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Home > News > Talking Point > Indian Americans: liberal in the US, conservative in India

Indian Americans: liberal in the US, conservative in India

A recent survey of 1,200 Indian-Americans reveals how religious and racial majoritarianism influences political leanings

The crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 2014, waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Getty Images)
The crowd at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 2014, waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ever since he’s been elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached out to the Indian diaspora, a cornerstone of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-government's foreign policy. The United States has occupied a prominent role in such efforts, as evidenced by the two large rallies he held in the country in 2014 and 2019 respectively. This is unsurprising: there are nearly 4 million Indian-Americans in the US, making up the second-largest immigrant group in the country. In the recent months, the Election Commission of India is also mulling the prospect of giving non-resident Indians (NRI) the right to vote by postal ballot.

In this backdrop, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank, in partnership with the research and analytics firm YouGov, conducted a survey of 1,200 Indian-Americans in September last year. The survey sought to understand how Indian-Americans felt about India and Modi. The findings, published on their website earlier last week, are revealing.

The survey found that 48% Indian Americans hold broadly favorable views of Modi. However, nearly 39% also believe that India was on the wrong track. High corruption (18%) and a tottering economy (15%) in India seem to bother them the most, followed by religious majoritarianism (10%) and the lack of quality healthcare (8%).

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Significantly, the survey revealed an ideological duplicity among Indian-Americans: while most are politically liberal in the US, they are far more conservative on the Indian issues. For example, nearly 53% believe that Hindu majoritarianism is a threat to India's minorities whereas nearly 73% believe that white majoritarianism is a threat to the US minorities, of which Indian-Americans are a part.

Results of the survey can be accessed on Carnegie Endowment’s website: carnegieendowment.org. And here’s a short video of the findings.

Mint reached out to Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow of the South Asia Program at Carnegie Endowment, to understand the survey better. Excerpts from an email interview:

The survey suggests an interesting contrast: Indian Americans have relatively liberal views on US politics but rather conservative on the Indian issues. How do you interpret this?

It seems quite natural that the preferences of any diaspora group might depend on their majority status in a society. The majority of Indian Americans are Hindu and, in India, Hindus constitute an overwhelming majority. This majority status likely shapes their views on policy matters. In the United States, on the other hand, Hindus and Indian Americans more generally are a distinct minority. Our sense is that this is a case of "where you sit is where you stand."

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Most of those surveyed think India is headed down the wrong track, yet most seem to have a favourable opinion of Modi. How do you see this?

Here is how I would square this: Indian Americans do have legitimate concerns about India's trajectory—economically, socially, and politically. However, they also largely feel Modi is best suited to manage India's affairs, especially given the range of available alternatives. One of our striking findings is how poorly Indian Americans rate the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi, specifically. This is true regardless of partisan affiliation.

The biggest complaints by Indian Americans seem to be on government corruption and economy than human rights issues. Why do you think that is?

I think one has to go back and ask why many Indians emigrated to the United States, to begin with. By and large, they did so for economic reasons. They believed that coming to America would improve their economic status, provide social mobility, a better life, and so on. If that is an intrinsic part of your motivation, then it makes sense that the issues you believe India needs to urgently confront relate to issues like the economy and public corruption.

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Modi seems to have a larger support base among those born in India than second generation Indian Americans. Why do you think that is?

There are at least two reasons for this. First, younger Indian Americans and those born in the United States tend to harbor more liberal political beliefs and preferences. In an American context, for instance, they supported progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in greater numbers than their parents. Second, many in the second generation are less emotionally and personally attached to India when compared to their parents' generation. This means that they may feel less invested in Modi than their older counterparts. Many in the first generation might have concerns about specific policies enacted by the Modi government, but at the same time, many believe that he has "put India on the map," so to speak. And that is something they have longed for.

How much do you think overseas wings of the BJPlike the 'Overseas friends of the BJP' and RSS-offshoots like 'Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh'shape Indian Americans' perception?

I think these organizations do play a role for sure. They've certainly invested a lot of time and effort into spreading positive news about what Modi is doing in India. That has probably aided his popularity and overall image. But they've also worked on strengthening a sense of Hindu identity among the diaspora in the United States, which can help create social solidarity while fueling a belief that Modi is the answer to what ails India.

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The survey suggests that Indian Americans rely heavily on social media, even as they don't trust it as much as traditional news sources. How much do you think consumption of non-fact-checked news influences their perception?

This is a really interesting finding. Indian Americans strongly rely on the Internet and social media to gather news about politics in India but they're also more skeptical about these platforms' trustworthiness compared to mainstream media outlets. So, I think social media is an input, but just one of many. Our survey indicates that Indian Americans actually enjoy a pretty diverse media consumption diet.

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