Note: This article was cross-posted in the author’s blog, “Oh, the humanity of it all!”.
I was born and brought up in India, and I love that country dearly. But for the past 10 odd years, my home has been the United States, where I live my life, work and pay taxes, as well as engage in social processes and participate in communities. One process I cannot – although I personally feel entitled to – participate in, yet, is the political process, because I am not a US Citizen or Permanent Resident. But that hasn’t stopped me from taking wholehearted interest in the local and Federal politics and government, because politics and policy affect lives, my life and those of my near and dear ones, and of millions of other people, seen and unseen.
Over the years, I find myself largely aligned with the ideologies of the Democratic party platform, which I see as pro-Civil Rights, pro-social justice, pro-Science, pro-education and pro-knowledge, pro-freedom of expression, pro-Choice, pro-economic and social responsibility, with a firm stance against racism, xenophobia and bigotry – in short, generally in favour of a value system that I consider not just American Values, but universal human values. Yes, I know a few would protest this characterization of the Democratic Party platform. I am not naïve enough to think that all members of the Democratic Party would espouse these ideals with equal fervour and passion in a monolithic manner; I understand that there is a whole spectrum of ideologies out there, that often offers issue-based, and more nuanced, support or opposition to the politics of the Democratic Party. But this is my impression of the Democratic ethos, based on an overall analysis of their politics and policies. (I am not going into the relative merits and demerits of a Two-Party system in this post.)
For more than two decades, Indian-Americans have viewed the Democratic Party with favour. Allow me to paraphrase a few pertinent points in an old article from the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit scholarly think tank. Historically, in contrast to the GOP, the Democratic Party has always made overtures to enlist the support of the Indian community in the US, starting from folks who came over as students in early 1960s-70s. In 1980s, and increasingly in 1990s and thereafter, people of Indian origin arrived in larger numbers to work in the US, accumulated wealth, and followed the example of other immigrant communities to assert themselves politically. Hari Sud, the author of the above-linked article, opined that at that time, the attitude of the Indian community towards any political party was dominated by narrow considerations. He wrote:
An average Indian immigrant or his next generation is a hard working, self-respecting and a docile person. For him political process does not offer much attraction. Occasionally international diplomacy and US Administration’s attitude towards India (his mother country) shape up his attitude towards one party or the other.
Hari went on to provide examples of how the Indian community felt hostile towards Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan for their pro-Pakistan views and policies; how it was initially distrustful of the first Clinton administration because of his overtures towards Pakistan; and how during the second term, Clinton managed to win over the Indian community by responding positively towards its sentiments for India. The Clinton era bypassed officials patently hostile to India while formulating policies, and welcomed Indians to political jobs and discussions as well as Democratic Party congregations. India-US relations dramatically changed and people of Indian origin in the US became supporters of the Democrats in general.
This was a time when the Indian immigrants to the US held minimal and restricted political views. More than a decade has passed since, with attendant political changes. A newer, younger generation of Indian-Americans – comprising both younger Indians who are more exposed to globalization and diversity, and America-born folks of Indian parentage – has stepped forward, and the Democratic Party, with its fairness doctrine, appears to enjoy a significant support amongst them.
That Indians in the US are largely pro-Democrat doesn’t surprise me. What does, instead, puzzle me is why, and how, amongst the Indian-Americans of an older generation, the Republican Party has garnered political support; specifically, why do many educated and wealthy Indian immigrants (naturalized US citizens) seem so enamoured of the Republican party? As mentioned in the above-linked BBC article, 18% of even the younger Indian-Americans favour Republicans. From hearsay – from within family and friends – I gather the impression that there is a substantial subset, the Indian-American conservatives, that silently contributes to GOP and votes Republican. Forget hearsay, let’s consider some of the more publicly-visible Indian-American Republicans:
- Public intellectuals: Dinesh D’Souza, conservative political commentator and author of embarrassingly fact-free (nevertheless, best-selling) conservative screeds and tomes (and now a ‘documentary’, too!), as well as of Christian apologetics; Sampat Shivangi, a physician and national president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Education, who recently expressed his vocal support for Paul Ryan as the GOP vice-presidential nominee.
- Politicians: Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, both rising stars in the GOP and face of the Party’s pretensions to diversity; Yash Wadhwa, a businessman from Milwaukee with aspirations to a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly, who recently spoke at the Republican National Convention 2012, at Tampa, Florida; Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney and Chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, a woman who sees no existence of a Republican ‘war on women’ despite all the evidence to the contrary.
