In hard-fought midterms, Indian American voters are prized

Hundreds of enthusiastic attendees pull out cell phones to take photos at the Oct. 24, 2022 White House Diwali celebrations as President Joe Biden, VP Kamala Harris, and First Lady Jill Biden enjoy the moment. Photo: Twitter @WHIAANHPI

As President Joe Biden rolled up his sleeve to receive his coronavirus booster shot at the White House last week, he was surrounded by leaders from the worlds of medicine, government and business – half of whom were of Indian origin.

The event took place less than 24 hours after Vice President Kamala Harris joined Biden to light a ceremonial diya at a White House Diwali celebration for hundreds of South Asian American guests. Biden used his speech during the event to hail the ascension of Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first prime minister of Indian descent.

“A groundbreaking milestone,” Biden said during remarks he drafted with the White House director of speechwriting, Vinay Reddy, also of Indian descent. “And it matters. It matters.”

Ahead of midterm elections that could be decided by razor-thin margins, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on some of the optimism felt by Indian Americans, a growing and increasingly vital bloc of voters. At a time when many Americans are anxious about the economy and believe the country is on the wrong track, the president’s aides and supporters have pointed to the rising prominence of Indian Americans inside and outside government as an example of a group that’s thriving in Biden’s America.

“It was sort of this moment, this time of celebration for a community that really has hit its stride as part of the American narrative,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who attended the Diwali celebration and is one of four members of Congress of Indian descent. “As one of my friends said it: It’s really a good moment to be Indian American in this country.”

Khanna has repeated that sentiment while campaigning across the country for candidates who have asked him to headline events to mobilize Indian American voters in key swing states.

Among Asian Americans – who make up the fastest-growing slice of the electorate – Indian Americans are the most Democratic-leaning and among the most politically active, said Shekar Narasimhan, a Democratic fundraiser who leads a super PAC focused on turning out Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Like all Americans, Indian Americans are focused on pocketbook and quality-of-life concerns ahead of the midterms, Narasimhan said, citing polling by his AAPI Victory Fund. The group has not been insulated from the rising cost of living and general sense of economic unease, he said, expressing concern that voters may sit out this election or support Republicans.

Harris, who has spoken about her mother’s journey from India to the United States, plans to hold a get-out-the-vote event for the Asian American community in Chicago on Sunday, November 6. While the event is aimed at energizing all Asian Americans, it will feature prominent members of the Indian diaspora, including Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval and actor Aasif Mandvi.

South Asian Americans – U.S. citizens with ties to a vast region including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal – are not a monolith and represent all sorts of religions, economic classes and political leanings, and Republicans are also courting their votes. Former President Donald Trump recently told a group of South Asian American supporters that he has already put together a coalition of Hindu advisers and created a Hindi slogan for a potential reelection campaign.

With nearly 4 million people of Indian descent in America, the community is now primed to “punch above its weight” when it comes to politics, as it has in other spheres including business and science, Narasimhan said. Upward of 70% of Indian American voters cast ballots for Biden in 2020, a year when Asian American turnout soared and both parties campaigned heavily for the group’s votes.

“In 2020, for the first time, people paid attention,” Narasimhan said, adding that the upcoming midterms give Democrats a chance to make the case to Indian Americans that they have delivered on their promises.

While Biden has received low marks for his stewardship of the economy, Asian Americans view him favorably for his commitment to diversity and representation within government, Narasimhan said. There are more than 130 Indian Americans in senior roles across the administration, with several serving in high-ranking White House positions that have never before been occupied by a person of color.

Last week offered a prime example of the community’s growing clout, White House officials said. At the Diwali celebration on Monday, Oct. 24,  Biden told the group of more than 300, including Broadway performer Shoba Narayan and dozens of White House officials, that his administration included a record number of Asian Americans.

On Tuesday, Biden received his coronavirus booster during a public event featuring U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Albertsons Companies CEO Vivek Sankaran, CVS Health Chief Medical Officer Sree Chaguturu and White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, who also made an appearance at the White House press briefing that day.

On Wednesday, Biden was introduced by Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, before giving a speech on efforts to counter “junk fees” charged by banks. On Thursday in Syracuse, New York, as the president touted a planned $100 billion investment by Micron Technologies, he received a tour from the company’s India-born CEO Sanjay Mehrotra.

