permanent residents—have overwhelmingly supported the Democrats, more so than any other large Asian group in the US. Over 80 percent of us voted for Barack Obama in 2008, second only to black Americans. This year, less than ten percent might vote for the Republican Donald Trump. Curiously, contrary to what one might expect, success and wealth haven’t driven most of us to vote for the Republicans, who’re seen as friendlier to the rich. What can explain this? Is it because we are remarkably liberal as a group?
Consider some more facts. We Indian-Americans overwhelmingly support Narendra Modi too, at a rate much higher than among Indians in India. We host rockstar receptions for him in arenas like Madison Square Garden in NY and SAP Center in Silicon Valley. This despite Trump and Modi being similar in so many ways. They’re both authoritarian and anti-democratic; anti-Muslim; steeped in nationalism (white/Hindu); allied with far-right groups (Christian Right/RSS); high on patriarchy; economically conservative votaries of trickle-down economics; anti-labor union; thuggish (think Amit Shah); big on defense spending; and so on. Both have provided cover to far-right groups who terrorize minorities. Even if we concede that Trump is worse than Modi—though some will disagree—their proximities are undeniable. So why do we Indian-Americans despise Trump yet love Modi? What’s behind this apparent paradox?
Modi and his Regime
Some might object here, especially Modi fans. They might say that I’m exaggerating the proximities between Trump and Modi. So let’s delve into this first. One difference I see between them is that while Trump wears his bigotry and misogyny on his sleeve and is more erratic, Modi is more discreet and austere. But as I’ll try to show, the two differ less in substance, more in style.
Modi’s stage-managed persona can seduce decent people unfamiliar with his past or with the yawning gap today between his words and actions. In his oratory, he paints an optimistic technocratic vision of India led by research and innovation. He speaks of grand ideas like Smart Cities and Make in India, and social causes like beti bachao, beti padhao and swachh bharat (nearly all of which have been very poorly planned and/or funded). He offers homilies about life, family values, and patriotism. ‘Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,’ he has said. He champions yoga, the uber-cool Indian export. He is disciplined, works hard, and wants the trains to run on time. In the July edition of his address to the nation, Mann Ki Baat, he discussed the menace of antibiotic resistance and his visit to South Africa, where he claimed to have been freshly inspired by the ideals of Gandhi and Mandela.
But this is largely the public relations front of a seasoned politician, a demagogue who has ruthlessly worked his way up the fascist Hindutva group RSS, which opposes secularism and ‘foreign-born’ faiths, and imagines India as a Hindu nation. Its early leaders openly admired Hitler and Mussolini. Modi joined the RSS when he was only 8. For over three decades, he steeped himself in its toxic ideology and even became a pracharak, an active evangelist. Rising up the ranks, he honed his organizing skills before transitioning to RSS’s political arm, the BJP. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat during the state-assisted pogrom against Muslims in 2002. His alleged complicity in it brought him such infamy that the US denied him a visa for nine years, invoking an obscure law against foreign officials responsible for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’.
All this bad press threatened to derail Modi’s political ambitions. But soon he found a way out: he began reinventing himself as ‘a pro-business development man’. He cut tax deals to lure corporations to Gujarat and launched an urban renewal project in the state capital. He had seized the moment well. ‘Development’ was the perfect sales pitch, including for us Indian-Americans who felt an acute lack of it on every visit home. Indians were never more vulnerable to a charismatic strongman who promised to set things right and herald achhe din (‘good days’). Modi went on to successfully market his middling record of human development in Gujarat—what other type of development is worth pursuing anyway?—to become the Prime Minister of India. What helped him greatly was the imploding Left-of-center Congress Party, moth-eaten by corruption and inept leadership.
