Modi Holding Sway Over Indian Americans – Analysis


Long admired in India for their educational and professional  achievements, Indian Americans have now got another feather in their cap – they have become politically relevant both in the US and India.

The political ascendency of Indian Americans in the US coincides with the ascent of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Modi is exploiting the Indian Americans’ political progress in the US to his political advantage at home in India. The “Howdy Modi” circus in Houston Texas in September 2019 exemplified the nexus he has been seeking to establish.   

Indian Americans numbered more than four million in 2018. Two-thirds of them had arrived after 2006. Roughly 2.6 million are US citizens; 1.4 million are naturalized citizens and 1.2 million were born in the United States. Indo-American are the second largest immigrant group in the US.

It is in this context that the study entitled: How Do Indian Americans View India? Results From the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in partnership with “YouGov” is important.  The survey covered 1,200 Indian American residents in the US, both citizens and non-citizens, and was conducted between September 1 and September 20, 2020.

Deeply Connected

The data shows that Indians are deeply connected to India. 59% of foreign (Indian) born Indian Americans feel either extremely or very connected to India, compared to 36% of US-born Indian Americans.  50% of US citizens of Indian origin are Overseas Citizens of India (OCI), which is a sort of dual citizenship. But there are interesting religious variations here: 53% of Hindus report possessing an OCI card, compared to 45% of Christians and 25% of Muslims of Indian origin. The Hindus’ link with India is certainly stronger.

US-born Indian Americans are more likely to report supporting religious organizations in India (21%) compared to foreign or Indian-born Indian Americans (13%). Across Indian Americans of different faiths, Hindus (20%) and Christians (19%) are the most likely to report contributions to religious institutions in India. Muslim respondents and those of other faiths report a lower likelihood of such giving (each group at around 15%).

The ruling BJP is the most popular political party among Indian Americans. One-third favor the BJP while just 12% identify with the Congress Party. This suggests that Indian American support for the BJP is broadly aligned, albeit to a lesser degree, with the BJP’s vote share in the 2019 Indian general election (37 percent).

49% of Indian Americans favorably rate Modi’s performance thus far (35% strongly approve and 13%). On the opposite end of the spectrum, 22% strongly disapprove of Modi’s performance and 9% disapprove. A considerable number (one in five respondents) expressed no opinion.

The religious divide here is striking. Almost seven in ten Hindus approve of Modi’s performance, while just one in five Muslims do. Indian American Christians are almost evenly divided: 35% disapprove, 34% approve.

Older Indian Americans tend to be more favorably disposed towards Modi. His approval is highest among those above the age of fifty (55%), but it is nearly as high among 30 to 49 year olds (53%). Among the youngest respondents (between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine), a greater share disapproves of Modi (43%) than approves (35%).  

However, there is no clear gender disparity: men and women approve of Modi in nearly equal proportions (49 and 50% respectively). Modi is more popular among respondents with a college degree (53%) compared to those without, or currently in pursuit of, a college degree (40%).

Modi fares better among non-US citizens, naturalized citizens, and immigrants who are more recent arrivals. 53% of non-citizens and 52% of naturalized Indian Americans approve of Modi compared to 44% of US-born citizens.

Interestingly, Modi’s approval is lowest among Indian Americans who have been in the country the longestFor respondents who have been in the US for more than 26 years, Modi’s approval stands at 46%. For those who have lived in the US between 11 and 25 years, it stands more than 10 percentage points higher (57%);  and for those in the US  a decade or less, it stands at 55%. Engineers support Modi more than non-engineers.

In terms of region of origin, Modi’s support is greatest among those who speak Hindi or the languages of Western India (Gujarati and Marathi) at 66% and 65% respectively. It is lowest among those from Eastern India (speaking languages such as Assamese, Bengali, or Odia) at 38%  and those from primarily English-speaking families at 34%.

Respondents who approve of Donad Trump also generally approve Modi. 68% of respondents who approve of Trump also approve of Modi.  

Indians See US and India Differently

Indian Americans’ views on policies are more liberal on issues affecting the United States and more conservative on issues affecting India. Regarding contentious issues such as the equal protection of religious minorities, immigration, and affirmative action, Indian Americans hold relatively more conservative views on India as compared to their views on US policies. Indians want a loose immigration policy in the US but support restrictions on Muslim immigration in India. They support the discriminatory (chiefly anti-Muslim) Indian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Divided on India Being On Right Track

In response to a question about whether things in India are going in the right or wrong direction, respondents appear deeply divided. 36% report that India is currently on the right track, while 39% believe it is on the wrong track. Compare this with data from India: According to a June-July 2020 Ipsos survey in India, 60% of Indians reported that India was on the right track.

India’s top challenges

18% of Indian Americans think that “government corruption” is India’s most pressing challenge, followed by the economy (15%). Another 10% cite religious (Hindu) majoritarianism as the country’s most important challenge.

On the issue of the equal treatment in India of people belonging to different religious faiths, 49% express opposition to the discriminatory 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act. However among the Hindus only 40% of Hindus agree that Hindu majoritarianism is a threat to the minorities in India.  

China Unpopular

Nearly two-thirds of Indian Americans hold unfavorable views toward China.  36% hold a very unfavorable opinion of China, while 29% possess a somewhat unfavorable opinion. Just 12% hold a somewhat favorable view of China, with a meager 4% espousing a very favorable opinion. 18% expressed no opinion.

On the question, should the US help strengthen India’s military as a check against China or should it refrain from provoking China further by practicing restraint?  The data shows that 53% of foreign born Indian Americans believe the US should strengthen India militarily even if it alienates China, compared to 38% of US-born Indian Americans.  33% of US-born respondents do not want to provoke China by aiding India, while only 21%  foreign-born respondents share this concern. Three out of ten have no view.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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