The recent community event in Edison, New Jersey, organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) for presidential nominee Donald Trump has generated much mockery and some anguish in America and India. This is par for the course for just about any Trump event these days, and it is tempting to write it off as an amusing footnote in an election that has, if nothing else, been full of surprises, to put it gently.
And while it is no one’s case that the Hindus for Trump event marked any major shift, trend, or development in this election cycle – reportedly, many members of Trump’s audience in Edison do not even have a vote in the United States and most came for the entertainment and the samosas – it is worthwhile to ask if this event reflects the attitudes and aspirations of at least a section, even if small, of the Indian-American community.
The RHC seesm to be the only outfit in the United States that claims both a Hindu religious identity and a clear partisan political organization. All other Hindu groups, and there are quite a few with deep roots in the community and extensive networks across the country, are officially bipartisan. Fashioned after the Republican Jewish Coalition, the RHC has been floated by industrialist Shalabh (Shalli) Kumar who, along with his wife, has donated a large amount of money to the Trump campaign. The Hindus for Trump event was evidently his display of muscle power to the Republican party leadership – and in that limited context, it was a success. It drew about 5,000 people and remains the only occasion wherein the presidential nominee has addressed an Indian-American gathering. This is even more interesting because the Republicans don’t get very many Indian-American votes. The community, like most other immigrant groups, votes Democrat.
And while this trend is expected to hold strong through the current election cycle, there are indications of a sense of disillusionment within the Indian-American community, particularly with issues relating to Hindu beliefs, heritage, and history. We see this in the California school textbook controversy that goes back to 2006 and in the more recent Diwali school holiday issue. Additionally, there seems to be some disappointment with the Democrats’ India policies while Republicans are considered to be relatively more pro-India.
So, where does the Hindus for Trump rally, RHC, and Trump fit into all of this, if at all? There are two factors that seem to bring the two together: First is Trump’s strong rhetoric against Islamist terrorism which has emerged as an overarching concern among his support base. The second factor is a little more complicated: for long, Indian-Americans who would have ideally voted Republican for conservative fiscal policies have shied away from doing so because of the latter’s evangelical wing. Trump, with his multiple marriages and many dalliances, has an uneasy relationship with the religious right. And that somehow makes him a fit for the vote bank being nurtured by the RHC.
But even this is an awkward fit at best – for example, Trump’s anti-immigration stance stands out like a sore thumb in this context, even though his supporters painstakingly seek to make the distinction between illegal and legal immigrants. Similarly, how does the RHC, which is presumably against cattle slaughter, support a candidate who once sold steak? There are many such loose ends. In the long term, it will be interesting to see if the Indian diaspora in the United States, like its counterpart in the United Kingdom, shifts to the conservative side or remains loyal to the Democrats.
Image: Kena Betancur, Getty Images