For Modi, reinvention didn’t mean giving up his old ways or beliefs. His cabinet in New Delhi exudes fanatical Hindu chauvinism. Nearly half of his ministers are from the RSS. Minister of State for Human Resources, RS Katheria pushed saffronization of education, which continues apace. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Minister of Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani, saw it fit to spend weeks harassing Leftist university students for exercising their constitutional right to peacefully criticize the government, and even had them arrested for ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-nationalism’. Modi’s Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, IIT alumnus and RSS man, says without irony that Indian citizens who complain about rising intolerance should be ‘taught a lesson’. Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, wants to make the Bhagavad Gita the national scripture because it ‘has the answers to everybody’s problems’. Senior BJP leaders and cabinet ministers publicly say that those who refuse to chant bharat mata ki jai are ‘anti-nationals’, who—along with other ‘sickular’ opponents of BJP—should move to Pakistan.
Similar to Republican Party rallies today, supporters at BJP rallies—even legislators and party leaders!—call Muslims ‘demons’, ‘descendants of Ravana’, and threaten ‘a final battle’ against them. Modi’s closest confidante and BJP president, Amit Shah, gave incendiary speeches in 2014, asking voters to ‘reject parties that put up Muslim candidates’. The BJP doesn’t have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha, a first for a ruling party at the center. Empowered by Modi’s ideological affinities, vigilante groups have flourished: Gau rakshaks, nurtured in Modi’s Gujarat, now attack and murder people over cow protection and beef bans. Others oppose inter-religious marriages, alleging them to be a love jihad, a Muslim conspiracy. Campaigns for ghar wapsi aggressively target adherents of ‘foreign-born’ faiths to ‘return’ to Hinduism. Some have harassed writers and journalists and even murdered rationalists and atheists. Perpetrators often go scot-free. Modi’s long, deafening silence and lack of stern action make him complicit in all the bullying and targeted acts of violence by BJP legislators, party workers, and the Sangh Parivar against religious minorities, Leftists, and Dalits (at least the BJP courts Dalits for votes and must field SC/ST candidates in reserved constituencies). This couldn’t happen without his tacit or explicit approval. Plausible deniability can only go so far.
While CM of Gujarat, Modi had accused the Congress/UPA regime of hampering his work, but his current vendetta against AAP in Delhi is far worse. State officials seen as cooperating with AAP politicians are being harassed by the BJP-controlled Delhi Police and the CBI (I know this from my own conversations with many senior bureaucrats). This has paralyzed the Delhi state bureaucracy with fear. Modi has also tried to sabotage democratic governments in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
Why don’t we consider all this ‘anti-national’? Modi’s engagement with the press extends only to right-wing media lackeys like the odious Arnab Goswami, who makes Bill O’Reilly look agreeable. The net result? A relentless coarsening of the social fabric, distraction from the growing challenges of human development, and a steady erosion of public discourse.
Modi has also canceled the licenses of over 9,000 NGOs that received funds from abroad. A few had criticized aspects of his regime, others were simply suspected of misaligned loyalties, the sort that arise from a commitment to the environment or human rights. Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, wants to ‘cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored—be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over the years.’ Never before has a dolt like Y Sudershan Rao been made chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research. An RSS man, Rao thinks ‘the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.’ An apologist for the caste system, he blames ‘Muslim rule in north India’ for ‘most of the questionable social customs in Indian society.’ A host of institutions are being gutted with such appointments. Hindus from India’s neighboring states are welcome in Modi’s India but Muslims are not, including the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. In 2010, Modi compared Dalits to ‘mentally retarded children’ who gain ‘spiritual experience’ from manual scavenging. At a medical conference in 2014, Modi further revealed his intellectual caliber by earnestly praising ancient Hindu feats in genetic science and cosmetic surgery, which he believes had enabled our great ancestors to transplant an elephant head on a human.
