President Donald Trump looks solemn as he towers over a silver diya surrounded by a mélange of roses and marigolds in the White House Roosevelt Room. He gently taps each spoke of the diya with a slender candlestick, watching the resulting flames imbue it with life.
It is November 13, 2018, and the White House is hosting its annual Diwali celebration — a tradition that began in 2003 under President George W. Bush after a cohort of Indian American community leaders convinced him to host an official event marking the Hindu festival of lights.
Looking on over Trump’s shoulder as he lights the final spoke of the diya include White House Communications Director Raj Shah, Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. They are just three of 22 Indian American Trump administration officials present at the event — a sizable number from a community that has historically shied away from politics.
President Trump lights the Diya during a 2018 Diwali celebration.
“The number of Indian Americans in the Trump administration is certainly noticeable, especially given the comparative lack of representation of other communities of color,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, noted in an interview with the HPR.
As a candidate and now as president, Donald Trump’s efforts to woo the Indian American community offer an interesting case study, given that many communities of color are more hostile to him. They view his anti-immigration rhetoric as strident and bigoted. In general, his support among these groups is quite low and he has made little substantive effort at outreach to these communities. Instead, he focuses on his extremely conservative base of white voters who view most immigrants with suspicion.
But Trump believed the Indian American community, which, from the earliest days of his campaign, he has called “very special people,” would be an exception. Because he has done business in India for years — it is a huge market for his real estate projects — he thought they had a special affinity for him. And since a significant number of Indian American voters are socially conservative, the Trump campaign tried hard to win them over, pandering to deep-seated Hindu fears of Islam in an attempt to create a stronghold of support. As president, he’s kept up the charm offensive. Over the past two years, he has appointed at least 22 Indian Americans to important government jobs, putting him on track to break records.
To Sangay Mishra, a political science professor at Drew University, this unusual outreach to a small ethnic community is perplexing.
“What is it about Indian American communities that makes him comfortable reaching out to them?” he asked in an interview with the HPR. “It’s a question worth considering.”
So far, Trump’s outreach to Indian Americans has had only mixed results. The difficulties his administration has confronted involve a host of interesting issues — his policies, especially on immigrant visas have coupled with the general alienation Indian Americans feel from the Republican Party and his heated rhetoric that many Indian Americans hold responsible for hate crimes targeting their community. Trump’s ambivalent relationship with the Indian American community is indicative of how challenging it will be for him to significantly expand his base among American immigrant communities if he runs for reelection in 2020.
Two high-rise Trump Towers gaze like sentinels over Gurugram, 20 miles outside the Indian capital city of New Delhi. Each 50-story building is painted in a fluorescent silver veneer and framed with glass walls, complete with a series of luxury and “ultra-luxury” apartment units that a majority of Indian citizens could only dream of owning — though the price is pocket change to the country’s growing billionaire class.
For years, Trump has been conducting business deals in India — his largest and most important international market. As of this year, five major real estate projects sponsored by the Trump Organization, which the president still owns, are underway in India — including four luxury properties and one commercial tower collectively valued at $1.5 billion. The Gurugram Trump Towers, which opened in January, was one of these projects.
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has visited India nearly a dozen times in the past decade on business trips, welcomed by glaring front-page Trump condominium advertisements in national newspapers, including one with Trump Jr.’s own profile photoshopped over the headline: “TRUMP HAS ARRIVED. HAVE YOU?”
Meanwhile, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump made her own official diplomatic trip to the world’s largest democracy last year, leading some critics to censure the Trump administration’s conflation of official diplomacy and personal business ventures.
Regardless, India has held a special place in Trump’s heart for years, and has filled the coffers of his family’s business empire for nearly a decade. According to the president’s own financial disclosures, in 2016, the Trump family earned up to $3 million in royalties from business projects in India, The New York Times reported in February.
And as Trump, in his presidential capacity, seeks to strengthen U.S. relations with India — especially in the hopes of signaling a strong blow to its neighboring country, China — the Trump Organization is working on accelerating its own real estate ventures across Indian megacities like Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, and Kolkata, its cultural mecca.
But Trump’s ties to India transcend the country’s borders: he has also pursued plenty of deals with Indian Americans and Indian immigrants in the United States. In fact, since 1999, Indians have run nearly half of the the U.S. hospitality industry — a staggering statistic on which Trump has capitalized in his own domestic business ventures.
Take, for example, Dinesh and Suresh Chawla, two Indian American motel owners from the Mississippi Delta who made headlines when they announced they would be partnering with the Trump Organization to develop four new hotels in the Deep South.
Despite their professional relationship with the Trump family, the Chawlas are politically jaded. In fact, their partnership with the Trump Organization does not translate to electoral support for the president: Dinesh Chawla did not vote for Trump in 2016. In fact, he told The New York Times that he has not voted in a presidential election since 2008, when he cast a ballot for Barack Obama, although he said he supported George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004.
But even if they don’t conjure up support at the ballot box, Trump’s business deals with the Chawlas have at least succeeded in hardening these Indian American hoteliers to both the president’s rhetoric and his legal turmoil — most notably, the federal and special counsel investigations currently plaguing Trump and his associates.
“The ups and downs of President Trump are just theater,” Dinesh Chawla told The Times in July. “I have my family’s finances at stake here. I cannot worry about Twitter postings and investigations.”
Given his successful partnerships with both Indian and Indian American business moguls, Trump likely thought Indian Americans would be a relatively easy demographic to win over. And during the campaign, he hoped to successfully appeal to the community by capitalizing on its social conservatism — in particular, the longstanding fear of Islam held by many Hindus.
Trump’s Hindu Overtures
A month before the 2016 election, Indian Americans watching Indian television channels were greeted by a familiar face: it was none other than Donald Trump, encouraging them to vote for him — this time in a new language.
“Ab ki baar Trump sarkar,” Trump says in a blurry, poorly-edited ad that spans 12 seconds. It is a Hindi phrase which roughly translates to “This time, Trump’s government” — and more importantly, emulates Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own campaign slogan, “Ab ki baar Modi sarkar.”
The video immediately cuts to a garish, Trump-style banner that reads “GREAT FOR AMERICA. GREAT FOR U.S.-INDIA RELATIONSHIP” as the triumphant sound of horns blares in the background.
But the ad doesn’t end there. Trump is then briefly shown speaking to a crowd of Indian American supporters.
“We love the Hindus,” he says, pointing at the crowd as he stands behind a platform that reads “Humanity United Against Terror.”
“We love India.”
President Trump and Prime Minister Modi at the G20 Summit in Germany.
The ad was directed and sponsored by Chicago-based billionaire Shalabh Kumar, who was Trump’s right-hand man during the 2016 campaign and a member of his Asian Pacific Advisory Committee. Early last year, many predicted Trump would nominate Kumar as the next U.S. ambassador to India — although this ultimately didn’t pan out.
Something of a mini-Trump himself, Kumar is known for his lavish style and love of the spotlight. In 2017, he hosted the acting U.S. ambassador to India at his vacation mansion in Bengaluru, which he affectionately calls the “Rana Reagan Palace” in honor of Ronald Reagan and Rana Pratap, a Hindu Rajput monarch who resisted Muslim Mughal invaders in 16th century India. The mansion’s standout feature is the “Dome of Freedom” Kumar keeps in the center: a hanging crystal chandelier surrounded by photos of Reagan, Mohandas Gandhi, and a handful of Kumar’s other role models.
After the visit, Kumar tweeted photos, tagging Stephen Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Steven Mnuchin in a salute to the Trump administration — and, possibly, to indicate his own interest in the diplomatic gig.
But Kumar’s support for Trump dates back further, to 2015, when he founded the Republican Hindu Coalition, modeled after the Republican Jewish Coalition, to mobilize support for Trump among Indian Americans. His focus was clear — by Indian Americans, Kumar really meant Hindu Americans.
This approach was strategic, Ramakrishnan, who founded the Asian American and Pacific Islander Data program at UC Riverside, said, pointing to religion as politically crucial among Indian Americans.
“Anecdotally, you find that [Hindu] Indian Americans hold conservative views about Islam and its role in the world. Pro-Hindutva people tend to support [Trump],” he said, referring to the Hindu nationalist ideology in India championed by Modi. He also noted that Trump’s focus on Hindus in America helps stoke fears about the Muslims among them.
As such, it’s no accident that Trump uses the words “Indian” and “Hindu” interchangeably — often while pointing out the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” in both the United States and India.
Indeed, in 2016, Kumar donated nearly one million dollars to Trump’s campaign after the two discussed strengthening the U.S.’s relationship with Modi and curbing the threat of Islamist terrorism. Since then, the Hindu-Muslim divide has been a centerpiece of Kumar’s strategy to warm the Indian American community up to Trump: he’s repeatedly referenced acts of Islamist terrorism in Mumbai, juxtaposing Trump’s promise to curb domestic terrorism with Modi’s own crackdown on Muslims in India.
Kumar even acknowledged feelings among minority voters that Trump’s harsh rhetoric is often understood as racist and bigoted, but was confident that the Republican Hindu Coalition would change that.
“A lot of people think that Trump is somewhat of a racist,” Kumar told The New Yorker in 2016. “His partnership with the Republican Hindu Coalition will set that aside.”
That same year, Kumar invited Trump to speak to Indian Americans at a Republican Hindu Coalition event in Edison, N.J. — a town affectionately known as “Little India,” with residents of Indian descent accounting for roughly one-quarter of its population.
“The Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House, that I can guarantee,” then-candidate Trump said at the October 2016 event, standing in front of a fluorescent American flag background with Kumar by his side in a matching red tie.
“I have great confidence in India. Incredible people, incredible country. Generations of Indian and Hindu Americans have strengthened our country … your values, your hard work, education and enterprise have truly enriched our nation and we will be celebrating a Trump administration together.”
Adi Sathi, the Republican Hindu Coalition’s former deputy executive director, cited Trump’s relationship with Modi and Hinduism as a crucial factor in his own support for Trump, and in many other community members’.
“Trump engaged with Indian Americans by himself going to rallies that support Indian Americans in New Jersey, and very proudly on the record stated that he loves Indians and Hindus and has met with Prime Minister Modi,” he said in an interview with the HPR.
Meanwhile, Vijay Chokalingam, who was a member of the Republican Hindu Coalition during the 2016 election cycle, cited Trump’s friendship with Modi as important to him.
“Presidents Bush and Obama banned Modi from coming to America, which was a direct attack on Hindus and Indian Americans,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s refusal to grant Modi a diplomatic visa in 2005 after suggesting he had failed to protect Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat where he was Chief Minister, leading to mass-scale violence and killings against them.
Chokalingam, who dubs the banning of Modi from the U.S. a “Hindu ban,” refers to Trump’s controversial travel ban affecting Muslim-majority countries as “kind of a joke” in comparison — evidence of the extent to which Trump capitalized on religious nationalism and social conservatism to appeal to the Indian American community during the 2016 campaign.
To some extent, Trump was successful. Among Indian Americans who did support him in 2016, there were two main types: partisan voters and single-issue voters.
Take Adi Sathi, for example. Growing up in Michigan as the son of Indian American immigrants, Sathi originally aspired to become a doctor. But after discovering a passion for politics and policymaking in college, he changed his career trajectory and entered the field of Republican politics.
Beginning his career working on a variety of local, statewide, and congressional campaigns, Sathi moved on to serve as the vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party and then the deputy executive director of the Republican Hindu Coalition. Now, he is the Republican National Committee’s Director of Asian Pacific American Engagement.
“I think there are a few driving forces that Indian Americans care about with respect to President Trump,” Sathi said in an interview with the HPR. “First, it’s business. Tax reform is very appealing to the Indian business community, and we’ve seen the benefits of this since Trump took office.”
Indeed, a large sector of the Indian community is comprised of small-business owners who are fiscally conservative, according to Mishra. To them, Trump’s commitment to tax reform and economic deregulation is appealing.
Sathi said his RNC job consists of holding roundtables with Indian American community and business leaders, many of whom “appreciate [Trump’s] approach to dealing with things in a pragmatic perspective.”
He cited immigration as another factor motivating Indian Americans to turn out for Trump.
“When it comes to immigration, most Asian-Americans are legal immigrants,” he said, adding that his own parents “worked for many years to get their citizenship legally” and are “very supportive” of Trump’s immigration policies.
While Sathi is a lifelong Republican who works in party politics, other Indian American Trump supporters are single-issue voters, such as Vijay Chokalingam, who works as a college admissions consultant at SOSAdmissions.com.
Chokalingam’s Twitter biography says it all: he self-describes as an “anti-affirmative action hacktivist.”
Last year, Chokalingam wrote a controversial book entitled Almost Black, which details his experience posing as a black man applying to medical school to increase his chance of admission. While he acknowledges his actions were “deceptive” and “wrong,” he says they were necessary in his crusade against affirmative action policies, which he believes significantly disadvantaged his educational experience from junior high school to higher education.
“I am a Republican and a Trump supporter because I’m an Indian American. I was born in this country and I understand the system of admissions and how it works in this country,” he said in an interview with the HPR, adding that he believes affirmative action is “as ingrained in our society as segregation was in pre-Civil Rights America and apartheid was in South Africa.”
Chokalingam, whose younger sister is actress Mindy Kaling, grew up in the liberal bastion of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but said his politics took a conservative turn after he was rejected from the prestigious Roxbury Latin School at age twelve “after applying with a perfect score.”
After founding the Young Republicans Club at his high school — the renowned Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge — Chokalingam said he got involved with anti-affirmative action efforts, altering his physical appearance to “look black” and openly advocating for the plaintiffs in the controversial lawsuit filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University, which alleges that the University’s admissions process is discriminatory.
Since then, Chokalingam has sought to dismantle affirmative action policies nationwide, an issue which he said plays a crucial role in his support for Trump.
“President Trump will end affirmative action like Lincoln ended slavery,” he claimed, also citing his support for the president’s conservative judicial nominees such as Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Chokalingam hopes will vote against affirmative action should the Harvard lawsuit reach the Supreme Court.
A Poor Showing
While Trump has found popularity among some Indian Americans, his supporters are hardly representative of the community as a whole.
In fact, Indian American support for Trump remains low — at just 16 percent in 2016, the group’s electoral support for the current president was lower than that of other Asian American demographics while his favorability rating among Indian Americans was a mere 32 percent, according to Ramakrishnan and AAPI Data.
“Trump did poorly among Indian Americans despite his overtures to the community,” Ramakrishnan said. But why was Trump’s outreach to Indian Americans during the campaign less impactful than he had hoped?
Perhaps it’s because social conservatism doesn’t translate to political conservatism. Anecdotally, Indian Americans — especially the immigrant generation — hold socially conservative views, such as an opposition to same-sex marriage and a belief that religion should play a greater role in public life. But politically, the Indian American community votes overwhelmingly Democratic. In fact, 62 percent of its members identify as Democrats, according to 2018 survey data.
Or perhaps it’s because of the general skepticism many Indian Americans feel towards the Republican Party, which they associate with white evangelicalism. Arun Venugopal, a WNYC journalist who focuses on race and immigration, said in an interview with the HPR that even religious Hindus in America may be wary of supporting Trump.
“There are divisions within the Hindu majority of the [Indian American] community,” Venugopal said. “Modi supporters might be in alignment with [Trump] on certain issues like Muslims entering the country. And a common cause has been established between the Republican Party and Hindus in India and with respect to Israel. But Hindus in America are really repulsed by evangelical Christian conservatism.”
And this perception of the Republican Party as the party of white Christians could contribute to culturally-conservative Hindus’ refusal to vote for Trump.
“The Republican Party is associated pretty strongly with both white racism and Christianity,” Sanjoy Chakravorty, an urban studies professor at Temple University, explained in an interview with the HPR. “Both have become considerably stronger under Trump. Indians have reacted to both. Some of us believe they’ve reacted more to Christianity and others think it’s more race.”
Or perhaps it’s because Trump’s business deals can only go so far in the political sphere. Mishra, of Drew University, posits that Indian Americans recognize that while Trump’s business partnerships may be good for India and for real estate developers, they are bad for the community as a whole.
He mentioned that even Indian American hoteliers who profit from business ventures with the Trump Organization may feel alienated in their own homes, noting that many working-class Indian Americans live in majority white areas of the United States in which they “don’t feel as welcome.”
“Irrespective of the deals Trump has with particular hotel and motel owners, there is a discomfort about this administration and the ways in which he talks about immigrants,” Mishra said. “It might do good for certain families and owners but it’s not good for the community and people really feel that.”
And ultimately, Trump’s recent crackdown on legal immigration in the form of limiting the issuance of H-1B visas for highly-skilled workers — around three-quarters of which are held by Indian citizens — could further fuel opposition to the president within the Indian American community.
The Trump administration has also expressed an intent to revoke work permits for recipients of H-4 visas, which would affect thousands of Indian women married to H-1B visa holders. This proposal only furthers perceptions of the Trump administration as opposed to both legal and undocumented immigration and could fuel anger among Indian American voters, especially those who have family members currently on H-1B visas or who intend to acquire one to work in the United States.
“The crackdown on H-1Bs and making family immigration more difficult is going to create a situation in which there will be more dislike of and opposition to Trump,” Mishra predicted. “There is a way in which the community is also coming to realize that this administration is broadly taking an anti-immigration stance where they’ll crack down both on undocumented immigration and on documented immigration. I do feel that this is going to persuade more people to feel negatively about the administration.”
Many Indian Americans blame Trump’s heated rhetoric for hate crimes targeting the community, such as the 2017 murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and shooting of Alok Madasani in Kansas — two Indian men on H-1B visas — followed by the shooting of Deep Rai in Wisconsin, events which prompted Indian American communities to host vigils and petition representatives to introduce more comprehensive hate crime legislation.
In spite of its limited success, Trump’s messaging to the Indian American community appears to have inspired national Republican operatives to pursue a similar strategy, both in 2018 and heading into 2020.
“A lot of what we did [last] year is build out our operations in the program in all the states we went to,” Sathi said. “We really incorporated [Indian American] community leaders and stakeholders into our RNC apparatus. We hired field organizers, reached out to people, went door knocking, and made phone calls.”
Sathi also cited the RNC’s Republican Leadership Initiative program as a “first step” to increased Indian American political involvement in 2020.
“We host training programs for activists at the ground level,” he said. “We have Indian Americans go through these programs to get the resources they need to organize and be trained and ready to go. Continuing to build on that program is the first step.”
While Sathi and the RNC prepare Indian Americans to become more civically engaged in the coming years, it’s worth noting that all five members of the current Indian American congressional delegation are Democrats — a couple of whom, like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) are even involved in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Meanwhile, Democrats form the majority of the Indian American candidates who ran for office in unprecedented numbers this year.
Kamala Harris, a Democrat, became the first Indian American in the U.S. Senate in 2017.
But as Trump continues to nominate Indian American leaders to top positions in his cabinet and the federal judiciary — most recently Neomi Rao, whom the president appointed to fill the seat vacated by Kavanaugh on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — he will also continue to attempt to renegotiate his relationship with the broader Indian American community, especially with a 2020 reelection bid in sight.
Ramakrishnan is unconvinced that Trump will succeed in swaying Indian American voters over the next two years, instead positing that party affiliation remains the primary determinant of who Indian Americans will support in 2020.
“When you look at 2018, you don’t see that much movement in the Indian American community for or against Trump,” he said. “Things like party identification are so strong that that’s the primary thing accounted for in terms of Trump.”
In an about-face, perhaps Trump will latch onto another minority demographic ahead of 2020 — after all, he enjoys relatively high support among Cuban Americans and regularly takes credit for lower levels of African American unemployment, though his responsibility for this decrease is widely disputed.
But until then, Indian Americans — with their ambivalent relationship with the president — seem to be the closest he is getting to making inroads into minority communities in America.
The cover art for this article was created by Amy Joseph, a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, for the exclusive use of the HPR’s Red Line.