Donald Trump recently said he has “more Indians” than Kamala Harris, the Indian-descent Democratic nominee for vice-president. His campaign released a video of him with Narendra Modi at the “Howdy Modi” and “Namaste Trump” events, cheered by stadiums packed with Indians (and those of Indian descent).
The Biden-Harris campaign was already on it, building on Harris’ part-Indian heritage to further consolidate its hold on the Indian-American community that has traditionally voted Democratic, through outreaches headlined by top campaign officials. It also rolled out a two-pronged agenda for a Biden administration — one part dedicated to relations with India and the other to the welfare of Indian-Americans. It was an unparalleled effort, and exhaustive in scope.
Indian-Americans haven’t felt so politically coddled — empowered, you can also say — before. “We have arrived, says some. Others call it the “coming of age.”
It’s been a long journey, from the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 that allowed Indians to become naturalised Americans, clearing their way for politics. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund, a California farmer-judge-politician, who helped organise that effort, was elected to the US House of Representatives, becoming the first Indian-American elected to the US congress. There are five now, including Harris, collectively called, by some, the “Samosa Caucus”. Indian-Americans have also won an increasing number of state-level positions, including two governorships.
Year 2020 is more special. The community believes it can make a difference. Both the Trump and Biden campaigns agree.
With an estimated 1.8 million eligible voters, Indian-Americans form a tinier than tiny part of the US electorate. But they look heftier because of their weighted equity in battleground — also called swing — states won or lost by slim margins in close contests. Just three of them swung it for Trump in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points respectively.
Democrats are eyeing the 1.3 million Indian-Americans that live in eight states that they believe are in play this time: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the above three — and Arizona, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. The Trump campaign is looking at Indian-Americans in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.
Indian-Americans have historically favoured Democrats. But only 50% of the registered voters among them identified as Democrat, in a survey of Asian-American voters in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections; 18% identified themselves as Republicans; and the rest 32% were “non-identifiers”. But two-third of them — 66% — disapproved of Trump’s performance as president and 28% approved.
Does Trump have “more Indians”, as he has claimed, than Senator Harris? Only a poll can determine that. But the newly empowered community is clearly enjoying the attention it is getting, with the promise of plenty more in 2024, when, as is being excitedly speculated, it might be Harris versus Nikki Haley.
The views expressed are personal