What if stuff like this happened in the US? Would we Indian-Americans support Trump pushing white supremacy in America? Or Christianization of education? Or calling America a nation of Christian whites, trashing its secular and multicultural fabric? Would we support Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security arresting students engaged in peaceful protests at UC Berkeley and imprisoning them for weeks on charges of ‘treason’ or ‘anti-nationalism’? What would we say if Trump only invited persecuted white minorities as refugees to the US? Would we accept Trump looking away from vigilante groups attacking interracial couples, atheists, and Christian converts to Islam? Would we admire Trump hailing creationism and making outlandish claims about the scientific feats of early Christians? The answer is clearly NO. If Trump did any of this, we Indian-Americans would call him an extremist unfit for any public office. We already dismiss those who defend Trump by calling him a reasonable man. So I return to the question: why this apparent paradox between our response to Trump vs. Modi?
Why Indian-Americans Hate Trump but Love Modi
One answer is that we are a non-white minority. We need the social liberalism of the Democrats, which is far more hospitable to immigrants like us. The Democrats are much more tolerant of cultural and religious diversity, which is great for us and our kids. But most of us—from yesterday’s motel owners to today’s IT professionals—come from the dominant class in India, namely, upper-caste Hindus (who constitute 20 percent of Indians). As members of this group, we harbor an instinctive dislike for Muslims (post-9/11, many of us even devised strategies to inform other Americans that ‘we’re not Muslims’) and are numb to the concerns of minorities and ‘lower’ castes in India. We also carry with us a sense of cultural insecurity and humiliation, which makes us vulnerable to slick leaders like Modi who stoke our Hindu pride and nationalism. It was no coincidence that Modi appeared in saffron at Madison Square Garden, and his first words were ‘bharat mata ki’. Modi applauds our success, and gives us a feel-good sense of India as a major world power. It helps that we’re not reminded daily of the grim realities of life in India, or Modi’s largely invisible ‘development’ (though it’s always possible to cite a few things that even awful governments do right).
Modi too wants to make India ‘great again’, but he began doing so by cutting the already low spending on education, healthcare, and the environment in his first two annual budgets. How’s that for sabka saath, sabka vikaas? Modi even campaigned on the promise of gutting MNREGA and Aadhaar, two of the most promising conduits for social welfare in a generation (thankfully, better sense prevailed later). Too few of us called this out as a problem during his campaign. The truth is that from afar, we Indian-Americans fall for Modi’s bullshit in ways we don’t fall for Trump’s bullshit, though the bullshit smells quite the same.
Most of us came to America as economic migrants and take pride in being ‘self-made’, claiming to have started with ‘nothing but two suitcases.’ We are socially conservative in our approach to gender roles, sexuality, family values, and religiosity. Few of us have examined our caste or class privileges, ideas of ‘merit’, or majoritarian sensibilities honed in India. Our nostalgia for the motherland and a desire to strengthen our cultural roots finds expression in ‘Hindu pride’ and saffron nationalism. We even donate to right-wing groups of the Sangh Parivar (especially Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which mixes its sectarian work with charitable and social services to increase its appeal among Adivasis and Dalits), whose members mostly support the BJP and variously oppress religious minorities, led by notorious outfits like the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sena (how would we feel if diasporic white Americans donated to hate groups like the Dotbusters?).
The fact is that for us, Trump’s racial bigotry and white nationalism will always trump (pun alert) his economic vision, even if he were to offer a real one. Many of us are aghast at the strange demons that Trump’s campaign has already unleashed among white Americans; some of us have faced racist incidents. We don’t like this at all. Yet so many of us root for Modi’s economic vision and overlook his Hindutva bigotry and exclusivism, which he now pursues through his subordinates. How much of this is because Modi’s majoritarian politics is not directed at us or our families at home but at other groups? Notice, too, that while we recoil from the racism we face from whites in America, we’re ourselves very racist towards blacks. This very much includes the high-wage Indian professional class in places like California and New Jersey. But then, Indian-Americans aren’t the only people unable to spot their own hypocrisy.
In other words, there is no paradox; there’s only hypocrisy: We’re far from liberal as a group, except when being liberal helps our survival. Like many other immigrant groups, we’re opportunists and political chameleons. Isn’t it time to dispassionately ask what the term ‘model minority’ should really mean, and whether we Indian-Americans deserve that label?