Contestants for the Republican presidential nomination included two Indian American candidates—which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. We look at the rising political power of desi Americans—both as candidates and as voters.
First, history of the Indian Am politician
Origin story: The first Indian immigrants in America were Sikh farmers. Immigration laws in the late 1800s began to restrict the influx of Chinese labour. White employers were looking for a replacement:
[L]eaflets blanketed the Punjabi countryside promising “opportunities of fortune-making”—typically a wage of $2 a day if a man was strong. As their numbers grew, Indian immigrants, primarily working as farm laborers or lumberjacks, came to be considered “the least desirable of all races.” Nativists warned of a “tide of turbans.”
They were already banned from marrying white people. But in the 1920s, a new set of laws also revoked their citizenship—stemming the flow of new Indian immigrants.
The first Indian-Am neta: By the end of the World War, the US was rethinking its grossly racist immigration policies. As the open discrimination eased, Indian immigrants became somewhat more visible. In 1956, Dalip Singh Saund became the first Indian American elected to Congress. Saund also represented a new kind of Indian immigrant:
He had arrived in the U.S. in 1920, at the height of anti-Asian sentiment, and received a doctorate in mathematics, but had gone on to become a successful farmer (and a justice of the peace). Early on, he wore a turban, but at some point he stopped. The images we have of him in later years show a dashing man in dark suits.
The great 1960s migration: In 1965, Congress rehauled immigration laws—dismantling quotas based on national origins—designed to favour Europeans. The new criteria favoured family reunification and professional skills. The rest is Indian American history. In the decade between 1950 and 1959, there were only 1,850 new immigrants from India in the US. That jumped to 18,638 between 1960 and 1969—and 147,997 by the 1970s.
Rise of the desi politician: Although these Indian Americans were affluent and well-educated, they mostly focused on building the ‘good life’ for themselves and their family. Then something shifted a decade ago. In 2013, there was only one Indian in the House of Representatives—and fewer than 10 in state legislatures. Number in the Senate: zero. Today, there are five Indian Americans in Congress—and almost 50 in state legislatures. The vice president is of Indian origin—and at least one Indian American has vied for the presidential nomination in the past three elections.
The breakout year: was 2016. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal became the first Indian American to run for president. House representatives Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi were elected into office—and Kamala Harris became the first Indian American in the Senate.
Very key point to note: Contrary to what many assume, most of them have been elected from constituencies that do not have a sizable Indian presence. Example: Shri Thanedar joined the ‘Samosa Caucus’ in the House in 2022—after being elected from a predominantly Black district near Detroit. He defeated eight Black candidates to do so.
Beyond politicians: Indian Americans have also become very visible on the political landscape—often appointed to high-profile positions. Joe Biden picked a record 130 Indian Americans to serve in his administration—up from Trump who had 80 in his White House and Obama who had 60.
Next: Meet the desi voter
An expanding voter base: The sheer number of Indian Americans is expanding exponentially, as well. Between 2000 and 2018, their population grew by nearly 150%—making them the fastest growing community. Most recently this: “If you look at people who identify as belonging to just one racial group — Asian — there are more Indian people than Chinese in the US, a trend that began in 2019.”
The very rich voter base: They are the wealthiest immigrant group—with a median income of nearly $150,000 a year. That’s double the national average—and way ahead of their Chinese-origin peers. And they have been donating vast amounts to their favoured candidates.
The 2020 presidential election was the most expensive in US history. It also marked record contributions from Indian Americans—who gave $5 million to various Democratic candidates during the primary. Once Biden picked Harris as his running mate, those numbers soared even higher. Indian-Americans raised a record high of $3.3 million for the Biden campaign in just one night.
Democrats forevah! Indian Americans disproportionately vote for the Democratic party—perhaps because of the GOP’s hostility to immigrants:
In general, they are motivated by the same pragmatic issues as other voters: jobs, health care, and education. Because of their own personal experiences… many are also passionate about immigration and discrimination, issues where their positions more frequently align with those of Democrats.
The Republican desis: like Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Bobby Jindal represent Indian Americans who erase the hyphenation. While they speak about their immigrant experience to varying degrees, most Republican Indian Americans agree with Jindal who famously said: “My dad and mom told my brother and me that we came to America to be Americans, not Indian Americans.”
