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Analysis: A moment of reckoning for Indian Americans

After Indian American engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed by a white nationalist in Kansas in February 2017, it took several weeks before the new President, Donald Trump, condemned it, only obliquely still, upsetting the community. Democrat Bernie Sanders instantly came out in support of the family and the community, and said the President’s rhetoric on immigration led to the murder. 

As campaign for the 2020 presidential election picks up, a dominant section of the Indian Americans linked to Hindutva politics is gunning for Mr. Sanders and aligning with the nationalist politics of Mr. Trump, for their respective positions on Kashmir. This rapidly evolving realignment will polarise the community and could alter the basis of India-U.S. ties.

Indian Americans have largely been supporters of the Democratic Party to which all five U.S. lawmakers of Indian origin also belong. Democrats have been more supportive of immigration and religious and cultural rights of the minorities. The simultaneous rise of nationalism in India and America, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mr. Trump, had put the community in a paradoxical situation, as they were largely jubilant about Hindutva in India while being at the receiving end of nationalism in their adopted land.

The Kashmir factor

Kuchibotla himself was an ardent fan of Mr. Modi’s sweeping Hindutva politics as his wife related after this murder. Not only Mr. Sanders, but Democrats such as Congressman from Silicon Valley Ro Khanna, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and several other friends of India and Indian Americans have denounced Hindutva politics in the wake of the prolonged lockdown of Jammu and Kashmir following the unilateral end to its autonomy.

“India’s behaviour is unacceptable,” said Mr. Sanders. 

Mr. Khanna, grandson of a freedom fighter and a member of the first Parliament of India, said, “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians.” 

Influential Hindutva voices in America have turned against these Democrats, and accused them of pro-Pakistan sympathies and being in the spell of anti-India, Muslim advisers. Mr. Trump does not sweat over India’s Kashmir policy barring its impact on his own plans for an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. His tirade against immigrants, particularly the Indian techies notwithstanding, the Hindutva sections had found his bluster against Muslims appealing. Kashmir has brought them closer to Mr. Trump and their journey to his camp could be completed ahead of the 2020 Presidential election. There are many ironies in this, but this might end one central paradox of Hindutva-leaning Indian American politics that has been sympathetic to religious majoritarianism and cultural supremacism in India while demanding religious and cultural rights in America.

Political realignment

The dualism of Indian-American politics has now become unsustainable as Democratic leaders find it increasingly impossible to side with Mr. Modi as he advances the Hindutva agenda. Many of these friends of India were mislead, and had misread Mr. Modi’s politics and they interpreted his success in 2014 as a turn in Indian politics towards more neo-liberal reforms and globalism. Such an image of Mr. Modi was also projected by Indian diplomacy in America. But one American thinker, who interpreted Mr. Modi’s victory as a nativist revolt against a global elite, was none other than Stephen Bannon, the most authentic interpreter of Mr. Trump’s nationalist politics. Mr. Bannon has also been particularly a critic of the H-1B visa and Indian-American immigration. That the Indian Ambassador to the U.S. retweeted a tweet that denounced Mr. Sanders and tweeted about his meeting with Mr. Bannon in glowing terms (he deleted the tweet later) in quick succession bears out the official Indian position on the emerging fault-lines in American politics and the role of Indian Americans in it.

That the Democrats are obstinately anti-Russia and Trump nationalists are pro-Russia also adds a strategic dimension to this realignment. Democrats have stalled any improvement in U.S.-Russia ties and India has suffered direct collateral damage in the process, as it is being threatened with sanctions for its defence ties with Kremlin.

This realignment of Indian-American politics will be accelerated with the coming ‘Howdy, Modi’ rally in Houston on September 22. Mr. Modi has drawn Indian Americans deeply into his Hindutva nationalism, and drafted them to advance his politics in America, but avoided mega shows in the U.S. after Mr. Trump became the President, fearing a blowback.

He will be back in full force later this month, and the occasion will call upon liberal Indian Americans and Democratic politicians to be unambiguous in their view of the Indian leader and his politics. Hindutva groups will swallow the humiliation at the hands of Trump nationalists in their homeland and cheerlead the march of nationalism in the country they abandoned. As for India-U.S. relations, well, they will continue to be of shared values and interests, though of different values and different interests, historically speaking.

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 4:50:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/a-moment-of-reckoning-for-indian-americans/article29350864.ece

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