Why Republicans Can't Harness Indian-American Patel Power


Mitt Romney might not have baptized any dead people lately, but 10,000 miles away in India a Hindu priest recently concluded a yajna on his behalf. A yajna is a nine-day prayer ceremony that, in this case, involved 16 local participants who poured 16 kgs of pure ghee on a sacred bonfire while chanting Sanskrit mantras and offering 100 kgs of barley to the Tantaric deity Bagula Mukhi.

Kannubhai Patel, an Indian émigré, who moved to the United States 20 years ago and quickly acquired (guess what?) a chain of motels, paid for the entire event because he is a die-hard Republican and wanted to do something to help swing the polls in poor Mitt's direction. So he called his friend and priest in his native village and instructed

him to conduct the yajna to enlist Goddess Mukhi on Mitt's side. When queried about the neck-and-neck results after the latest debate between Obama and Romney, the priest confidently predicted: "There is still time. The result will be favorable."

But Patel is clearly an outlier in the 2.85-million strong Indian community, 84% of whose members voted for Barack Obama in 2008—second only to the 95% support that Obama drew among blacks. Even without Obama's star power, 65% of Indians generally vote Democratic.

At first blush, this is surprising given that neither class interest nor social values would make Indians, the richest and the most educated minority in America, a natural Democratic constituency. As AEI scholar Sadanand Dhume—an India native—has pointed out:

In 2010, median household income for Indian-Americans was $88,000, compared to the national average of $49,800. Seven in ten Indian-Americans have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to three in ten in the general population. Only 9 percent live in poverty, compared to the national average of 12.8 percent. And even if you step away from the doctors and software geeks, the archetypal Indian-American figure is a striver: A motel owner in Florida, a newsstand worker in New York, or a taxi driver in California. To put it bluntly, this is not the natural constituency for the party of food stamps, affirmative action, and welfare without work…

What about social values? The Pew survey finds that a minuscule 2.3 percent of Indian-American children are born to unmarried mothers—compared to 37 percent of children nationwide. More than nine out of ten Indian-American children live with married parents, compared with the national average of about six in ten. If the GOP is the party of the nuclear family—a Pew survey finds that 88 percent of Republicans say they have "old-fashioned values" about family and marriage, compared with just 60 percent of Democrats—then should it not also be the party of Indian-Americans?

So what gives?

Dhume's own explanation is that Indians have bought into the "toxic culture of victimhood" and the "gaudy identity politics" of the Democratic Party in contrast to the GOP's quieter acceptance of all as Americans as evidenced by its elevation of Indians like Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal to the gubernatorial mansions—in two southern states no less.

There is a grain of truth in that. Indians are no more immune to fashionable causes and cutting-edge ideologies than any other minority. There is something glamorous about associating with the party of the underdog. Being a Republican, by contrast, just ain't that cool.

But that grain is embedded in far bigger—and more understandable—problems that Indians have with the Grand Old Party.

One: Having grown up in a country where the memory of British colonialism and its apartheid ways is still very much alive, they are exceedingly—even overly—sensitive to discrimination. They see America as a fair and just country—much more so than England and far more than their own country with its myriad, soul-sapping hierarchies. (This is why, when America liberalized its immigration policies in 1965 and opened the door to Indians, they overwhelmingly started choosing it over England or Australia or any other destination, although that is changing now). But they also feel that just as it takes constant effort to keep tyranny at bay, it also takes constant effort to keep in check the natural urge of the dominant group to put in place a system of privileges that benefit its own. Without an explicit—even exaggerated—commitment to fairness and equality, it is difficult to vanquish this tendency and, as far as they are concerned, the only party that has shown any desire to make this commitment is the Democratic Party—if only in name. (I suspect this is also the reason why other minorities lean Democratic.)

Two: Indians, in many ways, assimilate easily. A very large percentage of them speak English and their intermarriage rate is quite high compared to Hispanics and other groups. And they celebrate Christmas with as much gaudy gusto—complete with a tree, stockings and tandoori turkey—as the most ardent believer. But the vast majority of Indians are Hindus and their attachment to their religion runs deep regardless of whether they are rich or poor, working class or professionals. It's the one thing from their home culture that they cling to tenaciously.

However, Hinduism with its exotic practices, belief in reincarnation and quasi-polytheism has very little in common with Christianity. Even Islam accepts monotheism, the Bible and Christ. Hinduism, by contrast, has a completely different holy book, its own pantheon of Gods and its own (equally bizarre) theory of creation. Hindus don't regard Christianity as wrong or an enemy. They just see it as one among many legitimate options and Jesus as one among many incarnations of God. There isn't a clash of civilizations between Hinduism and Christianity—there is a clash of spiritual postures.

Hence, when the Republican Party loudly touts its allegiance to "Christian values" and insists that Christianity is inextricably interwoven into the DNA of this country, it doesn't anger Indians, it nonplusses them. It effectively signals to them that they don't fully belong in America or their party. And the sight of Haley and Jindal on the Republican convention stage, both of whom rejected their faith and embraced Christianity, doesn't reassure Indians—it creeps them out! (Incidentally, there is no such thing as apostasy in Hinduism.)

Due to both the pluralistic ethos of their own religion and their standing as a religious minority, Indians are inevitably more at home in a party that emphasizes pluralism and tolerance and whose relatively more cosmopolitan sensibility is less prone to regard them as weird. (One big reason they were so attracted to Obama was his cosmopolitan background.) By contrast, conservatives simply don't have a high visceral comfort level with brown people who sport red marks on their foreheads and pray to multi-headed Gods. Countless times I have watched as they strive mightily to keep a polite poker face when I've responded to their query about my faith by saying that I was born in a Hindu family.

Indians don't seek to challenge Christianity or box it into a small private space. They are used to cacophonous public displays of religion in their own country such as the Hindu jagran or prayer session blared all-night-long through loud speakers or the muezzin's call to prayer to devout Muslims at ungodly hours in the morning. Hence, the Ten Commandments carved into court walls or the invocation of God in the pledge of allegiance or the offering of grace before public feasts is par for the course for them—so long as it is done in a spirit of self-expression and not proselytizing. They are perfectly happy to go along with Christian festivals—even participate in them without expecting any quid pro quo. All they want is to be left alone to practice their faith without being made to feel defensive or strange.

This shouldn't be beyond the capacity of a party with a strong belief in limited government and the strict separation of state and religion to offer. But somehow that message is lost in the in-your-face Christianity that the modern-day Republican Party constantly feels the need to project—partly no doubt because it feels besieged by the growing multiplicity of faiths around it. This prevents conservatives from having a genuine encounter with Indians and build understanding.

However, such bridges are essential in a globalized world and when Republicans start building—instead of burning—them, they will have a better shot at fully marshaling the Patel power that is waiting out there to be tapped. Until then, they'll have to settle for the occasional prayer extravaganza in distant Hindu temples hosted by maverick émigrés.

Sing Jai Ho, Mitt.