The Modi effect: According to a 2020 Pew survey, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the most popular political party among Indian Americans—receiving a third of their support compared to just 12% for the Congress Party. And nearly half of all Indian Americans approve of Modi’s performance as prime minister. Those positive feelings have extended to the Republican party thanks to the bromance between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi:
The influence of Indian American attitudes on Indian politics has led to an ascendence of foreign-born Indian American conservatives organizing under Trump and focusing on Indian domestic issues. Trump has pushed some donors to the right, particularly among those who see in the U.S. president a mirror image of Modi: a populist strongman who seemingly stands against Muslims.
The support for Biden sank to 72%—down from 84% for Barack Obama in 2012. And the number of Trump-supporting Indian Americans grew to 22% in 2019.
Key point to note: Indian American voters are concentrated in a number of key swing states—such as Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. When margins of victory are narrow, even small shifts in support can make a difference.
The big picture: The ‘America is great’ story
The Indian American narrative is attractive to white Americans—across the aisle—because it reinforces their view of themselves and their country. As Biden once declared:
One of the reasons why we’re such an incredible country is we’re such a diverse country. We bring the best out of every single solitary culture in the world here in the United States of America, and we give people an opportunity to let their dreams run forward.
It’s no different with Republicans—who draw the same consolation from the sight of upwardly mobile immigrants on the presidential stage, as one expert points out:
Both of them use their own biography to make people in the Republican Party who feel defensive about white nationalism or about racism, they make them feel good. Here are two minority candidates and their life stories are vindication of the fact that the U.S. is not a racist society.
But, but, but: There is a significant difference between Democratic and Republican politicians. While Democrats like Ro Khanna underline the not-so-attractive history of immigration (i.e racism), the likes of Ramaswamy do their best to avoid anything with a whiff of ‘identity politics’:
“What’s my dream for 2050?” Ramaswamy said. “That we’ll tell our kids and our grandkids that the United States of America is still the nation where no matter who you are, or where your parents came from, or what your skin colour is, or how long your last name is, in some of our cases, that you still get ahead in this country with your own hard work. “
Up next: A widening divide over caste
As parts of the community become more vocal about casteism, it has created new schisms among Indian Americans. And it is likely to get ugly. In August 2023, the California legislature passed the first bill banning caste-based discrimination—which went to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature. Then this happened:
[A] prominent Indian American party fundraiser says he confronted Gov. Gavin Newsom with a stark warning. If Newsom signed the bill, he would alienate and lose the support of Indian American donors and voters… “We used very strong words … telling him that definitely he has a bright future in the national politics and he has a bright, bigger ambitions and the community would love to support him… But at the same time, if there’s a mistake made on his side, he loses the support of the community. And I think he got the message very loud and clear.”
Newsom vetoed the bill soon after.
Also, a Republican opportunity: The resistance to caste discrimination bills comes from upper caste Indians who—oh the irony—dismiss it as ‘identity politics’:
“They are trying to divide us among different castes and different classes,” said Romesh Japra, who founded the Americans 4 Hindus super PAC and recruited Bhutoria and other Democratic Indian American donors to fight the bill. “We came here to this country, to America, and we did not think that we’ll have to face this again.”
And that may put them squarely on the side of Republicans—who are far more sympathetic to that view. As one Democratic donor said to Newsom: “I let him know he has competition. He can’t take our support for granted.”
The bottomline: is best summed up by Haley, who wrote in her memoir: “There are a number of reasons for Indian Americans’ success in the United States. But mostly, we’re just good at being Americans. And that says as much about America as it does about us.”
The New York Times has a very good piece that offers context for the campaigns of Haley and Ramaswamy. TIME is excellent on the role of identity politics in their campaigns—and US politics. Associated Press reports on how Indian Americans view their campaigns. The Carnegie Endowment survey of Indian Americans is here. Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy (login) are best on the Modi effect on the Indian Am community. Washington Post reports on how caste is dividing Indian Americans. The Economist (login) has great data on the global power of the Indian diaspora—immigrants who were born in India. Arun Venugopal in The Atlantic looks at the historical amnesia of Indian immigrants—and the curse of playing the model minority.