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Why Don’t Indians Lean Republican?

Posted by kostub on November 3, 2010

If I were to take a poll of the political inclination of the fellow Indian Americans that I know, they would heavily lean towards the Democrats. While I have never actually conducted such a poll , the slant seems quite apparent to me. Politically the Indian American community overwhelmingly votes Democrat. This result is actually quite surprising when you look at it in the light of the India-US relationship. The following contradictions start to emerge. The Bush-era has been the high-point of the India-US relationship. Secondly, two trends important to Indians – the growth of a vibrant Indian tech community in the US and the economic boom that India enjoyed in the last 10 years have been a direct result of Republican policy. So if the Republican party benefits India more, then why do Indians sit so squarely in the Democratic camp?

Before we explore possible answers to this question, let us first understand the assertion I made about the Republican party being more beneficial for India. India has dramatically changed in the last 25 years. Long gone are the days when you had to wait in line for multiple years just to get a landline or when a refrigerator was considered a luxury item. Today your street peddler, fish monger and your maid servant all carry cell phones. India has enjoyed a huge economic boom in the last decade. The seeds of economic prosperity were planted by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the late 80s. These economic liberalization policies were cemented in place in 1991 by the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, who did away with the License Raj, deregulated businesses and allowed foreign investment and encouraged private enterprise. In short, India moved from being a socialist economy to a capitalist one. Since then subsequent governments have continued on the path set by these reforms despite opposition from the Left. This has transformed the Indian economy from being virtually stagnant to the second fastest growing major economy in the world, next only to China.

A large part of the growth in the Indian economy is from software (IT) and outsourcing (BPO). Since circa 2001, these two industries have seen exponential growth as US industries off-shored many of the their jobs. Almost every big US tech company has a large presence in India. BPO which was practically unheard of, when I emigrated from India in 2000, was all the rage in just a few years. During this time many Indians chose not to pursue careers in the US and instead follow equally lucrative career paths in India, and many people from the Indian American community chose to migrate back to India due to the economic boom. This boom was partly influenced by the business friendly policies followed by the Bush government. The Bush administration viewed India as a strategic partner and actively encouraged BPO by way of tax breaks and other incentives. In contrast, Democrats are seen as protectionists by the Indian government and media. Obama who has been an outspoken critic of outsourcing, has repeatedly made demands to end tax breaks for companies which outsource jobs. Recently, the Democratic governor of the state of Ohio banned outsourcing, which was condemned heavily in the Indian media. On the other hand, the news that Senate Republicans blocked an anti-outsourcing bill was met with much jubilation.

Another factor is the growth of the Indian tech community in the US. The Indian tech community in the US is relatively young. The growth of this community started with the Y2K and dot-com booms in the late 90s. One of the sticking points for this community was the limited availability of H1B visas. More than a third of all H1B holders are Indian citizens, and most of the Indians in the Silicon valley, New York, Seattle and other tech communities have immigrated on a H1B visa. So a smaller cap adversely affects the Indian community in the US. To encourage growth in the tech sector, senate Republicans pushed to temporarily increase the cap on H1B visas from 65000 to 120000 despite opposition from the Democrats, labor groups and even a veto threat from Bill Clinton. This cap was further increased during the Bush years before it went back to the original number in 2004, despite Bush urging a Democratic Congress to extend them. Most recently, the Obama administration has increased the fees on the H1B visa in a move to discourage its use. Historically, the Republicans have generally been in favor increasing or eliminating the cap while Democrats and labor unions have generally been opposed to it. Leaving aside the politics of this issue, the Indian community has greatly benefited from this program and the subsequent pushes to increase the limits.

Besides direct correlation to the tech sector, the Bush administration has been beneficial to India in a number of other ways. This includes signing of the nuclear deal without subjecting India to the NPT. India has steadfastly refused to sign the NPT, which the Democrats view as a necessity. Such a deal could never have happened with a Democratic administration. Besides that there were a number of bilateral deals for improving trade and co-operation between the two countries. It is unknown whether the Obama administration will continue a similar approach. The present administration is far more interested in China and Pakistan, to pay enough attention to India. The upcoming Obama visit to India will decide how the administration’s India policies shape up in the future. Of course, some progress can be expected despite the sticky points.

So if Republican presidents and congresses are generally more favorable for the Indian community, why does it lean Democrat? I do not know the answer, but let us explore a few possibilities. The first possibility is that even though Republicans are economically more liberal (also called economically conservative in US parlance) they are socially very conservative. But, the average Indian is typically far more conservative than the average American, especially on issues such as gay rights, abortion, role of religion etc. So this theory does not hold water. Another plausible explanation is a sample bias. The Indians I tend to associate with are the ones who migrated to the US in the last 10 years to do their schooling and started their careers fairly recently. They also tend to be socially more liberal. Since younger and less affluent people lean Democrat, while older and more affluent ones lean Republican, this distinction could just be due to a sample bias. But this explanation does not account for the behavior of the Indian tech community as a whole which has been around longer and is considerably affluent. An alternative explanation which is a bit more satisfactory to me, is that a large part of the community spent their formative years in American politics during the Bush-era. While the Bush presidency was good for India, with two unpopular wars, and a belligerent foreign policy, it was not a very good administration for the world. This may have left a lasting impression on the populace causing it to sway Democrat.

