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Who's Your Choice?

By Robert Hirschfield Email By Robert Hirschfield
April 2016
Who's Your Choice?

The very thought of supporting Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential contender, horrifies many people, even in the GOP. And yet, Trump is far from friendless among Indian-Americans, though they continue to favor the Democrats in overwhelming numbers. Khabar brings representative Indian-American views—both expected and unexpected—from an unusual election season that’s also unsettling.

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Narender Reddy, 60, an Atlanta real estate broker originally from Hyderabad, is a longtime Republican who—before the Super Tuesday results of March 15—found himself wavering between Marco Rubio, symbolizing youthful potential, and Donald Trump, whose “bottom line” business toughness appeals to him. He’s now in the Trump camp. A Georgia delegate to the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions, Reddy does not waver in assessing his party’s deficiency in relating to the Indian-American community that leans heavily Democratic.

“At the 2004 convention, there were only six Indian delegates from all over the country,” he points out. “The Democratic Party had fifty. The Republicans are ignorant about our community. I tell them, ‘You make no effort to bring Indians into the fold.’ They say, ‘You bring them.’ I say, ‘No, you need to come in and make the effort.’ When the TV cameras pan around the convention floor, all you see is one color.”

(Right) Narender Reddy.

At the same time, Reddy insists, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who share the family values, the entrepreneurial values, the conservative values that typify the Indian community. His party, he maintains, is its natural if sometimes inhospitable political home.

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(Left) Harin Contractor with President Obama.

Harin Contractor, also from Atlanta, was appointed Economic Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Labor in 2012. The 33-year-old Obama appointee will vote for the Democratic Party nominee, whether it be Clinton or Sanders, both of whose campaigns, he says, are staffed liberally with Indian-American advisors. To him, this is a continuum of his party’s inclusive policies toward his community.

“Obama has appointed up to 100 Indian-Americans to positions in his administration, more than anything we have seen before,” Contractor notes. “Reagan appointed just a handful, Clinton a couple of dozen. When I got appointed, my parents told everyone, ‘Our son works for the President!’ I grew up in this community. I know many Indians who now feel invested because they have an association with someone who ‘works for the President.’”

 

Moderate, not radical

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(Right) Dhruv Gupta.

Dhruv Gupta, unlike Contractor, is a party outsider. The Grinnell College senior is President of Grinnellians for Sanders. “We helped win 19 delegates for Bernie in Iowa,” says the young man, whose father is a hedge fund manager in India and whose mother founded an Ayurvedic college in the Bay Area, which Gupta calls home. “Students are tremendously dissatisfied with the way the future is looking for our generation,” he adds. “We are coming out of college with extensive debt. We are facing maybe a two to four degree warming in climate in the years to come, and a health care system that is way too expensive for most people.”

How does he assess the politics of the many Indian students involved in the Bernie for President campaign? “They are not different from the non-Indian students,” he says. “From what I can tell, they are more moderate than radical.”

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(Left) Dr. Sudhir Parikh.

Talking to Indian-Americans about the 2016 presidential elections, the quality of moderation in an increasingly polarized landscape is striking. Both Reddy and Dr. Sudhir Parikh, 69, publisher of News India, Desi Talk, and one of the founders of Indian-Americans for Trump 2016, regard Texas senator Ted Cruz as too “conservative” to suit them. (Cruz’s support among Indian-Americans seems negligible.)

Parikh, for his part, is emphatic in drawing the line on one of his candidate’s most controversial positions. “I am against banning one group of people—Muslims, or other minorities—from entering the country. That’s wrong.” The Gujarati native maintains the sensibility of his non-white, non-Christian community, despite being aligned with the American right—which is predominantly white and Christian.

 

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(Right) Sujata Massey.

Clinton supporter Sujata Massey, 51, an Indian-American mystery writer, and the author of The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel set in West Bengal, would, as an admirer of the ethos of Gandhi, agree with Parikh on the Muslim discrimination issue and little else. “Even if Trump and other Republican candidates say they are only after Muslims, which is bad enough, a lot of people who are brown are going to be misidentified as Muslims,” she says. “I have Indian-American children and they are frequently called Muslims by other students, and they are not.”

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Indermohan Virk.

The top-heavy Christian construct of the Republican Party and much of its base is easy for a Democrat like Indermohan Virk to dismiss categorically. A sociologist who organizes the prestigious Patten Lecture Series at the University of Indiana, and a Clinton supporter, the Punjabi native maintains, “Christian fundamentalism is, of course, a concern for the Indian community. But I would never consider voting for a Republican, much less a Republican fundamentalist. I am pro-choice.”

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(Right) Raju Chinthala.

For Republicans like Reddy and Raju Chinthala, 48, a language pathologist in Indianapolis by way of Hyderabad, the charged issue of religion and politics tends to be more personal. Reddy claims to be unbothered by it. “Look, I am a practicing Hindu. I am president of my local temple. I have been in the party many years and no one has ever objected to it.” Chinthala, health care advisor to a former Republican governor, Mike Pence, and Chair of US India Pac – Indiana, admits to some visceral discomfort with the hardcore Christianity of his choice, Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race after a dismal primary result in Florida, his home state.

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“Religion should be practiced at home, or in churches or temples, not on the political stage,” Chinthala says. “Rubio is not the only one to talk so much about it. Cruz talks about it. Trump talks about it. All of them talk about it to attract right wing voters. I try not to let it bother me. I know it’s just part of the process.”

Consistently drubbed in the primaries, Rubio’s only hope was to prevail in a brokered convention. Now that it’s no longer an option, will Chinthala switch his allegiance to Trump? “You can say that,” he says.

