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; anti-LGBT; steeped in nationalism (white/Hindu); allied with far-right groups (KKK/RSS); economically conservative; anti-labor union; thuggish (think Amit Shah); big on defense spending; and so on. 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 promotes grand ideas like Smart Cities and Make in India, and social causes like beti bachao, beti padhao and swachh bharat. 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.