Two groups of Hindu Americans, Trump supporters and Biden supporters, held a debate on Zoom Sunday afternoon, and brought home the message that there is a sharp political divide among the Hindu community in the U.S.
The conventional wisdom is that a majority of Indian Americans, about 80 percent, voted for Democrats and the entry of Donald Trump as the presidential candidate in 2016 did not change the picture.
However, by 2020, political perceptions dramatically changed with Hindu Americans witnessing more overt pro-India, pro-Narendra Modi government initiatives by the Trump administration and on the other hand, an overtly hostile attitude by all levels of the Democratic Party toward the government led by Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.
In the face of controversies dogging the Democratic Party leaders over their public comments critical of India under Modi’s leadership, seen as pandering to Muslims, Biden supporters sought to respond with the anti-Trump talking points that Trump is a racist, misogynist, not a real friend of India and that his appearance at the Howdy Modi rally in Houston was transactional and he was there only for himself and for the Indian American votes.
If Biden supporters alluded to the Obama-Biden administration’s lifting of nuclear sanctions against India as a demonstration of Biden’s pro-India stance, Trump supporters brought to light how Biden as the senate foreign relations committee chair, passed a bill pumping billions of dollars for improving Pakistan’s economy, which ended up funding the Pakistan military and promoting terrorism across the border. On top of it, Biden received the highest national award given by the government of Pakistan. Trump, on the other hand, named Pakistan a ‘country of particular concern’ for supporting cross-border terrorism and drastically cut the financial aid to Pakistan. Hindus asked Obama administration to cut the aid to Pakistan, but he did not do it.
One of the Trump supporters pointed out that then President Obama, after his return from a visit to India spoke about “Muslim human rights” in India.
A much more direct question to the Biden team was about the party platform having sections on Muslim American community, and Jewish American community, but not about Hindu American community.
The Biden team’s response was that the Democratic Party as a policy recognized “cultural communities” and not religious communities, thus, its policy towards “Indian American community” is on the platform.
One of the panelists, Utsav Chakrabarty, a Trump supporter, said at least he wrote six letters to the Democratic Party leadership, as early as in May, asking them to post a policy paper on “Hindu Americans.” He did not get any response, but one of the Democratic Party operatives told him that unless he made contribution to Biden campaign, nothing would happen.
Tushar Dayagude, a Trump supporter, validated Chakrabarty’s assertion that campaign contribution was a must for Hindus to have their cause recognized. Dayagude was suggesting that Hindu Americans were largely contributing to Trump’s campaign and hence, the Biden campaign ignored Hindu Americans.
In this context, Srilekha Palle, a Trump supporter from Fairfox, Virginia, disputed the assertion that Hindu Americans largely donated to the Trump campaign and pointed out that a well-known Hindu American leader (from Houston) raised $3.5 million from Hindu Americans in one night for the Biden campaign.
Trump supporters effectively drove home the point that Democrats and Biden-Harris campaign pandered to Muslims and its support to Hindu cause was nothing more than “tokenism.”
A case in point, in 2012, during a Diwali celebration, (Hindu Festival of Lights) at the White House, Democrats invited the Islamic Society of North America, as one of the sponsors of the event and provided a platform for their spokesman to speak at the Hindu religious festival.
This brings us to, perhaps, the high water mark of the debate, at least visually and symbolically, which left the Biden supporters speechless.
Trump supporters showed on the screen a graphic tweet by Kamala Harris’s niece Meena Harris, which has since been removed from her Twitter account.
The graphic is very timely coinciding with the ongoing Hindu Festival called “Navratri” (literally Nine Evenings) where the woman power in Hindu pantheon is symbolically celebrated in different forms of the goddess during these nine days, where good triumphs over evil.
One such episode depicts the Goddess Durga, riding a lion, slays the demon. Meena Harris in her tweet, imposed Kamala’s face as Durga, made Biden as the lion and Trump as the demon being killed.
Ustav Chakrabarty said the only outreach the Biden community has made to the Hindu Americans is this kind of “tokenism, which at best is cheap and hurtful and at its worst, creates Hinduphobia.”
“Writing a nice greeting message during a Hindu festival does not touch up on the real generational trauma and the civilizational challenges that the Hindu community is grappling with in the U.S. and by extension, other parts of the world, he said.
“The Biden-Harris ticket has courted two of the biggest threats, both of which are historical, that are existing (against) the Hindu community, one is Islamism and the other is Marxism. The prevalence and promotion of anti-Hindu rhetoric at all levels of the Democratic Party, has not been criticized at all by the Biden-Harris ticket. In fact, they have actually gone on and supported many of these positions, and then occasionally, backtracked. Give up the tokenism, let us talk about the substantial issues,” Chakraborty said.
The panelists on the Biden side included Nish Acharya and Niki Shah. The Trump sided included Jay Kansara, a former director of governmental relations for the Hindu American Foundation in Washington D.C., who played a key role in the Howdy Modi summit. After nine years as the Washington insider, he was dismayed by the “swamp” of both the political parties and saw Trump providing a much-needed change as Washington outsider.
Asked why the Trump campaign did not respond to a questionnaire sent by the Hindu American Foundation PAC, while the Biden campaign did, Kansara said, though he did not represent the Trump campaign, HAF had asked him to get the response, but he found the questionnaire heavily biased and one sided against Trump, like the media, and advised the Trump campaign against responding to it.
The 2020 presidential debate on the American Hindu issues was co-sponsored by Hindu American Foundation, HAFPAC, HinduPACT, HinduVote and Coalition of Hindus of North America.
Rajeev Singh from HAF, Ajay Shah from the World Hindu Council of America and HINDUPACT and Sohini Sircar from CoHNA,represented their respective organizations. Rakhi Israni moderated the debate.