The courtship is intense, and voter targeting specific. In this US presidential race, Indian-Americans are no longer a monolith but a conglomeration of different religious identities.
The evolution has been slow but sure and opinion is divided whether separation as Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs benefits the community as a whole or helps India’s case. The trend began in 2016 when candidate Donald Trump attended a rally of Republican Hindu Coalition and bid for the Hindu vote. Watch for direct appeals to Hindu Americans at the Republican Convention next week.
Now Democrats are also getting in the game.
On Saturday, Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, extended his greetings on the “Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi” on Twitter as did his running mate Kamala Harris, whose mother was an Indian. Presidential candidates getting deep into Hindu festivals beyond the usual Diwali greetings is noticeable.
This time both parties have a full-fledged strategy to woo every segment of the Indian-American community, using every method, including religion. A major reason behind the granular attention: Indian-Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups, and among the most highly educated and economically successful.
Of the roughly 4 million Indian-Americans, around 2.4 million are eligible voters. Of those 1.4 million live in nine battleground states. A vast majority of Indian-Americans are Hindus. The numbers grow if Hindus from the Caribbean, Africa, Nepal, and Bangladesh are counted.
Although the US Census Bureau doesn’t record religious affiliation, research shows that Islam and Hinduism have the third and fourth-largest number of followers after Christianity and Judaism. Fighting for the Christian vote has always been integral to the US presidential elections but fighting for Hindu and Muslim votes is relatively new.
Last week, Republicans launched four new coalitions to woo Indian-Americans, specifically targeting Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims in separate groups.
“Indian Voices for Trump,” “Hindu Voices for Trump,” “Sikhs for Trump” and “Muslim voices for Trump” will fight against the “socialist agenda” of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the campaign said.
Adi Sathi, a Republican strategist, says Democrats may try as they might but in the end, it’s “what they do” that will be important. “Republicans are actually helping the Indian-American community. Donald Trump is pro-legal immigration and a merit-based system, which benefits people of Indian origin,” he told India Today TV.
Donald Trump was the first to appoint an Indian-American – Nikki Haley – to a cabinet position where she had direct access to the president, Sathi stressed. Nikki Haley is scheduled to address the Republican convention next week. “Republicans have more interest in India and are willing to take its side.”
The new Republican coalitions will promote Donald Trump’s agenda of “economic empowerment, quality education and law and order.”
The terms have a subtext, especially “law and order”, which triggers different feelings in different groups. Major US cities have been gripped by protests since the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, by a white policeman.
Protests have sometimes descended into violence and arson. Many older generation Indian-Americans are shocked by the breakdown of law and order and the sudden rise in gun violence in Chicago and New York.
Democrats vowed to protect the Indian-American community from “xenophobic attacks,” specifically mentioning Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Jains” and “promised to have their backs”.
Joe Biden’s Agenda for Indian American Communities released on August 15 promised more police protection for mandirs, gurudwaras and mosques, and streamlining of religious visas for priests.
Fragmentation of the community into Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs inevitably means an infusion of India-Pakistan issues into domestic US politics.
Divisions have sharpened since August last year when India changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Muslim-American groups began a campaign against Indian policies, pushing the US Congress to take action against India.
Sikhs have been drifting away from Hindu Americans since 9/11 after they became targets of attacks and decided to forge a separate group identity. Their focus has been to separate Sikhism from Hinduism in the American mind.
In some ways, Sikh-American activists have preferred to ally with Muslim-American groups for support rather than Hindu activists, community observers say.
When efforts were being made recently for Afghan Sikhs to get asylum in the US after the terrorist attack on a Kabul gurudwara complex in March, some Sikh groups objected to Hindu-Americans joining the campaign and signing letters to members of the US Congress.
The Hindu-Muslim divide has always lurked in the background but it became palpable in 2005 when the US denied a visa to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
It became a political fact during the 2016 election when Indian-American entrepreneur Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar’s “Republican Hindu Coalition” (RHC) got headlines for getting candidate Donald Trump to an RHC rally for Hindu-Americans in New Jersey.
He was the first presidential candidate to make an appearance at a public Indian-American gathering.
Explaining the logic behind RHC, Kumar told India Today TV: “Just like in India, an Indian Muslim-American thinks very differently from an Indian Hindu-American, particularly in the older generation. As people grow older, they become more religious. They become more Hindu and more Muslim. Strategists who realise the difference and recognise it will have a better outreach.”
More importantly, the older generation votes in greater numbers than younger people, he said. Kumar claims a membership of 20,000 Hindus in RHC and is currently in negotiations with the White House to join the Donald Trump campaign. He has a new, catchy slogan ready after his 2016 hit: “Abki baar, Trump sarkar.”
But Kumar thinks the Trump campaign needs to up its game to reach Hindu-Americans and not rely on exaggerated claims of novices because the Democrats have a sophisticated strategy based on data and research.
“The Democrats are being smart. They had an event on August 14 for Pakistani-Americans and one on August 15 for Indian-Americans. Super smart. They have released ads in 14 Indian languages,” Kumar said.
A Democratic Party activist said their focus is on Indian-Americans in battleground states to get them to vote and to keep them firmly in the camp. If that means a tweet from Joe Biden on Ganesh Chaturthi to please Hindus, the candidate will do what it takes.