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The Indian prime minister and Trump addressed a Houston rally. Who was signaling what?

Here’s why Indian Americans are conflicted about the U.S. president.

- September 29, 2019

As estimated 31 million Indians live outside of India — and about 50,000 of them gathered in Houston a week ago to listen to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was the largest-ever gathering with a foreign political leader in the United States.

From Australia to Canada, from the United Kingdom to the United States, from Dubai to Israel, no foreign leader has courted his country’s diaspora as assiduously as Modi. His rallies often include the country’s national leader — President Trump joined him in Houston, and British Prime Minister David Cameron accompanied Modi for a 2015 speech to 60,000 members of the Indian diaspora at Wembley Stadium in London.

These rallies clearly have some signaling effects. But who is signaling what to whom?

Modi is not the only one sending signals

A rousing endorsement of Modi from a U.S. immigrant group that is highly successful, by income and education metrics, and is the largest Indian diaspora in any country, sends multiple signals. The huge crowds of supporters overseas help reaffirm Modi’s support at home, and offer a jab at his detractors. For the broader audience in the host country, the message is that this support could transfer to Modi’s hosts, if they are well disposed to India’s concerns.

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By this logic, Trump could stand onstage in Houston and share in the applause, but also could see a future stream of political dividends, whether votes or campaign contributions.

The organizers behind these rallies also send a signal to the host country that Indians are well established in the wider political landscape in their new home. The Texas India Forum, a nonprofit organization created for the Houston event, raised an estimated $2.5 million to cover the event costs. The forum distributed tickets to hundreds of community organizations across the country, which were vetted to ensure a full house in the giant stadium and full support for Modi. Critics had to protest outside the stadium.

The Indian diaspora is growing fast — but Indians are not swing voters

How successful are these signals? Indian Americans are one of the fastest-growing U.S. immigrant communities. There are an estimated 4.6 million people of Indian origin in the United States, of whom 2.6 million were born in India. These numbers have increased sixfold from the 450,000 Indian immigrants in the United States in 1990. In 1960, by comparison, there were just 12,000.

Today, people born in India are the second-largest immigrant group in the United States. In 2015, 58 percent were citizens — nearly two-thirds of them were younger than 18. The number of Indian Americans eligible to vote is increasing by about 150,000 annually, a third through naturalization and the rest as children of immigrants reach voting age.

For the 2020 elections, here’s what this means. Voters of Indian origin will barely be about 1 percent of eligible voters. Most lean Democratic. In the 2016 presidential election, according to data from the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), 69 percent of Asian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton and 25 percent for Trump. For Indian Americans, the numbers were 77 percent and 16 percent, respectively. Since most Indian Americans live in heavily Democratic areas — like California and the Northeast — for the most part they are not swing voters in swing states.

In recent years, many Indian immigrants have settled in Texas, with Houston a top destination. As Modi had previously spoken in New York and San Francisco, this was a logical venue choice. But unless Texas has a close election and there’s a large swing away from Democrats among Indian American voters, the prime minister’s lavish praise for Trump in Houston is unlikely to move the needle significantly in the 2020 U.S. election.

Indian Americans are conflicted about Trump

Indian Americans, according to some analysts, would be “natural” supporters of the Republican Party. They are socially conservative, and generally support lighter government regulation. As high-income earners, they favor lower taxes. Many are upper caste who bring with them a wariness of affirmative action.

India’s election results were more than a ‘Modi wave’

But the Trump administration’s hard-line policies on immigration — particularly the tighter rules on granting or renewing H1-B visas, or the plan to strip H-4 visa holders (spouses of H1-B visa holders) of the right to work — has hit Indian immigrants hard. And many Indian Americans have reservations about the Republican Party’s evangelical base. Survey data suggest that Trump faces an uphill battle to win the support of the Indian American community. While hard-line Hindus are happy with Trump’s anti-Muslim stance, the increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States affects all immigrants, especially those who are not white.

If Trump’s gains in garnering political support from Indian Americans were modest, so were Modi’s signaling attempts with Trump. The day after the Houston rally, Trump met with India’s archrival — Pakistan’s Imran Khan — and appeared to contradict what he said to the huge Indian American crowds in Houston.

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If the Houston event was more about optics, Modi is masterful at understanding the political payoffs among his domestic constituency in India. He burnished his strong nationalist credentials further as tens of millions watched a no-holds barred articulation of his vision for India.

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But perhaps the most interesting signal of the day is the organizing prowess of the Indian American community, which pulled off a huge and successful event. The takeaway here is that this community can mobilize significant resources — people and finances — quickly. This community is more pro-Modi than pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as many Indian immigrants in the United States come from South India where Modi’s ruling BJP does not hold much sway.

Geopolitical and domestic factors in both countries are shaping the India-U.S. relationship. While the Indian American diaspora does have some influence in this relationship, with the weight of second-generation Indian Americans increasing rapidly within the community, their concerns and activism are directed much more to what they consider home — the United States.

Devesh Kapur is director of Asia programs and Starr Foundation professor of South Asian Studies at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-author (with Sanjoy Chakravorty and Nirvikar Singh) of The Other One Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press, 2017).