'Indian-Americans can determine swing state winners'

Indian-Americans can determine who will win in battleground states: M R Rangaswami

Silicon Valley executive, entrepreneur and investor M R Rangaswami is a well-known figure and voice of the Indian-American community. In the 1990s, he was among the many who burnished Indian-Americans’ reputation in Silicon Valley, co-founding one of the earliest angel investment firms there. In 2012, recognising the rise of Indian-Americans as a political force, he founded ‘Indiaspora’, a non-profit to bring together the Indian diaspora. Rangaswami tells DH’s Anirban Bhaumik that while the Democrats’ agenda has for long resonated with Indian-Americans, they are not a monolithic voting bloc.  

How important are Indian-Americans as a community in the US elections?

Indian-Americans are becoming an increasingly important voting bloc in the US. While we are still a relatively small percentage of the voting population, given our growing numbers, which have more than doubled in the last couple of decades, as well as our growing financial influence in politics, it’s easy to see why presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are making such a concerted effort to win our votes. Indian-Americans are definitely poised to play a major role in the battleground states. Our numbers are significant in several states and could be a deciding factor. For example, in Michigan, there was only a difference of about 10,000 votes that determined the outcome of that state (in 2016), and the number of eligible Indian-American voters there is 45,000. Texas, which many consider to be a battleground state this time around, has more than 160,000 Indian-American voters.

The majority of Indian-Americans have traditionally voted Democrat. Why?

Yes, that is true. I think there are several issues that the Democratic Party has touted as part of its platform that resonate with Indian-Americans. According to a recent report that we did with AAPI Data, we found that issues such as healthcare, education, environment and racial discrimination were all important or extremely important for Indian-Americans. These also happen to be the ones that the Democratic Party traditionally makes it a point to campaign on.

How was President Trump’s tenure in the White House for the Indian-American community?

I think the US-India relationship has continued to grow during President Trump’s tenure. The very visible “Howdy! Modi” rally he attended in Houston as well as the subsequent “Namaste! Trump” rally in India have both helped solidify this alliance between the two countries through the diaspora and helped shine a spotlight on the Indian-American community on the national and even global stage as a result.

Why are some Indian-Americans, if not many, switching loyalty to the Republican Party?

Yes, based on a few surveys ahead of the election, including the one from AAPI Data and another one from Carnegie and Johns Hopkins, it looks like there likely will be a small increase in the percentage of Indian-Americans who favour Trump in this election compared to 2016. However, at the end of the day, while there may be more Indian-Americans compared to the last election who vote for Trump based on US-India relations, the surveys indicate that a majority support the Democratic Party. But the survey also indicates that some support the Republican Party. The Indian-American community is not monolithic.

Has Kamala Harris’ nomination as Biden’s running mate helped consolidate Indian-American community behind him?

I think Senator Kamala Harris’ nomination has been a proud moment. To have someone of Indian descent receive the vice-presidential nomination of a major political party is a historic milestone that I think the Indian-American community as a whole can celebrate. A recent survey by Carnegie Endowment and Johns Hopkins indicated that it will likely energise Democratic Party voters to go out and vote.

What are the major community-specific issues for Indian-Americans?

The community-specific issues for Indian-Americans include immigration reform that addresses the backlog in the US to receive visas and creates a pathway to citizenship. For example, about 700,000 lawful permanent residents, or green card-holders, who have applied for US citizenship are waiting in a backlog, and of those, more than 300,000 are Indians who are eligible for citizenship. More than 300,000 Indians in the US who are working legally are in the backlog to receive their green cards. The immigration backlog begins with work visas to enter the country. Because of limits to the number of visas for high-skilled workers, or H-1B visas, Indians are adversely affected when applying to work in the US.

Both candidates have promised immigration reform. President Trump, for example, has promised to create pathways to citizenship for immigrants, including for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, who are undocumented immigrants, of which Indians in the US are a growing number. Biden has promised to expand the number of visas offered and to eliminate the limits on employment-based green cards by country. However, to fully address immigration issues for our community, reform would be needed with cooperation from the US Congress.

Other community-specific issues include protection against hate crimes as well as policies that help small business-owners, for example, as many Indian-Americans in the US own small businesses.

How much do you think the state of India-US relations affects Indian-American voters’ choices in this presidential elections?

Interestingly, while India-US relations may be an important factor for some Indian-Americans, most likely among the older immigrant demographic who have close ties to India, recent surveys show it actually plays a very small role as a deciding factor for the majority of Indian-Americans in the presidential elections.

Trump in his first debate with Biden alleged that India is among one of the countries which are hiding actual Covid-19 deaths. He has again said in the final debate that India's air is filthy. Do you think such comments will influence the choice of Indian-Americans when they will cast votes?

While there is always a possibility it may colour Indian Americans’ perceptions of how President Trump views India, I do not think it will influence the choice of Indian Americans in any significant way at this point in the election. The majority of Indian Americans have determined which candidate they will support, and I believe Indian Americans who are voting for Trump will dismiss it as comments that have been taken out of context, while Indian Americans who are voting for Biden will use it to garner additional support for their candidate.