Indian Americans may not have supported Trump—but their approval of Modi is largely intact

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Indian Americans view prime minister Narendra Modi largely approvingly.

And his popularity in the community has remained irrespective of their support for Trump, according to findings from the Indian American Attitudes Survey. A large number of those who approve of Trump also approve of Modi. But among those who disapprove of Trump, Modi’s approval numbers are still higher than those who disapprove of him.

The second part of the survey, conducted between Sept. 1 and 20, 2020 and analysed by political scientists Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, and Milan Vaishnav, captures how political affiliations and ideologies within the community shift between the US and India.

Modi may have projected his bonhomie with former US president Donald Trump for diplomatic reasons, but there was a key demographic he was signalling to.

Indian Americans, who have emerged as a financially and socially influential minority group in the US, were the focus of Modi’s visit to the US in September 2019, and Trump’s visit to India in February 2020. Both Modi and Trump hoped that the community, which largely votes and has voted for the Democratic party in US presidential elections, would vote Trump back to power.

Though that was not to be, the Indian American community is key for Modi, especially given that non-resident Indian (NRI) voters would soon be allowed to vote by post during Indian elections.

Modi’s popularity in the diaspora

Modi has often projected his popularity among Indian Americans through mega-events and rallies in the US. In September 2014, for instance, he held a massive event at the Madison Square Garden in New York during his maiden official visit to the US. The Howdy, Modi! event in Houston in September 2020 was attended by nearly 50,000 people, most of them from the Indian diaspora.

Despite protests against Modi’s visit outside the Howdy, Modi! venue, he continues to be popular in the community. Nearly half of the Indian American community also approves of Modi’s work as prime minister.

This approval rating, when seen on the basis of the religion of the respondents, brings out the latent differences within the Indian American community. “The religious divide is striking. Almost seven in 10 Hindus approve of Modi’s performance, while just one in five Muslims do the same,” the authors of the paper write.

The researchers further demonstrate who is a Modi supporter.

“Conventional wisdom suggests that the typical Modi supporter in the United States is male, older, Republican-leaning, Hindu, and hails from Gujarat or other regions of India where the [Modi’s] Bharatiya Janata Party is traditionally dominant,” the researchers said. But the degree of this support changes across age, religion, and even occupation.

Besides Modi’s popularity, Indian Americans are divided on their position towards controversial laws in India, including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC). Between December 2019 and March 2020, India saw widespread protests against the two laws that were discriminatory on the basis of religion.

Social threats in India vs the US

Hindu Indian Americans appear to see white supremacy as a social threat. But the same group of respondents does not see Hindu majoritarianism and a polarised Indian society under Modi in the same light.