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The issues that matter to Indian-Americans – columns

United States (US) President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Joe Biden’s campaigns have pitched their candidates as the best bet for US-India relations to court Indian-Americans, who are expected to play an outsized role in what promises to be a close presidential election. Bilateral relations with India have become an issue in the US elections for the first time.

Biden has promised that relations with India will get “high priority” and has bashed India’s regional adversaries — China and Pakistan — to burnish his credentials as the better custodian of ties with New Delhi.

The Trump campaign has released a video of clips spliced together from the “Howdy Modi” and “Namaste Trump” events touting close ties between the two leaders. And it has also cited the administration’s position on the Kashmir status change and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) as internal matters in sharp contrast to the Biden campaign’s criticism of India on these issues.

A group of Indian-Americans pressed Biden at a fund-raiser to moderate his position on these issues and dial up the campaign’s pitch to Hindus in a bid to staunch the flow of the community’s support towards Trump. They had the candidate’s attention they believed, and came away with a distinct impression that one of them would get a follow-up call from the campaign.

Certifiably reliable election data for the community doesn’t go far back enough to evaluate its voting behaviour relative to the highs and lows in the relationship. But did Bill Clinton, a Democrat, drive them towards the Republican Party when he slapped multiple sanctions on India for the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998, clearly the lowest point in bilateral ties in recent decades?

Or, did George W Bush, a Republican, trigger a rush of Indian-Americans to the party with the civil nuclear deal in 2008, which remains an unparalleled high-point of the relationship? Not really. In a 2008 pre-poll survey by AAPI Data, which has consistently polled the community since then with other Asian-Americans, Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, led his Republican rival John McCain 53% to 13%, among Indian-Americans; 33% were undecided.

Its latest poll tells a most consequential story, but one that has received little attention: Indian-Americans don’t actually care much about US policy for South Asia.

Education was listed by 94% of Indian-American voters as extremely important or very important, followed by jobs and the economy (92% ), health care (92%), environment (88%), racial discrimination (84%), policing reforms (84%), national security (84%), and immigration (80%).

US foreign policy in Asia was marked way, way down in comparison (66%).

It is unclear if “US foreign policy in Asia” meant and covered US relations with India specifically. But as Milan Vaishnav, an Indian-American expert on India-US relations at Carnegie, said, “India and US-India ties might matter on the margins, but we don’t have evidence it is a determining factor yet.”


The views expressed are personal

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