The National Review, the venerable flagship of the conservative movement, recently paid attention to the Indian American community. Managing Editor Jay Nordlinger expressed hope last month that Indian Americans are inclining more and more toward the Republican Party. This would be good news for the Republicans because (as the article points out) although the community is small, it is also enormously wealthy, and is already getting into the fundraising game.
Unfortunately for the Republicans and fortunately for the rest of us, Nordlinger is wrong.
While Indian Americans do lean Republican on taxes, regulation, and some cultural issues, such as those pertaining to family and religion, they are not flocking to the Republican Party.
There are two reasons for this, and Nordlinger largely ignores both: Indian Americans tend to see the Republican Party as exclusionary, and they dislike the foreign policy of Republican Administrations.
The Democrats, for all their faults, have been much more welcoming of immigrants, including nonwhites. As Nordlinger admits, Indian Americans haven’t forgotten that Democratic Administrations under Kennedy and Johnson made the changes in immigration laws that permitted them to come to this country. Nor are they blind to the fact that the Republicans, in spite of protestations to the contrary, have been a party often representing white Christian interests, manifestly obvious in comments by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
The case of recently elected Indian American Republican Congressman Piyush “Bobby” Jindal is telling in this respect. Nordlinger proudly cites him a number of times in his piece without once mentioning that Jindal is a convert to Christianity from Hinduism. While the reasons for his conversion are best known to Jindal, it is revealing that Jindal has chosen to capitalize on it. He launched his (failed) gubernatorial bid in 2003 while standing besides Louisiana Christian Coalition leader Billy McCormack and has been quoted as saying that he was proud that he found his “Christian faith in Louisiana.” One of his radio ads in that campaign asked, “What’s so wrong with the Ten Commandments?” Some of the support he got from his fellow party members was linked to his religion. Louisiana State Representative Tony Perkins, unnaturally candid for a politician, said in 2003 that one of the reasons for his support for Jindal was because “he is grounded in his Christian faith.” Jindal’s Christianity helped him get the requisite backing from Republican groups, but I doubt that most Indian Americans (largely Hindu) are willing to take a similar step to gain acceptance among the GOP crowd.
The second major reason that Indian Americans dislike the Republican Party is its foreign policy. Republican Administrations have been much more willing to coddle military dictatorships in Pakistan, the most infamous example being the Nixon Administration’s reticence while the Pakistani army slaughtered hundreds of thousands in East Pakistan during the independence struggle for Bangladesh. In contrast, Democrat Presidents such as Kennedy, Carter and Clinton have treated India more sympathetically, even if the relationship was far from perfect. Although relations with India have remained stable under Bush, a major Indian grievance has been the indulgence of Bush toward General Musharraf’s Pakistan. The Bush Administration has largely ignored the fact that Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup, and it has muffled criticism about his support for the militants in Kashmir. In spite of Nordlinger’s claims that the Bush Administration is fighting a war on terrorism and for global democracy, Bush is seen among Indians as only concerned with terrorism that directly affects the United States. Plus, the arrogance of the Bush Administration has made it quite unpopular in India and among Indian Americans here.
So unless the Republican Party undergoes a major reorientation, both in its ideology and in its foreign policy, it will fail to attract more Indian Americans, notwithstanding Nordlinger’s wishful thinking.
Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The Progressive.