“This is the first time a group of Hindus has ever endorsed a candidate who has his own line of signature steaks” – Jimmy Kimmel, comedian
Encouraged by the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump, especially the branding of Muslims as actual and potential terrorists, Hindu nationalists have never been more excited with a US election cycle. The post 9/11 narrative of ‘Islam’ as the real danger to Western civilisation fits into the version of history that India’s right wing peddles.
The argument is as follows: India, the great civilisation, was tormented by Muslim ‘barbarians’ from Arab lands and Central Asia in the medieval era. Muslim hordes invaded the country, massacred Hindus (never mind they were not known as such then) and forcibly converted many of them. Today, in the age of ‘Islamic terror’, the West is experiencing the same, asserts this mindset. Therefore, united with the likes of Trump, India, under a Hindu nationalist government can fight this ‘menace’. Driven by such ideas, there have been puja ceremonies for Trump in India as social media reproduces this polarising version of the past and the present.
In the US, Hindus have been lobbying for a Trump victory. Considering that the Trump campaign has been overtly offensive to a host of non-white communities, the Hindu-Trump convergence is mind-boggling. After all, Trump did make fun of the Indian accent and an Indian outsider in the US is as vulnerable to xenophobia as a Muslim Arab or a Pakistani (especially if they have a beard).
Quite a few prominent Hindus in the US are supporting Trump. Our emails and Facebook feeds have been filled with Hindus for Trump ads and articles (people send them to us assuming we’ll relate and connect).
Shalabh Kumar, the Indian American businessman and founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, has personally donated close to a million dollars to Trump’s campaign, making him one of Trump’s biggest financial backers.
Then came the huge Hindu lotus-filled Trump event organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition in New Jersey last month. Remember the lightsaber-wielding terrorist performers, Bollywood celebrities like Malaika Arora Khan (the crowds were perhaps there to see her) and of course Trump’s “I am a big fan of Hindu” comment?
For once, a Buzzfeed listicle, on incredible and absurd happenings at the event, was warranted. What could be more outrageous than depicting Clinton as an enemy of cattle as a way to mobilize political support?
The cherry on the orange cake, however, was a political ad released on November 1 by the Republican Hindu Coalition titled ‘Crooked Hillary – Vote for Republican, Vote for US-India Relation’ (please note the misspelling). Using some real high-flying imagery, the promotional video pits Clinton as a pro-Pakistani, pro-Islamic terrorism, anti-Narendra Modi candidate, thereby suggesting Trump is the obvious choice for your average (Hindu) Indian-American.
As if this was not enough, another gaffe filled attempt came with “Abki Baar Trump Sarkar” (This time Trump will lead us) advert put out by the Republican Hindu Coalition. The promotional tool will be remembered for its middle school-esque production value and the hilarious parodies it generated.
Given that Trump is a creature of the infotainment industry in the US, this kitschy style of campaigning makes perfect sense.
But Indian-Americans are not buying Trump’s style or politics. Polling data suggests a radically less Trump-vadi version of Hindu political sentiments.
A poll on Asian-American’s political leanings earlier this year found that of the Indian-American population (with a majority being Hindu), only 7% planned on voting for Trump.
In 2012, 16% of Indian-Americans voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, showing Trump has actually driven away more of this demographic instead of winning them over. Indian-Americans have historically voted heavily in favour of the Democratic Party.
So why exactly are the few Indian-Americans that are supporting him actually doing so?
Trump has effectively played to their fears regarding terrorism, immigration and Pakistan-US relations. Anyone trying to understand the qualms and queries of the Indian-American population must in turn look at the challenges or at least perceived challenges of their motherland, India itself.
Given the historical context of deep conflict and violence between India and Pakistan and its communal underpinning, a seemingly anti-Islamic candidate like Trump has appeals to some Indian-Americans with his hard stance on ‘radical Islam’ and a sense of being on their side in the on going India-Pakistan saga.
“Trump’s victory is confirmed early, due to his thoughts against Islamic terrorism and love for India and Hindus,” Vishnu Gupta, the Hindu Sena in India’s self-styled national president, said in an interview with Reuters.
But unless a majority of the three million Indian-Americans suddenly start actually believing in ‘Trump sarkar’ in the next three days, it won’t be the ‘Hindu’ vote that leads Trump into the White House, if at all.
Regardless of the electoral influence, the growing communal schisms within India and attacks on its secular ethos are creeping into America as well.
The South Asian community in the US as a whole has much to offer. Dividing it along the national and religious lines will only denude its influence and prospects in the long term.
Raza Rumi is an author and journalist. He teaches at Ithaca College and Cornell University. Nihal Krishan is a political reporter based in Washington D.C.