Behind the scenes at the White House, the influence of Indian Americans shows up in big and small ways, from the occasional servings of tikka masala in the White House Mess and the informal staff group chats to the high-level meetings that include Cabinet officials and top aides with South Asian heritage.

“Whenever I see other brown people, you do this sort of immigrant head nod,” said Gautam Raghavan, director of the Presidential Personnel Office. “It’s just like saying, ‘I see you, and I know you’re here.’ And I think that’s powerful.”

Reddy, the first Asian American in the role of top White House speechwriter, helped Biden draft his first prime-time address to the nation last year, about the rise in attacks targeting Asian Americans.

“It was important, in an address to the nation, that he actually said it out loud, and when people hear that, they know he sees it, he understands it, and that matters a lot,” Reddy said.

The flow of paper Biden receives is managed by staff secretary Neera Tanden, who has spoken about being raised by an immigrant single mother from India. Kiran Ahuja, director of the Office of Personnel Management, helps implement Biden’s executive order on increasing diversity within the federal workforce. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, joined the administration when she was confirmed by the Senate in September.

The growing representation means important policies from immigration to health care to human rights reflect the diverse interests of the community, said Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora, a nonpartisan group of Indian American leaders.

“There is an enormous amount of attention being paid to the Indian diaspora,” he said. “Evidence of that is just the breadth of the people in the White House and in the administration who are Indian American. They cover every issue from labor to civil rights to foreign policy to economics.”

Joshipura noted that the New York City schools recently declared Diwali, a festival celebrated by more than 1 billion people, an official holiday, and that the State Department is sending an official envoy to the country’s largest Diwali celebration, in San Antonio on Saturday.

Politicians are increasingly turning to the Indian diaspora for donations as well, as the group becomes more politically active. Indian American donors gave $20 million to $30 million to political candidates from both parties in 2020 – a record for the community, Joshipura said.

In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, where some recent statewide elections have been decided by margins of less than 0.5%, Indian Americans account for a larger share of the population than the difference between the candidates, census records show.

Candidates up and down the ballot are coming to realize how pivotal the community can be, said Khanna, who has been asked by other politicians for help connecting with South Asian voters.

“When I go out campaigning for candidates, they’ll have me do an event with them and they’ll always ask, almost sheepishly, afterwards, ‘Can you do an event with the Indian American community as well?’ ” he said.

Khanna said he regularly obliges, viewing the requests as a sign of the rising political power of the Indian diaspora, just decades after his grandfather fought for independence in a movement that helped create the world’s most populous democracy some 70 years ago.

Indian Americans are paying attention ahead of the midterms, though it’s not clear how much the economy – the top concern for voters – will dampen turnout, Narasimhan said, pointing to polling and phone bank work his group has done. Immigration, crime and education also rank as top issues, he said.

He expressed concern that in Georgia – where the Indian American community of more than 150,000 is large enough to swing what is expected to be a close Senate race – voter enthusiasm seems to be lagging in the early vote. He said the negative campaigning in the race between Sen. Raphael Warnock, D, and his GOP challenger, Herschel Walker, is probably turning many voters off.

Republicans have attacked Biden for his handling of the economy, while also pointing out that the only two governors of Indian descent in American history – Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley – are both Republican.

Trump, who tapped Haley as his ambassador to the United Nations, has touted his close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has sown religious and cultural divisions during his tenure.

Trump attacked Biden over inflation and immigration during an Oct. 21 Diwali event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, saying his administration was run by “stupid people.”

“We love the Hindus and we love India,” Trump said, before using his new Hindi catchphrase, which translates to “India and America are best friends.” The Republican Hindu Coalition has distributed clips of Trump speaking Hindi, with the goal of boosting GOP candidates in Senate races where the margin of victory could be smaller than the size of the state’s Indian American population.

The increasingly fierce battle between the parties for Indian American voters signals that the group has become indispensable to the country’s politics, Narasimhan said.

“If you have a sufficient number of votes to move the needle in an election, and you know how to talk to the people that can deliver those votes, then you are an influencer,” he said. “And if you are an influencer, you’re powerful.”



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