- Public officials and media figures: Gopal Khanna, former Chief Information Officer in the state of Minnesota; Uma Pemmaraju, an anchor and host on the Fox News Channel cable network; Gopal TK Krishna, a conservative activist from Iowa and delegate to RNC 2012, who had a role in crafting the language of GOP platform towards India; Ramesh Ponnuru, a Washington DC-based columnist and a senior editor for National Review magazine, widely recognized as a conservative pundit.
… a few amongst many. And then there are the second generation, the America-born, Indian origin folks (such as Ricky Gill, the young Republican to grab headlines at RNC 2012); prominent leaders and former politicians not in direct spotlight lately (such as Inder Singh, author, community leader, and co-founder of the Asian and Pacific American Republicans Coalition, an officially chartered organ of the California Republican Party; Harry Sidhu, restaurateur and Republican politician, currently an Anaheim City Councilman; Kashmir Gill, a former mayor of Yuba City, California, currently Senior Vice President in a Bank; Nimi McConigley, erstwhile member of the State legislature of Wyoming and candidate for the US Senate); political stalwarts and GOP fundraisers (such as Florida physician Zachariah P Zachariah; Pennsylvania engineer Ashok Khare); minor functionaries with political aspirations (such as New Jersey lawyer Naveen Nadipuram), and so forth. All in all, not an inconsequential lot.
So why Republican, what’s the attraction? A common thread that binds them all, apart from their political affiliation, is that they are all reasonably educated, well-established professionally, and wealthy, with independent means. But is that enough? In a recent post, well-known blogger and author Rita Banerji offers some answers to my puzzle.
Writing in the context of Dinesh D’Souza’s anti-Obama ‘documentary’, “2016”, that seems to have found acceptance amongst certain subsets of Americans, Banerji avers that the fact – that a Republican of Indian origin has made a politically motivated film casting aspersions on a Democratic President – doesn’t surprise her,
… Because among the Indian communities in the US, it always appeared to me that a majority of immigrants from India, supported the Republican party.
Making an interesting connection regarding ethnicity and political perceptions, she says:
… many of the other migrant, minority communities always looked upon the Democrats more favourably because they saw them as being more tolerant of immigration, and more embracing of racial and cultural diversity.
It is a matter of fact that, for example, the Hispanic communities in the US overwhelmingly vote Democratic – and not without reason – a fact responsible for the conscious attempts at voter suppression by the GOP/Tea Party machinery. However, as Banerji points out next, and also explains,
… this appeared not to factor in, into how Indian Americans made their political preferences. And the reason I think is in how Indian Americans have historically responded to racism. They’ve chosen to pretend it does not exist or else it’s not so bad that they can’t live with it!!
I see three other dimensions to this; first, the dimension of privilege. Racism is alive and thriving in India well into the modern times, under a different garb, called casteism, which enjoys the sanction of religion and religious traditions or superstitions. However, the well-to-do and the upper-middle-class Indians, the kind who end up in the US shores, generally are in the socially privileged position of not facing or being touched by the putrid stench of casteism – and therefore, it is easy for them to pretend it doesn’t exist. It is the same mentality, part of the same baggage, that they bring over when they arrive in the US. Whenever they face overt racism here, they firmly shut their eyes, hoping that the specter would pass away in time – just like it did back home. Whenever they see it happening to others, they try to rationalize it, thinking that the victim must have deserved it. Banerji provides a poignant example of this ostrich-like attitude from her own experience.
When in college in the US, I had visited one of my mother’s friend’s who had a 13-year-old girl. This girl was sent to a very expensive, exclusive, private school where she was the only coloured child. She was a very shy and quiet girl, and an A+ student. But one of her teachers took an instinctive dislike to her. He would pick on her in class all the time, blame her for any kind of disruption, and periodically fling chalks or a duster at her, calling her names. The girl would come home crying, and her mother would scold her. “You must have done something wrong!” One time I tried suggesting the word: racism. I mean what other reason could there be? Her mother turned around and said, “I don’t put ideas like that into my daughter’s head. If you believe racism exists, you will see it everywhere.”
