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Home / Columns / Why Trump is wooing Indian Americans | Opinion

Why Trump is wooing Indian Americans | Opinion

For those who ask why should he care about a tiny minority of 1%, Indian Americans were, and continue to be, a factor in the changing demographics and politics of states driven by immigrants. And every state counts

columns Updated: Feb 14, 2020 18:50 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
US President Donald Trump in Washington, February 12, 2020
US President Donald Trump in Washington, February 12, 2020(REUTERS)

At an election rally in 2016, Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, pitched himself to an audience comprising Indian Americans as a “true friend” they will have in the White House if he was elected. In 2019, he repeated that pitch at a rally several times larger. Expect a variation of this exhortation during his visit to India.

No other American president has courted Indian Americans as assiduously as Trump. Indian Americans account for 1% of the population, but punch far above their weight in education, professional standing and wealth. The community has grown politically ambitious in recent years, which is acknowledged by both Republicans and Democrats. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley rose through the ranks of the Republican Party to become governors — the only two Indian Americans ever elected to the top job in the US — and Jindal went on to seek the presidential nomination. On the Democratic side, Ami Bera, Ro Khanna, Raja Krishnamurthi, Pramila Jayapal and Kamala Harris became members the US Congress. But both parties have tended to treat Indian Americans as part of a larger Asian American constituency. Trump, however, has wooed Indian Americans as Indian Americans, and not a part of the larger Asian American entity. Whether by design or chance, with the 2016 rally in Edison, a New Jersey city packed with Indian immigrants, he became the first presidential nominee of a major political party to pitch exclusively to Indian Americans.

It had no immediate impact — 55% of Indian Americans who voted in the 2016 election held “very unfavorable” to “somewhat unfavorable” view of Trump, according to a survey of Asian Americans. And only 16% of them said they had voted for Trump. But Trump’s low haul was still 3 percentage points more than John McCain’s, the Republican nominee who lost to Barack Obama in 2008. Was that progress?

Perhaps not. But Trump might be tapping into the community’s desire to be counted as a whole, and not a part of a whole. There is also a growing disillusionment in the Democratic Party with the Narendra Modi government over Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. This may give Trump an opportunity. A resolution moved by Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, an Indian American, to condemn the restrictions in Kashmir and the treatment of minorities, has garnered the support of 60 members of the House of Representatives, with several Democrats among them. And those aligned with the BJP, have declared Jayapal as an adversary.

This is an opportunity for Trump , and he will not miss it. According to people familiar with the planning of the trip, the president has asked for a “Howdy Modi”kind of event during his visit. For those who ask why should he care about a tiny minority of 1%, Indian Americans were, and continue to be, a factor in the changing demographics and politics of states driven by immigrants. And every state counts. Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by millions, but won the White House in winner-takes-all count of states.

The views expressed are personal