The Spotlight on Indian-American Voters: 2020 US Presidential Elections

The 2020 US presidential election campaign has been heating up, with Americans set to vote on November 3, 2020. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this election is certainly going to be different. What remains the same is the age-old voter’s dilemma of whom to cast their vote for.  

The spotlight is on Indian-American voters this election. Though Indian-Americans constitute a mere 1.5% of the population, their impact on American politics is often disproportionate. Indian-Americans are among the wealthiest and most educated immigrant groups within the US. Their vote would be especially important in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

According to a report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT),  the number of Indian-Americans increased from 29 million to 40 million between 2010 and 2017, nearly a 40% rise. In 18 states, the number of Indian immigrants is higher than any other immigrant group. According to the American Community Survey 2017, the largest number of Indians have settled in California (730,000) followed by New York (370,000), New Jersey (370,000), Texas (350,000), Illinois (230,000) and Florida (150,000). In terms of the proportion of the population, the largest number of Indians are in New Jersey (4.1%), Rhode Island (3.36%),  New York (1.88%), Illinois (1.81%), California (1.8%) and Delaware (1.61%).

These numbers show the importance of catering to the interests of this section of the electorate because even a few thousand votes have the potential to turn the tables. So, will the Democratic Party’s Indian-origin Vice Presidential candidate win the hearts of these voters or will their affection towards Trump continue?

US Senator Kamala Harris has become a focal point in the election, grabbing the attention of voters with her logical and opinionated speeches as well as her down to earth personality. While being immensely proud of her American identity, she has held on to her heritage and flaunts it with pride. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a biologist from Chennai while her father, Donald Harris, an economist, hailed from Jamaica. After her parents got divorced, her mother raised Kamala Harris and her sister as members of an African American Church but also took them to Hindu temples. Her history presents a chance of a deeper connection with the Indian American electorate. 

On the other hand, Donald Trump has expressed surety in the fact that Indian Americans will vote Republican, highlighting the good relationship that he has developed with Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi. Their twin events of ‘Howdy Modi’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ were just one of their many public shows of support for each other. In fact ‘Namaste Trump’ which took place in Gujarat was also in anticipation of the 2020 election and was very carefully planned. According to the US census data, 20% of the entire population of Indian-Americans constitutes Gujaratis. 

At a White House press conference, Trump said, “We have great support from India. We've got great support from Prime Minister Modi. I might think that the Indian (American) people would be voting for Mr Trump. He did not miss a chance to reaffirm his bond with Mr Modi and continued to say, Prime Minister Modi may be a friend of mine and he’s doing a really good job. Nothing easy, but he’s done a really good job.

Democratic leaders are apprehensive that Mr Trump’s friendship with Modi might sway their traditional vote bank during the upcoming elections. These attempts to please Indian Americans have often led to slip-ups in public debates where Trump has ended up making a joke of his support for India. While praising the number of COVID-19 tests taking place worldwide, President Trump showered India with admiration for their vigilant testing, albeit with incorrect data and statistics. 

Despite such great attempts to woo this section of voters, it would be presumptuous on the part of Trump to assume that he has their votes in the bag. This year, the Indian-American electorate is on the radar of both Democrats and Republicans. Around 56% of Indian-American registered voters told the AAPI data pollsters that they had been contacted by the Democrats within the past year and 48% said that they were approached by the Republicans. Surprisingly, a recent Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) data survey found that only 28% of Indian-Americans expressed support for Trump while two-thirds of them said that they are going to vote for Biden. In the face of this data, it seems that it would do India well to build the base of a relationship with Biden as well, lest they lose out on the favour of the most powerful country in the world.

There are many reasons for the support shown towards Biden. Firstly, the former Vice President’s long history as a supporter of India, dating back to his Senate days, has clearly left a mark on the minds of the Indian-American voters. Secondly, Trump’s approach to India, very similar to his approach to politics and governing, has primarily been one of rhetoric instead of consistency in terms of policy positions. Finally, Indian-Americans, similar to many other voters in the US, perceive the Trump Presidency as one of excessive chaos and confrontation for the US and consequently for India and the rest of the world.

Aberjhani, an American historian, had succinctly put forth the responsibility that lies on the shoulders of an American voter. He said, “The job facing American voters… in the days and years to come, is to determine which hearts, minds and souls command those qualities best suited to unify a country rather than further divide it, to heal the wounds of a nation as opposed to aggravate its injuries, and to secure for the next generation a legacy of choices based on informed awareness rather than one of reactions based on unknowing fear”. 

It must be kept in mind that the 2020 elections come at a time of great turmoil. The results will determine how the US deals with the ongoing issues of the pandemic as well as the uproar against racism and police violence. Additionally, owing to the centrality of the US in world politics, the election will cause a ripple effect throughout the world. Indian-Americans have an important role to play in determining this future.


Aniba Junaid

Aniba Junaid is currently an undergraduate student of Political Science at Loreto College, Kolkata, India. She enjoys writing about Indian politics, culture, women and matters that affect one and all.

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