The second dimension relates to the feudal mindset that, again, the well-to-do, as well as the vast Indian middle-class across the country, have and demonstrate at every conceivable occasion. This is the Indian who knows his/her place in the social hierarchy; at every level – social, professional, cultural – s/he effortlessly, even unconsciously, lords it over the less fortunate, those considered socially inferior, while kowtowing to the more fortunate, those considered socially superior. It is this mindset that allows them to engage in casual, often unthinking, exhibitions of racism and bigotry, expressed in their deplorable attitudes towards social and/or religious minorities (such as sundry Black Americans and Muslims) – thereby checking all the right boxes for their alignment with the Republican Party.
The third dimension is a rather curious one, religion. Hinduism is the majority religion in India, and not surprisingly, the faith of the majority of Indian immigrants to US (a fact which is somewhat bolstered by the US Immigration policies, in place for some time, which view Muslims and Muslim-sounding names with suspicion and extra scrutiny). Now, as a matter of fact, Christianity was long embraced by the Hindu pantheon, and many devout Hindus worship Christ as another manifestation, among multitudes, of the Divine – thereby establishing a continuum between the two disparate religions. The so-called Christian fundamentals, essentially the Ten Commandments, gel well with the superficial Hindu ethos; not to mention, the popular visage of blond, blue-eyed and dreamily staring Christ fits rather nicely with the Hindu sentiment of a how a God should look like. As a result, many of the Hindu or converted-Christian Indian Americans don’t feel any discomfort about the vision of the Christianity-soaked theocratic future that the predominantly Christian Republican Party has lined up for this country; if anything, the notion of a country guided by religious principles that they consider ‘enlightened’ comforts them.
Therefore, when Banerji opines…
I found this attitude left the Indian Americans stranded like psychological refugees in a land, where they made money, bought big houses and cars, and realized the big American dream. And yet always felt like “aliens” on a planet they didn’t feel was HOME. They felt like they had to pander to the racism and bigotry that humiliated them, instead of confronting it.
… I disagree slightly. The thing is, these people could have taken the opposite route; they could have risen above the racism and bigotry, they could have protested against it – as many others, people from other communities, have done. They could have become more conscious of the rights and responsibilities of themselves and of others. But they don’t. I suspect, that because of the reasons I put forth above, the racism and bigotry, perversely, make it feel more like home.
In an earlier section, Banerji recounts:
… This was true even for the my parents’ friends who lived there. They’d anxiously explain to me how the Democrats were trying to turn the U.S. into a depraved country, by apparently promoting gayness (like it’s a new religion?); by destroying culture and traditions (i.e. being open to inter-faith and inter-race unions); and the worst, the democrats take the money of the rich and use it to create welfare programs for the “lazy” poor!
Banerji couldn’t have been more spot on, and that is a sad situation. This point of view cherished and nurtured by many Indian-American Republicans makes perfect sense to me once I look at the background in context, as I detailed above. The concepts of social equality and justice not being largely prominent in Indian politics or polity as a whole, many of the privileged Indian tend to view social welfare programs as an encouragement to inaction which – in their myopic views – is the root cause for the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the poor and the infirm. This apathy continues to exist amongst many of the Indian Americans, because – as Prof. Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College in New York, pointed out – political behavior often indicates a desire for empowerment; since most Indian immigrants arrived in the US in 1960s, after the Civil Rights era, they largely didn’t have to undergo any major class struggle in order to earn their place in the social, political and economic process, leaving them as unable to appreciate civil rights and social welfare, as Indians generally were/are back home. As if in corroboration, Banerji further explains:
The conservative approach of the Republicans appealed greatly to the older generation of Indian immigrants, most of who stuck to their cloistered communities and traditions, even as they focused on the one thing they were there in the US to do – earn well, and live well. Hence, Indian Americans who enter politics continue to fight for the Republican platform.
But… It is not all gloomy and foreboding everywhere. As laid out in the BBC News article linked above, support for the Democrats is strong among the younger generation of Indian-Americans for a variety of reasons. Prof. Khandelwal has indicated elsewhere, surveys have shown that Southeast Asians, including Indians, politically align more with the Left than the Right. As the newer generation Indian-Americans open up amongst themselves and to other communities, as they continue to connect with the grassroots, hopefully that will continue to be true, and reflect in the upcoming 2012 Presidential Elections, too.
Editor’s note: the Kal Penn video was left out by accident in the first version of this article, and was added in later.