US elections, desi selections

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By As the US election primaries grind on, Koli Mitra turns the spotlight on the way Indian Americans are voting this time
  • Published 2.03.08
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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to choose a presidential candidate. But being one hasn’t made it any easier for Abhi Tripathi, a California-born aerospace engineer.

Torn between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he’s currently leaning slightly toward Obama out of concern that “the oligarchy of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton — is not good for democracy.” Yet he prefers Clinton on policy issues. As he says, “Obama’s space policy is horrible. He advocates deep cuts in Nasa’s budget. Clinton has a much better understanding of these agency funding issues. Her health policy is also much sounder…”

If any discernible “Indian” perspective seems to be absent from Tripathi’s analysis, it isn’t because he’s indifferent to that perspective. Quite the contrary.

He founded “Sepia Mutiny” (www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/), a popular blog dedicated to “South Asian culture and Diaspora issues.” It’s a vibrant forum for every topic, from Bobby Jindal’s historical significance to Aishwarya Bachchan’s Karva Chauth. But politics remains Tripathi’s main preoccupation and right now it’s focused on the Democratic primary.

Asked if he ever considered voting Republican, Tripathi laughs. As it happens, he did vote for one Republican: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Governor of California). “Schwarzenegger is an economic centrist. He backed many environmental initiatives. He doesn’t toe the party line. Neither do I.”

This emphasis on issues over party is echoed by Sandip Buch, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist. Sitting in an East-side coffee shop, sporting a yellow T-shirt and a disarming smile, Buch doesn’t fit the (perhaps unfair) stereotype of how a Republican looks. And he’s no typical Republican either. He’s a libertarian, meaning he believes in free markets and minimal government. He’s suspicious of the high-taxing, high-regulating Democrats and “as a fiscal conservative… [has] generally backed Republicans.” But he has grown wary of them too.”

“Republicans claim to support less government and freer markets, but really they’re more ‘pro-corporation’ than pro-market. In a free market the government doesn’t give anything to corporations. No bail-out loans, no tax incentives. The Republicans have run up the deficit, lied to drag us into war, and made government much bigger,” says Buch.

So this year Buch is considering voting Democrat to “punish” the Republican party. “You can’t lie to people and then expect to stay in power,” he says.

But though Democrats remain dominant among the Indian American electorate, Republicans are also making inroads into this vote bank. Tripathi says, “Wealthy Indian Americans tend to be ‘economic Republicans’ — they want low taxes and less regulation of businesses.” Many doctors, including Buch, generally prefer the Republican position on curbing malpractice litigation, which he thinks is “out of control.”

Much of this is due to a political split between the “first generation” Indian immigrants and the “second generation” who have grown up in America. First generation immigrants are deeply interested in policies relating to India, while the second generation is more concerned about domestic American problems. “In the 1970s and 1980s immigrants worried about Kashmir and Pakistan, and generally voted Democrat,” says Amardeep Singh, a professor of English Literature at Leigh University in Pennsylvania, and Tripathi’s fellow Sepia Mutineer. “But current U.S.-India relations are more about free trade, outsourcing of jobs, and open markets — issues on which Republicans are more pro-India.”

Both Singh and Tripathi believe that second generation Indian Americans are more invested in public life in America, as Americans. “We care about civil rights; respect for who we are ethnically and religiously. But not as something separate,” Singh explains.

Second generation Indian Americans are also much less likely than their forbears to vote as a block. Says Tripathi, “To get first generation support, politicians can lobby hard for endorsements from a few community leaders or wealthy businesspeople. The rest of the community just follows that lead.” Second generation voters are more familiar and comfortable with American politics and “have to be won individually — which is much harder,” he says.

There are no national figures yet on how South Asians in general and Indians in particular have voted in the ongoing primaries. New America Media has reported that 70 per cent of South Asian Americans voting in the New York Democratic primary opted for Clinton. According to Salon.com, among Asian-American Democratic voters in California, 75 per cent voted for Clinton compared to 23 per cent for Obama. But since then, the Obama juggernaut has rolled mightily and in the final analysis Obama may well have gotten away with more Indian American democratic votes than Clinton.

Singh hasn’t picked a candidate yet but says, “I’m inspired by Obama’s power to make people care.” He also likes Obama’s multicultural background. Singh embodies the same multiculturalism. His profile on Sepia Mutiny shows him as a fully turbaned “traditional” looking Sikh dad, holding his young child. But he also comes from a Quaker private school, teaches English literature and cares passionately about Muslim detainees in the US naval base at Guantanamo.

For Monu Singh, a Manhattan attorney, the multicultural aspect of Obama is a big draw. “Obama represents a huge number of Americans who haven’t been represented. He’s bi-racial. He had an immigrant parent. He lived abroad. He has that wider view — he knows about being an outsider and yet completely American. That’s me!” she says.

Monu Singh’s parents, staunch Clinton supporters, are taking her defection personally. Her mother considers it a betrayal of women everywhere. Singh laughs, but then sighs faintly. Her voice grows quiet. “It’s not an easy choice. I’d be happy with Hillary Clinton. I think she wants to do good things. She’s smart and capable. But this whole campaign has this grimy feel… this stench of politics as usual. We need someone to restore some dignity to the process.”

Sanjay Mistry is more cynical. “I pick the lesser of two evils; this year it’s the Democrats.” He is a second generation American, a network engineer and a father of three. He is concerned about public education. Republican policies focused on standardised reading and math tests haven’t prepared his kids in critical thinking, he says. “They learn nothing except how to take tests.”

Mistry voted for Clinton in the Virginia primary.

His wife voted for Obama.