What are your thoughts? What could be the reason for this apparent contradiction? Regardless of the reason, I find it strangely surprising and irrational that Indian community seems to sway towards the party that benefits them and their countrymen the least.

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8 Responses to “Why Don’t Indians Lean Republican?”

  1. pradeep said

    it’s possible that they are taking a less “short-sighted”/immediately self-serving view in their political choices..something you allude to in mentioning the wars as one possible point of disagreement. Such disagreement could equally well be based on (US) economic and social policy as on foreign policy and india relations. It’s also quite likely that the persons who get to vote are generally beyond the reach of any india-centric policies *personally*, and therefore free to take up any other perspective they choose including an america-centric one.

    • kostub said

      It is possible but seems unlikely. People do not generally take a “long-term” view when voting and even if they did, there is no compelling argument that leaning Democrat is beneficial for them longer term.

      The other argument that they could take a more america-centric view is more plausible, but Americans split pretty evenly amongst Democrat vs Republican and it does not account why Indians don’t split evenly. You could argue that Indians are typically urban, and urban americans typically tend democratic, but it is still not as heavily as Indians do. (more like 60:40 as opposed to 80:20).

  2. Nagaja said

    I think you may find that many Indian immigrants here (especially the young ones) are socially liberal but fiscally conservative. I think Republican views on war and religion (and perceived lack of tolerance therein) makes a big dent on Indians who generally a) dislike war and b) aren’t Christian in a majority. Yet many R economic policies hit home better than Democratic socialist/leftist ones.

    • subbuk said

      “socially liberal but fiscally conservative”

      Exactly! Social policies have a direct effect on your day to day life. Fiscal policies don’t impact you much unless you are too poor or too rich, and most Indians are well in the middle class.

    • kostub said

      That makes sense from a personal point of view. But the typical Indian in India is socially conservative and economically left. So why are immigrants diametrically opposite? And does this apply to all immigrants or just the highly educated ones – as the libertarian philosophy (socially liberal but fiscally conservative) is quite uncommon. Or is the religious right here fundamentally different from the religious right in India (aka BJP)?

      I think it still depends on what happens during the time one is most susceptible to influence. Would this have still been the case had there not been 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war?

  3. Neel said

    Actually,

    I’d like to stir up this discussion a little… There is a difference in perceptions between 1st gen and 2nd gen, and I assume that the above argument applies only to the 1st generation Indians who came here 10-15 years ago and stayed for good.

    I think voting Democrat is almost a reaction to the far more vocal Far Right crowd in GOP. Another reason is the sometimes virulent Republic opposition to anything that even smells of pro-Environment. We all, those of who stayed as well as who came back to India have actually seen a dramatic increase in respiratory diseases in Indian cities in the last 5-7 years, and any arguments that ignore this fact in favor of talking heads and pseudo-science only drive me away.

    I’m a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, I see that in most of my compatriots who went around 2000 and either stayed or came back.

    Cheers,
    Neel

  4. Dmitriy said

    I’m not Indian, but I see a rather obvious reason for folks to vote Democrat – there weren’t any good, electable candidates on the GOP side for the past couple election cycles. Bush was reelected more or less by the Bible Belt, and only because Kerry was not very convincing. McCain was sorta electable up until the moment when his advisors shoved Sarah Palin into the fray as his VP (I’m pretty confident he’s not stupid enough to have made the choice himself). Compare batsh#t insanity that is Sarah Palin with Joe Biden whose only major flaw is his propensity to putting his foot in the mouth, and you have a solid reason to not vote GOP. Then there’s the huge divide between what GOP says and what they actually do. There’s a divide on the democratic side as well, It’s just not as crazy huge. I’ll go as far as to argue that GOP can no longer be called a “conservative” party, simply because they’re spending like drunken sailors when in power.

    So to sum it up, all GOP needs to come out on top again is a strong leader who would actually walk the walk. The poor may not like it, though, but the poor are fairly easy to manipulate on issues that have no relationship whatsoever to their welfare (i.e. abortion rights, gay marriage, Al Quaeda, etc).

  5. prads said

    I’m an Indian and i would surely lean republican. And these are the reasons
    1. Any person who wants to work hard and earn a living can never vote for welfare programs and wouldn’t want to give away my hard earned money in the name of social security and Medicare. I’m better off investing that money myself than any govt.
    2. I waited in line for my turn and now i come to know that those who broke the law and entered USA illegally are ushered in faster that all the fools who followed the rules and regulations.
    3. The anti India stance of the democrats make me wish that Bush had stayed for 4 terms !!

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