By Sreeram Chaulia
As the 2020 US presidential election contest reaches its final stretch, American citizens as well as people and governments around the world are assessing the two leading candidates and parties, and weighing which of them will better suit their respective interests.
For the 230 million-plus voting-age Americans, it is a stark choice between a liberal Democrat who claims to represent “decency” and overcome bitter partisanship — former vice-president Joe Biden — and a radical populist who says his patriotic struggle against the “establishment” needs four more years — incumbent President Donald Trump.
Caught in the throes of the coronavirus health emergency and a deep economic depression, and buffeted by extreme ideological polarisation, American voters are going to pick Biden or Trump, depending on a range of factors like class, race, religion, gender, region and people’s sense of economic, cultural and physical security.
Biden is currently ahead of Trump as per opinion polls. But this lead is likely to shrink as campaigning intensifies and the country approaches the D-Day of November 3. The two parties and their strategists sense the narrowing gap and are leaving no stone unturned to woo independent voters while simultaneously retaining their core bases of support.
One interesting demographic feature in the 2020 election is that a record 23.2 million voters, or 10% of the total electorate, are naturalised citizens, i.e. foreign-born immigrants who became Americans. It was no surprise that Trump used a citizenship naturalisation ceremony, featuring a sari-clad Indian software engineer, as a prop for the Republican National Convention.
The two communities which make up the bulk of immigrant voters are Hispanics (34%) and Asians (31%). Realising that this election could go right down to the wire, especially in battleground or swing states, special attention is being showered by both the Biden and Trump campaigns on immigrant voters.
Unlike in the past, when “Asians” were lumped together with Pacific Islanders as a macro category, the Democrats and the Republicans are now granularly targeting sub-groups hailing from different national backgrounds. It is in this hyper-competitive context that the 1.3 million desis or Indian American voters find themselves tugged in different directions.
In earlier elections, Indian Americans overwhelmingly sided with Democrats due to their self-identification as a minority ethnic group and their population concentration in liberal-leaning coastal states of the US. This time promises to be different. Just as the general electorate in the US finds itself polarised, Indian Americans are also not a homogeneous lot and their votes are likely to be split.
More Indian Americans could back Trump in 2020 than any previous Republican candidate because the incumbent US president bluntly espouses hardline positions. Trump’s rhetorical tirades and policy moves to counter “radical Islamic terror”, including jihadis from Pakistan, his notorious “Muslim visa ban”, his direct appeals to “Hindu Americans” as a distinct constituency within the larger rubric of Indian Americans, his personal chemistry with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his escalating “new Cold War” offensive against China, are some of the emotive reasons that have struck a chord with many, if not the majority, of Indian Americans.
Older Indian Americans, who tend to be conservative and retain a strong attachment to Indian nationalism, are especially expected to plump for Trump in this election. As Trump himself never criticised or pressured Modi over alleged intolerance against religious minorities in India, the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, he appears preferable to Biden.
The Democrats’ announcement of a separate “Agenda for Muslim American Communities,” in which Biden was quoted as being ‘disappointed’ about the CAA and worried that the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir could ‘weaken democracy’, has spooked some Indian Americans.
The fear that a Biden White House would interfere in India’s sovereign matters and hector it on controversial domestic social wedge issues does make a segment of Indian Americans and Indians uncomfortable. Biden’s proposal to have ‘honest conversations on all issues’ with India has not gone down well and is being interpreted as a possible impediment to India’s rise under Modi’s leadership.
Yet, not all is gloomy for Biden among the desis and with India as a whole. He craftily picked a competent, partially Indian-origin woman, Kamala Harris, as his running mate. While Harris emphasises the Afro-Caribbean side of her ancestry, her trend-setting nomination could appeal to younger and female Indian Americans. The surge of ethnic pride flowing through news media coverage in India when Harris was selected by Biden did echo back in the US among Indian Americans and could influence the undecided among them to vote for the Democratic ticket and donate to the Democratic campaign finance chest.
In terms of foreign policy, Biden is a traditional liberal internationalist who wants to resuscitate US alliances and strategic partnerships in Asia to collectively push back China’s aggressive expansionism. From a geopolitical and diplomatic standpoint, India can expect a systematic and focused US strategy under a Biden administration to pin down China. After four years of Trump’s erratic and unilateral policies, which at times boosted China’s power, Biden may not be a bad bet to help manage some of India’s strategic threats. Biden will also avoid indiscriminate trade wars that antagonise key allies and partners such as India, and not be harshly restrictive on H-1B visas.
Such is the contrast provided by this US presidential race and the current global political moment that no matter who wins, some Indian Americans and Indians will celebrate while others will mourn. The only certainty is that four years of Trump’s unorthodoxy has shaken the electoral field and opened up new possibilities.
The writer is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs.