Foreign Policy

The Rising Significance of South Asians in U.S. Politics

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Today: We take a look at Indian Americans and the Nov. 3 election, India’s military deal with the United States, Pompeo’s controversial comments in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and why Bangladesh and Pakistan are protesting against French President Emmanuel Macron.

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South Asia’s Stake in the U.S. Election

Experts will spend weeks and months examining data from the U.S. election next Tuesday, but one thing is almost certain: The Indian American vote will be more important than it has ever been. I recommend a recent report by Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur, and Milan Vaishnav for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that outlines the rapid rate of Indian migration to the United States and how Indian Americans might vote.

Consider the following data points.

Over the last 20 years, immigrants from India have arrived in the United States at a higher rate than those from any country other than Mexico.

Indian Americans now account for a little over 1 percent of the American population, and slightly less than 1 percent of registered voters in the United States. Nearly 71 percent of them were born outside the United States, and 40 percent moved to the country after 2010, implying that the community’s electoral impact is still nascent. The 2020 vote may see it emerge as an important political demographic.

In key battleground states such as Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, the population of Indian American voters now exceeds the 2016 victory margins in those states. How the group votes could have a real impact on close races.

Indian American households make a median income of about $120,000—about twice as much as the national median income—according to new research by Devesh Kapur and Jashan Bajwa.

How will Indian Americans vote? The group is no monolith, but it certainly leans Democratic. A new Indian American Attitudes Survey suggests that 72 percent of Indian American voters will back Democratic nominee Joe Biden, while 22 percent will vote for President Donald Trump. (In 2016, only 16 percent of Indian Americans voted for Trump.)

More on the results and the geopolitical ramifications in next week’s edition. For now, I recommend the reporting of my colleagues Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, who explain how Indian Americans could be a “make or break” voting bloc in Texas, and the article “Why Indian Americans Matter in U.S. Politics” by Safiya Ghori-Ahmad and Fatima Salman in FP, for how they analyze the correlation between how Indian Americans vote and their support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India strikes a military deal with the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper have signed a pact to share sensitive satellite data with India to help New Delhi boost its defense and surveillance capabilities. The deal came after Pompeo and Esper participated in the third annual 2+2 meeting with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi this week.

As FP’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer describe in today’s Security Brief, the agreement comes amid larger moves by the Trump administration to bolster its presence in the region and to counter China more directly. Pompeo also found time to stop by two other South Asian countries, where he made some news…

In Sri Lanka, Pompeo took the opportunity to attack Beijing—a close ally of Colombo’s. “We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty, and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way: We come as a friend and as a partner,” Pompeo said during a press conference in Colombo.

And in the Maldives, as Pompeo announced plans for a U.S. Embassy in the capital, Male, I was struck by an exchange he had with reporter Aishath Shaany of Raajje TV.

Shaany: Being a small island state, we were disheartened about (the) United States’ position to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Do you believe that this was the right move?

Pompeo: Yeah, absolutely. The Paris Agreement’s a joke. The countries that have signed onto it have no intention of actually complying with it. If you look at what China, for example, has done, it’s the biggest polluter in the region. It presents the greatest threat to the people of Maldives and their economy.

While the interviewer moved on, it is worth noting that Beijing announced last month its carbon emissions would peak before 2030, and that it would be carbon neutral by 2060—with no expectations of a quid quo pro from Europe or the United States.

Protests against France’s Macron. Pakistan summoned France’s ambassador in Islamabad this week after Prime Minister Imran Khan said that French President Emmanuel Macron had “attacked Islam” by paying tribute to a French history teacher beheaded by a radical Islamist. On Oct. 16, a man of Chechen origin beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb after he showed students cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a class on freedom of speech.

Earlier this month, Macron announced a plan to defend France’s secular values, describing Islam as “in crisis.” He later described Paty as a “quiet hero.” His remarks set off protests in several Muslim-majority countries. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets this week carrying banners calling for a boycott of France.

Kashmir land laws. A new law issued on Tuesday allows Indian citizens to buy land in Jammu and Kashmir even if they are not permanent residents of the state, sparking immediate criticism from opposition groups opposed to an influx of people and potential demographic change in the Muslim-majority region. Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, called the move “unacceptable” and wrote that the state is “now up for sale.”

Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As U.S.-led peace talks in Afghanistan continue amid frequent violence, I was struck by a BBC article this week in which a senior United Nations official told the network that al Qaeda is still “heavily embedded” within the Taliban. Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the U.N.’s Islamic State, al Qaeda, and Taliban Monitoring Team, said that “the Taliban were talking regularly and at a high level with al Qaeda and reassuring them that they would honor their historic ties”—despite the deal with the United States.

Coronavirus update. South Asia set new coronavirus records this week. The region has now recorded more than 9 million cases, while India’s number of confirmed infections has crossed 8 million. If the official numbers are credible, then it seems the spread of COVID-19 has plateaued in India. And given the rise in new cases in the United States, it now looks less likely that India will end the year as the country with the world’s most confirmed coronavirus infections.

Coronavirus cases are rising more rapidly in Nepal than in other countries on the subcontinent. While the official daily toll is around 15 deaths each day, workers at crematoriums in Kathmandu indicate that the real numbers are likely twice as high, as fears rise about an overstretched medical infrastructure.

Facebook’s India policy chief moves on. Two months ago, the Wall Street Journal named Ankhi Das as leading an effort within Facebook to go easy on Indian politicians who violated hate speech rules. This week, she resigned from her job as Facebook’s India policy head. Das was one of Facebook’s first employees in India.

As this newsletter has pointed out, the revelations about Facebook’s cozy ties with India’s ruling party have proved embarrassing for the Menlo Park giant. India is Facebook’s biggest global market in terms of users and represents a growing source of revenue.

That’s it for this week.

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