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5 Reasons why Indian Americans (Heart) Obama

 by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

"Interests, values, and history all suggest that the natural political home for Indian-Americans is the GOP," declares Sadanand Dhume in a bold essay on the American Enterprise website. The resident fellow at the conservative think tank describes the community's abiding loyalty to the Democratic Party, especially Barack Obama, as "utterly illogical," arguing that with "a little effort and the right arguments, the Romney-Ryan campaign ought to be able to make inroads" into the fastest growing segment of America's immigrant population.

Whatever these arguments may be, Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican National Convention didn't make them. There was nary a word about immigrant work ethics or success —the very things that Dhume argues ought to make Indians opt for the party that celebrates free opportunity. And the only pitch Ryan made for tolerance was to call on the Republicans to embrace the Mormon Mitt Romney as a good Christian.

Dhume may dismiss the "gaudy identity politics of the Democratic Party," but at the very least, it is nice to have your existence acknowledged and appreciated.

The essay also doesn't answer the more important question: Why do Indians vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party? The answers lie partly in the failures of the GOP,  in the strengths of its rival, but more so in the unique values, priorities, and worldview of the Indian American community — which conservative analysts often misread.

Party poster children

A file photo from when Michelle Obama visited Mumbai with her husband in 2010.

Conservatives claim that while Democrats talk diversity, Republicans do diversity. Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal have become the poster children for the GOP's minority credentials and success. They are ensconced in their governor’s mansions while all the Indian American Democrats who ran for Congress in 2010 lost. When Obama gave his first State of the Union speech, Jindal gave the Republican response. Both Haley and Jindal were given speaking roles at the 2012 Republican convention (though Hurricane Isaac kept the latter at home). But Indian Americans also understand that while a Jindal or a Haley  or a Mia Love, the Haitian American Tea Partier from Utah, get their turn up on stage, the floor of the convention hall remains as resolutely red, blue and WHITE as ever. Haley and Jindal's skin colour gives the GOP the tan it needs so it doesn’t look like a party of grumpy old white men.

While Indian Americans are happy to anoint "our" Bobby and Nikki as “Person of the Year," they understand that the duo also symbolise the high price of admission to the Old Boys Club. Dhume acknowledges as much when he says both “tend to wear their conversion to Christianity on their sleeves” but dismisses such grouses as “trifles.” But Indian Americans take note of how Nikki Haley runs as far away as she can from her identity, brushing it aside with one obligatory “I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants” line at the Republican convention. They notice the omission when the same “proud daughter” of Punjabi storeowners sees no reason to even mention the recent shootings of Sikhs in Wisconsin.  As for Jindal, Sunil Adam writes in the Asian Correspondent, he is “widely, if not necessarily openly, ridiculed by Indian-Americans for flaunting his born-again Christian credentials; many see it as a betrayal of the Hindu faith he was born into.”

Both come to the community for money but don’t want to speak up for it. Reacting to Wisconsin, Haley issued a carefully worded statement that avoided the slightest hint of identification. "It's very sad to see something like this happen to a peaceful place of worship," said the woman who was married in a gurudwara.

Ajay Kuntammukala of an Indian American Republican political action committee said that the community needs to realize that these candidates are American first and Indian second -- even as it fundraised for them. He also added: “We need to make sure we are not out front. We are not the face of the campaign.” That kind of deep nervousness about looking too "ethnic" within the GOP offers a stark contrast to a Democratic President who wears his immigrant roots on his sleeve -- and in his unaltered foreign-sounding name. In many ways Obama’s presence in the White House is far more reassuring to Indian Americans than Paul Ryan’s appearance at the Wisconsin memorial.

 Jobs Jobs Jobs

For all the fuss over Haley and Jindal, Indians are happier with the brand of diversity practiced by the Obama White House. Sure, they are impatient to see one of their own in his cabinet, but Obama has done well enough with a number of high profile Indian-American staffers. Aneesh Chopra, Preet Bharara, Kal Penn, Neal Katyal, Sonal Shah, Preeta Bansal – the breadth of the appointments from US Attorney to the National Science Foundation to Chief Technology Officer is especially reassuring to a community which places huge emphasis on education and merit. These high-ranking jobs are all the more valuable because they are rewards for achievement, not pats on the back for identity.

And unlike many of their fellow Americans, desi parents don't usually aspire for a political career for their children.“We are still not there on acceptability of politician being a career path” said Anurag Varma, vice president of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, “Who is going to marry a politician?” But an invitation from President Obama to become his Chief Technology Officer makes for serious bragging rights.

The sheer number of Indian American faces -- whether running for elected office or in appointed posts -- reflects the advantage Democrats enjoy in attracting Indian Americans, which gives them access to a deeper and richer pool of candidates. Less important than the fact that five Indian American Democrats lost in 2010 is the fact that there were five of them. In 2008, there was only one. “Our  worst case scenario is not they might all lose,” Varma said in 2010. “Our  worst case scenario would be zero running for office.”

Indian is not Indian American

One of the common errors made by analysts is to over-emphasize the importance of Washington's India policy to the Indian American constituency.  It is true that Republican presidents enjoy a warmer relationship with New Delhi than their Democratic peers, and the Republican party platform in 2012 hails India as a "geopolitical ally and a strategic trading partner" but the differences are often a matter of degree —and not sufficient to make a dent in the voting tallies.

