There was supposedly a time when the average white American thought of Indians as exotic snake-charmers who lay down on beds of nails in their free time. That changed dramatically with the advent of globalisation. Indians then came to be known for math and microchips – and American movies and cartoons often featured an ‘Indian nerd’ in their cast.
But rarely, if ever, have Indians been a hot topic in a presidential election. We are now. It all started with Donald Trump making common cause with Hindu Americans in New Jersey when he ran for president in 2016. During that engagement, Trump shot a campaign ad with the borrowed slogan, “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar”, for which he reportedly had to do as many as 12 takes to get it right.
Now, his Democratic rival Joe Biden has punched back by roping in Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential candidate. For most part of her political career, Harris – who was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother – has been known more as an African-American. But so far on the campaign, Harris has promptly played up her Indian-ness as well, with the Democrats cheering.
The result has been a mix of cultural stereotyping and comic relief.
On his Fox News show earlier this month, the conservative firebrand Tucker Carlson – who is often compared to a certain news anchor here in India – got into a tiff with a guest over whether Harris’ name should be pronounced ‘Kuh-maa-luh’ or ‘Cam-uh-laa’. Carlson eventually settled on “whatever”.
Then, a Twitter account affiliated to the Biden campaign asked the Indian-American Nikki Haley why she felt compelled to change her name from ‘Namrata’ to ‘Nikki’. Haley responded by saying that her father wore a turban and her mother wore a sari.
But the best moment in the entire election campaign so far came from Tomi Lahren, the Fox News host and conservative commentator. In a video that thanked Indians for their support for Trump, Lahren – who is as white as white America gets, being of German and Norwegian descent – said that Trump is “wise like an ullu”. (Elsewhere, someone asked her to try a Kannada translation the next time.)
But the fun and games are going to soon end as policy takes centre-stage. India’s diaspora is caught up in this election – and it is more politically polarised in its attitude towards the Indian government than ever before. In the aftermath of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), members of the diaspora had protested in front of Indian diplomatic missions. That cue was picked up by the Democrats who, led by Bernie Sanders, joined in global criticism of the CAA, India’s actions in Kashmir and the riots in Delhi.
During his visit to Washington last year, Foreign Minister Jaishankar had refused to meet with one of the Modi government’s critics – Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. And he was criticised for it by Kamala Harris herself.
On her part, Harris has been notably vocal about India’s democratic ideals and principles, which have shaped her own progressive activism. She has often recalled her seaside walks in Chennai with her grandfather, who had sworn by those ideals and instilled them in her young granddaughter.
With all this in the background, a change in government in Washington will bring a few thorny issues to the fore. The Modi government has not been entirely non-partisan in its approach so far, with the prime minister himself having echoed Trump’s campaign slogans in Houston last year. For Indian foreign policy, this election will mean a lot more than just idlis and saris.