US President Donald Trump joining Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a 50,000-strong Indian diaspora ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in September last year, staying on after his own speech for Modis hour-long comments, and subsequently doing a joint lap of the stadium, was a stark recognition of the enhanced role of the 4 million Indian-American community. Sections of the community had come forward to raise funds and even support Trump in 2016, when he did not have many supporters outside the right-wing Republican base. In October 2016, he had addressed an Indian-American rally in New Jersey and had also recorded a campaign video pronouncing Ab Ki Bar Trump Sarkar, a take off on Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan.

Indian-Americans traditionally tend to vote Democratic, as do most other minority, newly immigrant communities, including the Jewish community. They feel more comfortable in the politics of inclusion and diversity advocated by the Democrats, in contrast with the majoritarian Republican approach. However, many Indian-Americans, once they have flourished economically, become Republican supporters, attracted by its espousal of lower taxes. Eventually, according to post poll data, around 80% of Indian-American votes went to the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

After initial hesitation, the first generation of the community stabilized itself professionally and economically and is now significantly active in political funding, taking part in campaigns, and standing for elected office. Till 2016, historically, a total of only three Indian-Americans had been elected to US Congress. Since then, through two election cycles, five have been simultaneously present, with many more now offering candidatures. A growing number is also now standing for regional and local level elections. Numbers in congressional offices, think-tanks, and the administration have also expanded, especially with the Obama administration. Trump has also appointed Indian-Americans to prominent positions advising on science and technology, healthcare, and for the first time ever selected one for a cabinet level position in Nikki Haley as the Permanent Representative of the US to the UN.

Though the Republican base remains firmly with him, despite persistent and virulent opposition criticism of him and his policies, and an impeachment in the US House of Representatives that was subsequently overturned in the Senate, Trump will face challenges in several critical states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Swaying votes in these states is in his sights. Being Trump, he would also want to maximize and be able to boast about the size of the electoral college votes he gets. His presence at Houston was, no doubt, part of that effort. A key attraction for him during the India visit is the projected 125,000-strong stadium event in Ahmedabad on 24 February and the “5-7 million" that he claimed that he has been promised would line the route from the airport to the stadium.

This would enable him to project back in the US that the Senate acquittal on 4 February, and a voter base-appreciated 5 February State of Union Address, that he also enjoys international welcome and acclaim. India’s diaspora policy is taking a whole new dimension. Since the time of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, India has been doing a focused diaspora outreach. It was done not only as a national and societal responsibility, but also to engage this group to tackle India’s economic challenges and mitigate its global political headwinds. However, sections of the diaspora have also been critical of India and its policies and done adversarial advocacy. At present, a resolution critical of India in US House is being piloted by an Indian-American. Foreign leaders are seeking to use the diaspora and its Indian sentiments and links to their own purposes. Former UK and Canadian prime ministers had joined Modi at Indian diaspora events in their respective countries. Trump, as is his won’t, now seeks to take it one notch further.

Arun Singh is former Indian ambassador to the US

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