The big sticking points for New Delhi—outsourcing and Pakistan—don't matter as much to the Indian American voter.  All that Obama rhetoric about outsourcing is mostly dismissed as electoral posturing. Nor do Indian Americans hear the constant references to Bangalore as a kind of racist dog whistle — not when it comes from a black president who has actively courted and praised their community. Besides, Obama is no Pat Buchanan (the stridently protectionist Republican candidate who ran on a hyper-nationalist plank). Most desis believe that no middle-of-the road American politician will ever seriously clamp down on offshoring jobs.

As for Pakistan, it would be a priority if we were still in the polarised Cold War era, when it enjoyed a special and exclusive relationship with Washington. But in 2012, no one doubts that keeping New Delhi happy is a priority for all presidents, Republican or Democrat. The other less-recognised truth: Indians and Pakistanis in America often build close personal ties. Being thrown together as outsiders in a foreign land makes cultural affinities -- around Bollywood, food, cricket -- more valuable than political differences. And the divisions imported from the homeland grow ever less significant with each passing generation.  There are Indian organizations aimed at lobbying specifically for a more aggressively India-leaning South Asia policy. But its absence is not exactly a deal-breaker for Indian Americans come election day.

Family values

"If the GOP is the party of the nuclear family—a Pew survey finds that 88 percent of Republicans say they have "old-fashioned values" about family and marriage, compared with just 60 percent of Democrats—then should it not also be the party of Indian-Americans?" asks Dhume. But the problem for the GOP is that their rhetoric rarely matches the performance of their leaders. From the much-married Newt Gingrich to Sen. David Vitter whose number popped up in the D.C. Madam’s phonebook, GOP leaders make no better family men than a philandering John Edwards. Besides, no conservative dadi in America prays every day, “Please God, if my grandson has to marry someone who’s not Indian, let her at least be a Republican.” For the socially conservative desi, one American is as morally suspect as the other.

The other problem is that the GOP stripe of social conservatism tends to fixate on two issues – abortion/contraception and homosexuality. The first is a non-issue for  Indian immigrants, inured as they are to family planning homilies and ads for Marie Stopes clinics (not to mention an unfortunate penchant for sex selection.) The latter isn’t regarded as a particularly Indian issue, perhaps because there are so few gay desis visible in American culture. Besides, sexuality -- deviant or normal -- is viewed as a ghar ka mamla, hardly something to talk about on the campaign trail.

The party's born-again conservatism —which is all about Bible thumping and creationism— is distinctly Christian and unwelcoming. When a Hindu chaplain was invited to lead prayers in the Senate in 2007, Republican Congressman Bill Sali worried it would remove “the protective hand of God” from America. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council caustically remarked, “ I seriously doubt that Americans want to change the motto, 'In God we Trust,' which Congress adopted in 1955, to, 'In gods we Trust.' No conservative Indian is likely to feel at home in such political company.

An immigrant is an immigrant is an… 

As a prosperous model minority, desi Americans may have little affinity for "the party of food stamps, affirmative action, and welfare without work," as Dhume puts it. But they do have a stake in building a racially and ethnically inclusive America which allows them to thrive and succeed in relative safety.

Whatever the political differences between the different minority groups, the reality on the ground for Indians is that they are harassed for looking "un-American," be it Muslim, Mexican or just brown. The gurudwara attacks confirmed what most Indian Americans already know: An anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner climate can be fatal to them, irrespective of whether they are the intended targets. And this well-grounded fear does not endear the Republicans to their Indian constituents. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of the Tea Party, the GOP is increasingly perceived as the party of the flag-waving, anti-foreigner white male American.

Valarie Kaur offers the telling example of her father, a lapsed Republican, on CNN.com:

My Sikh American father was a Republican, proud to belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. He raised my brother and me with lectures on the value of hard work, small government and independence. My own progressive politics in college made for colorful arguments at the Thanksgiving table. It wasn't until the decade after 9/11 -- after witnessing firsthand how his party caved to fear-mongering, racial profiling and expansive federal power -- that he joined me in campaigning for candidate Obama. My father is one of millions of brown and black Americans alienated by a Republican Party that has forgotten its own values.

Paul Ryan's presence at the Wisconsin memorial or the history-making Sikh invocation at the Republican convention, therefore, smacks of tokenism in the backdrop of a party held hostage to a base enraged at all immigrants, including their "foreign" president. Indian Americans may not agree with many of Obama's policies, but as Neera Tanden told India Real Time, “President Obama’s temperament and policies accentuate tolerance and acceptance of people of different religions and races. So it makes a lot sense for Indians, who are often both a religious and racial minority to support the president in large numbers." In a racially and religiously charged post-9/11 atmosphere, Obama's very presence -- the immigrant's kid who made it to the White House -- offers the ultimate reassurance. A reason perhaps why a whopping 85 percent of Indian Americans have a favourable impression of him, compared to just 23 percent who like Romney.

Sadanand Dhume's essay sets up Indian Americans as deluded creatures, addicted to "a toxic culture of victimhood" and easily swayed by facile appeals to racial diversity; unable to see their own true self-interest. This is ironically the same kind of argument liberals have used to dismiss blue collar Americans who vote Republican. It's always a bad sign when you start to blame the voter for losing his vote. The bottom-line is that the GOP leadership's willingness to appease its most xenophobic elements has come at a high price for the party, alienating even those who may share its fiscally conservative values. This is not a problem of "outreach." This is a problem of identity— of the Grand Old Party, and what it has become.