Election Watch: Split-screen view of the Indian Diaspora

Most Indian-Americans are likely to vote against Trump in 2020, but they are just as likely to be cheering the victory of Modi in the recent elections


They are “like termites…eating our grains and taking our jobs,”declares the party president, vowing to throw out all illegal immigrants,as he falsely blames them for bomb blasts of the past.But he then proceeds to endorse the candidacy of a ‘sadhvi’ [literally, ‘virtuous woman’] accused of a motorcycle bombing,asserting that a Hindu could never be a terrorist. As if to drive home the point, the party offers its own version of a Muslim Ban: A path to citizenship to all illegal immigrants other than Muslims.

That may well sound like Trump’s America, but it marked the tumult of India’s democracy as it went to the polls recently to elect a new parliament. Sadly, despite an autonomous Election Commission and a carefully crafted model code of conduct, all filters against bigotry and incitement were off, prompting even the Supreme Court to intervene without much avail.

In the meantime, a fractured opposition struggled to provide a unified response, and was constantly on the backfoot, accused of cozying up to terrorists and ‘enemies’ of the nation. Mutual name-calling and accusations of corruption crowded out any serious debate on development and jobs.

Those striking similarities between the right-wing trajectories of the world’s two largest democracies may be palpable, but a large part of the Indian diaspora, especially the first-generation,islikely to be cheering Modi’s return to power, while at the same time wishing for Trump’s defeat in 2020.

What explains this seeming dichotomy?

The Cult of Modi

Modi is often portrayed as articulate, charismatic, tech-savvy, and decisive.India, Inc.sees him as a no-nonsense decision-maker and a risk-taker. To the vast majority of Indian-Americans, these traits vastly overshadow his stumbles in office, such as the disastrous move to demonetize India’s currency, and the highest unemployment statistics reported in decades.

Mastery over Media

A true believer in the power of propaganda, Modi broadcasts his speeches and pet programs across the diaspora, aided by an extensive right-wing web presence. His base is impressed by his Clinton-like ability to shed tears at public events and his public display of empathy, whether they be counseling students on the stress of taking exams, or washing the feet of Dalits in a symbolic gesture to improve his party’s standing. The fact that Indians in many parts of the world would organize get-out-the-vote campaigns in his support,complete with flash mobs, testify to the remarkable success of the ‘Modi Brand.’ In comparison, the once dominant Congress Party has minimal visibility in the U.S.

Division of Labor

In contrast to Trump, who bares himself everyday with his spiteful tweets, BJP has perfected a brilliant three-prong strategy: Modi is the quintessential statesman, passionately talking about ‘Make in India’ campaigns, of ending corruption, and building latrines for all. His surrogates, on the other hand,are constantly stirring the communal cauldron, even as he himself maintains a studied silence unless pushed to the wall.The division of labor is complete with the virtual domination of social media by BJP’s foot soldiers, who are ever ready to pounce on anyone they consider ‘enemies of Hinduism.’

Mostly Middle Class

First-generation Indian-Americans are highly sensitive to immigration issues, but they also share the same priorities as other middle-class Americans — Social Security, health care, and college tuition — which explains their historic affinity towards the Democratic party. However, the community bears little resemblance to India’s larger demographics, and is predominantly Hindu middle and upper-class. The ruling party’s performance with India’s impoverished farmers, who continue to take their own lives at an alarming rate; or of forest dwellers [Adivasis], who are on the verge of being evicted from their ancestral homes in the name of conservation,do not seem to play a big part in their assessment of Modi.

From the Majority to a Minority

Adjusting to a minority status after being part of a majority community in the home country can be sobering even in normal times. But with the surge in bigotry and hate crimes,Indian-Americans are a bit are anxious. As America watches more prominent brown faces take on Trump in the halls of congress, in the media, and even in the judiciary, it is not a huge leap of imagination to see prominent Indian-Americans coming under the bitter Twitter-end of this President. Nonetheless, for most Hindu-Americans,their own insecurities as a minority do not seem to translate into empathy for the Muslims in India, dozens of whom have been lynched and hundreds more injured in recent months in beef related violence initiated by right-wing vigilantes.

Ghosts from the past

Perhaps, their acquiescence is conditioned by bitter ‘institutional’ memories of Islamic invasions of centuries ago, and the more recent narratives of partition, which Hindus often pass on from generation to generation. The BJP has masterfully exploited that innate bias, helped along by the world-wide spread of Islamophobia since 9/11 and the frightful era of ISIS terror more recently. The obscurantism of Indian Muslim religious leaders on social issues, especially on the rights of Muslim women, has only further played into BJP’s hands.Indian-American Muslims, who are in the minority twice-over, are unlikely to be either on the Trump or the Modi band-wagon, but they watch the events in India with a great deal of trepidation about the future of a secular India.

The Other Minority

Family gatherings in America aren’t much fun these days, with a virtual Trump presence often coming in the way of decent conversations.The shrinking minority of liberals [secularists] in India find themselves in a similar predicament, unable to get across to even their own friends and family that a nation mustn’t lay the bitter religious conflicts of the past, or acts of co-religionists else where in the world, at the feet of the current generations.To add to their isolation, journalists are under constant threat of facing defamation or sedition charges. Also, the assassinations of several outspoken journalists in the last three years has sent a chill, perhaps as intended by the perpetrators.It seems that Trump’s dream of muzzling the liberal media may be already underway in India.

Clearly, with an emboldened right-wing, space for dissent by ordinary citizens will continue to shrink rapidly in India, unless a unified alternative political voice miraculously emerges out of the embers of the opposition. If Trump comes back to power in 2020 and the GOP continues to act as an extension of the White House,America too will see a further retrenchment of its liberal values. But fortunately,a younger generation of Indian-Americans is at the fore-front of fighting right-wing extremism, and they may very well succeed in the next elections.Regardless,it will take many years and may be an entire generation to recoup the spirit of tolerance and co-existence that have been so central to the well-being of the two countries.

Raju Rajagopal is a Social Activist who shares his time between Berkeley, CA and Chennai, India


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