Planet Trump
The points of intersection between the Republicans are striking. Reddy says that both his daughters—one a Republican, the other Libertarian— support gay marriage, and he himself believes, “If that’s what they want, it’s fine. I won’t stop them.” Chinthala, for his part, has been “proactive” in his support of gays, attending LGBT meetings in Indianapolis. Both men hold their heresies boldly, comfortable about being conservative mavericks.

Chinthala also finds himself sharing common ground with Parikh, whose support for Trump is largely attributable to the way he built his real estate empire. “In 1977, he was a nobody,” Parikh notes, “but he worked well with all the diverse mayors in New York—Lindsay, Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani—and he became a billionaire.”

The immigrant success story and the modest to meteoric business success story are two versions of the classic American Dream. Indian support for Trump does not surprise Virk. “There is a very strong entrepreneurial spirit among a sizeable number of Indians,” she points out.

Parikh, whose group is campaigning for Trump among Indian-Americans in New Jersey, is unburdened by false optimism. Though he himself found Trump charming when they met, he realizes that most Indians are put off by his brash style and discriminatory utterances. In neighboring New York, where his candidate is from, the nominee is seen less as a native son than the egotistical occupant of Planet Trump, whose orbit is fueled by the oxygen of adoration.

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The search for supporters of Ted Cruz among Indian-Americans can be as elusive as the search for the snow leopard in the high Himalayas. Phone calls and emails to Indian organizations in Texas have gone unanswered. Further East, Indrajit Saluja, editor and publisher of The Indian Panorama, states flatly, “Sir, you will have a hard time finding Indian-Americans who support an extreme right wing Evangelical like Ted Cruz.”

Fracture on the right, fissure on the left
In February, significantly, after the Iowa primary, won by Cruz, both Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, the two most prominent Indian Americans on the right, threw their support to Rubio over Cruz, despite the political and ethnic similarities of both men. “Rubio is a principled conservative,” Jindal said, and a man who can “unify our party.” Haley, a second generation American, like Rubio and Cruz, said of Rubio, “I wanted someone that was gonna go and show my parents that the best decision they ever made for their children was coming to America.”

Sanders, the campaign phenomenon on the left, has, to the surprise of no one, made few inroads into the mainstream Indian community. “The Indian-American community is the most successful, well-to-do community in the country,” Reddy points out. “It is not going to be receptive to democratic socialist ideas.”

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It’s a fact Gupta would not dispute. “I would argue that Indians should support Bernie for the sake of their kids. Their kids would do better under a democratic socialist regime tackling issues like climate change, student debt, and health care. A single-payer health care system, for instance, would radically lower the cost of health care. By backing radical reforms, Indians would be helping themselves in the long run. Bernie Sanders, like FDR, is someone capable of solving these problems, as he is not tied to the special interests that have caused them.”

Chinthala and Massey, from their different ends of the political spectrum, both disparage what they call “free,” which is to say single-payer health care. But Chinthala does not dismiss the newfound activism of the many young Indians who support Sanders. He explains their lurch to the left without mincing words. “You will find young people in our community who look upon the Republican Party as anti-immigration, anti-black, anti-poor,” he says. “Second generation Indians raised in America tend to be good-hearted. They like to help, to volunteer. They are also, I believe, reacting to the police violence that they see and read about.”

Rising participation

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Kshama Sawant.

Virk describes the first generation of Indians who came over in the mid-sixties as “nonparticipatory,” immersed in work, in trying to live good, consumerist, American lives. Their children, like the student leader from Grinnell, have taken on a higher visibility, a greater activism. The activism of young Indian women, like Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant, she finds especially interesting. “As women, as members of an ethnic minority group in the U.S., we have become a little more sensitive than most to issues of equity, of social justice,” she states.

Though closer to Sanders politically than Clinton, she has decided to back Clinton for two reasons: rational and emotional. She believes Clinton is the likely Democratic candidate with the best chance of defeating any Republican challenger. Despite her misgivings about the “Clinton political machinery,” she wants to help elect the first female president of the United States.

Massey, as an Obama volunteer, voted against Clinton in 2008. “I thought Barack Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate who would bring about dramatic change. I am supporting Hillary now because she, of all the candidates, is the most experienced in international affairs, having been Secretary of State. She is also the most concerned about the domestic issues that are the most important to her: “gun control and the Affordable Care Act that the Obama administration worked so hard to turn into reality.”

Like the others, though London-born to a Bengali father and a German mother, Massey is reflective about the India policy of the next American president. She would like to see the U.S. help India develop green technologies that would increase the power grid without further damaging the environment. Creative freedom for dissident Indian writers is also important to her, but she cautions that foreigners telling Indians what to do might backfire given India’s colonial history.

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Gupta would be content to have an American president forego the policeman role in South Asia. Contractor, conversely, sees the U.S. enlisting India as an ally in regional security. Chinthala would like the new regime and its allies to force Pakistan, “a terrorist country,” to stop launching terrorist attacks against India. Parikh speaks of the many trade opportunities India can offer an astute business-minded president like Trump.

Reddy agrees, pointing out that compared to its trade volume with China, U.S. trade with India is “very fractional.” All Virk hopes for is that Clinton will land on the right side of issues like education and women’s rights in India. It is lamentable that the political culture of America works for such a narrow base of definition.

As we get ready to enter a contentious general election season, we’ll have more conversations like the ones shared here on the future and fortunes of this nation.


Robert Hirschfield, a freelancer based in New York, has written for Outlook India, Sojourners, The Jerusalem Report, and The Writer, among other publications.


STOP PRESS:

Sudhir Parikh Withdraws Support for Trump


Dr. Parikh issued this statement on the day Khabar went to print: “I allowed myself to be identified with [Indian-Americans for Trump 2016] because some members of the group are friends of mine. I wish to clarify that I no longer belong to the group and I do not support the candidacy of Mr. Donald Trump.”

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