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
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.