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No, desis should hedge their bets with Republicans

The media and analysts in India are watching the U.S. elections keenly because of Barack Obama, and also because of anxiety about the future of India-U.S. relations. Indian Americans have often voted Democrat, much like other non-white immigrants. Some also believe that Democrats have been better for India. This is a myth, although Republicans were more critical of India for cozying up to the Soviets. Both the Democrats and the Republicans clearly look out for America’s interests (as they should) and not India’s.

Many believe that the Democrats have always supported civil rights and immigrant rights, but in fact the biggest practitioners of Jim Crow apartheid were in the then-solidly Democratic South. Remember Governor George “segregation now, segregation forever” Wallace, Democrat of Alabama? And today, the Democrats tend to be protectionists and non-proliferation fundamentalists. But it is true that liberal Great Society values have been upheld by the Democrats.

Given that the United States is in the middle of an economic meltdown and a deeply unpopular war, the Democratic candidate should win by rights. But is the country ready for a black president? Prior evidence is not encouraging. Consider the so-called “Tom Bradley Effect:” the conservative, blue-collar Archie Bunkers of America may well nix an Obama presidency.

But there’s more. The very thing that attracts people to Barack Obama—the message of change and hope—is a double-edged sword. Obama is a fresh face, not beholden to too many special interests, but he is also green. The famous Obama charisma that has made him the darling of young Indian Americans is also dubious. There is a fine line between eloquence and Pied-Piper demagoguery; remember the Branch Davidians and other such cults?

It is possible that the choice of Obama is a reflection of demographics: racial minorities are increasing as a percentage of the population. But given past behavior by the Democrats, “model minorities” like Indians will not benefit very much, as the entitlements will go to elsewhere.

John McCain’s choice of the mediagenic Sarah Palin, with her backwoods, small-town appeal and her family problems, may well emerge as a masterstroke on the part of the Republicans, because it has thrown the Democrats off their stride. It has taken the wind out of Obama’s “outsider” mantra, and it may appeal to Clintonistas and feminists, still sore over Hillary’s defeat. The polls now show a virtual dead heat: this is not good news for Obama. McCain may yet win this thing, against the odds.

That itself is a very good reason for Indian Americans to hedge their bets with the Republicans. You don’t want to be backing the wrong horse. A second reason is that Indian Americans are no longer, on average, “huddled masses”—they have prospered. It is time to move on from the immigrant-ghetto mentality.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Bangalore, India.

Yes, Democrats are sympathetic to minority concerns

From this Indo-Canadian’s viewpoint, American elections seem to be characterized by the “haves” voting Republican and the “have-nots” voting Democratic. But what happens to Indian Americans who are in a kind of twilight zone?

Indian Americans are unique in that they are “haves” from the perspective of education, wealth, and achievement, but “have nots” in terms of political power. Elections provide the best platforms to address such imbalances; the hitherto silent community needs to have its demands heard.

Immigration and integration are key issues for any young community. Immigration for Asians, the birth and growth of affirmative action, and the encouragement of visible minority participation in mainstream politics have all happened on a Democratic watch. Trivial, but characteristically symptomatic, it was Bill Clinton who “officially” recognized tandoori chicken at an Indian restaurant in 1994, providing Washington’s chattering classes with food for thought. Contrast this with Bush’s sending lowly nobodies to represent him at successive Divali parties, ignoring the significant financial contributions from Indian American donors.

History repeats itself, and the actions, significant and trivial, of Democrats prove that they listen to and are sensitive to Indian American concerns. Contrast this with the Republicans, who bestowed upon the Indian American community the seemingly covetable title of “model minority.” This “compliment” has the most racist of origins; it is a 1960s expression used to distinguish Asians (read “hard working tax payers with nary a thought for political rights”) from African Americans (read “troublemakers always agitating for extra political rights”). This history symbolizes key Republican strategies towards minorities (“divide and conquer”) and quantifies key Republican expectations of minorities: work hard, keep your heads down, and don’t ask questions.

There is also the pragmatic question of who each party speaks for. The conventional wisdom about Democrats voicing the demands of the economically distraught downtowners implies that they will also speak for the many financially challenged Indian Americans devastated by the unending series of economic storms since 2000, commencing with the dot-com crash, and continuing onto the recent collapse of the pillars of Wall Street.

And then there is Obama himself—his humble origins remind one of the Indian arriving in America with a wealth of dreams, the audacity of hope, and little else. Obama’s challenging conventions and crashing the glass ceiling epitomizes the life history of many an Indian American. Having been fathered by an immigrant before becoming one in Indonesia himself, Obama relates best to immigrant experiences and expectations. If leadership is premised on expecting from oneself what is expected from others, it is important for the United States to become a model host internally and a model mentor externally. A vote for the Democrats will accomplish precisely that.

S. Gopikrishna wrote this opinion from Toronto, Canada.