This week on the show, Milan sits down with his co-authors Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur to unveil the findings of a new report they’ve authored on how Indian Americans view India.
Indian Americans are now the second-largest immigrant group in the United States. Their growing political influence and their courtship by the Indian government raises important—as yet unanswered—questions. How do Indians in America regard India, and how do they remain connected to developments there? What are their attitudes toward Indian politics and changes underway in their ancestral homeland? And what role, if any, do they envision for the United States in engaging with India?
This week on the show, Milan sits down with his co-authors Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur to unveil the findings of a new report they’ve authored on how Indian Americans view India. Milan, Sumitra, and Devesh discuss what their new data tells us about Indian Americans remain connected to their ancestral homeland, how they assess the performance of Narendra Modi, and how they view India’s democratic trajectory. Plus, the trio talk about what a more divided diaspora might mean for U.S.-India relations and India’s foreign policy in the years to come.
Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav. In September of 2019, 50,000 Indian Americans flooded a football stadium in Houston, Texas to participate in an unprecedented rally of support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that just so happened to feature U.S. President Donald Trump as an opening act. As crowds attending the "Howdy, Modi!" rally shouted pro-India slogans inside, outside of the stadium, protesters chanted refrains about the demise of Indian democracy. Indian Americans are now the second largest immigrant group in the United States. Their growing political influence and their courtship by the Indian government raises important and as yet unanswered questions. How do Indians in America regard India, and how do they remain connected to developments there? What are their attitudes toward Indian politics and the changes underway in their ancestral homeland? And what role, if any, do they envision for the United States in engaging with India? A new study released today by the Carnegie Endowment, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and the University of Pennsylvania sheds light on these and many other questions. As one of the co-authors of this new study, I'm pleased to be joined once again on the show by my fellow co-authors Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur. Thanks for taking the time.
Thank you for having us.
Thank you, Milan.
So, Devesh, let me start with you. This new report which we're releasing today builds on a survey known as the Indian American Attitudes Survey. We fielded the survey back in September. Unlike the first report, which really focused on Indian American political attitudes in the United States, this one does something very different: it looks at how Indian Americans view India. Why, in your view, at this particular juncture, was this an important thing to look at?
So, Milan, in general in recent years, there's been a growing interest in the economic, political, and social links and the effects of diasporas. The growing size - but even more the income and wealth - of Indian Americans makes them a particularly important part of the Indian diaspora. Now, the benefits of leveraging its diaspora for India's economic and foreign policy goals have been recognized for many decades in India, but much more so since Prime Minister Vajpayee initiated the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2001. I think one could say quite fairly that no prime minister has courted his country's diaspora as assiduously as Prime Minister Modi. I think recently, at the 16th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the Indian external affairs minister remarked that India's relations with its diaspora had been "transformed" by the very unique bonding that the prime minister has established with the diaspora. And he's had, as you know, two notable visits with the Indian diaspora, in 2014 and in 2019. So, I think it behooves us as researchers to understand, given all this courting by India, just how do Indian Americans now view India?
So, before we get into the real sort of meat of the report - Sumitra, many of our listeners would have heard our podcast from October about our previous report on Indian American attitudes, but some of them may not have. Could you just briefly recap, say a word on how we did this survey?
Yeah. So, this was an online survey of 1200 Indian Americans, and it was a nationally representative survey. To make this happen, we partnered with a survey firm called YouGov. YouGov has run polls for many years in the United States and across the world. Now, they have an online panel of 1.8 million Americans in this country, including Indian Americans, so with their help, we recruited a subgroup of Indian Americans matched to our target sample based on the census. So, we wanted people matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, and education, such that the sample we got became overall representative of the Indian American population. So, this is how we achieved it, and we carried out the survey in October 2020 before the American election.
Devesh - you know, this report begins by making I think the somewhat obvious point but important point that Indian Americans aren't a monolith. There's probably no such thing as the "Indian American community." You know, the report is pretty clear right up front that our survey shows that Indian Americans who are born outside of the United States are much more likely to report a strong personal connection to India compared to those people like myself who are born inside the United States, but once you kind of dig into the precise ways Indian Americans connect back home, there's some interesting variation. Tell us a bit more about how the Diaspora looks at their motherland. How do they stay connected?
So, as you said, Milan, we found that Indian Americans are, by and large, quite connected through family and social networks, through culture, and through political engagement. So, first is physical connectivity: through travel, communication with family and friends, connectivity that shows up through philanthropy, both religious and secular. And then there's probably something that one might call a cognitive connectivity: do they follow events and news in India through television or online news and so on? And then there is the cultural part - you know, watching Indian TV programs, movies, eating Indian food, engaging in Indian dance and music. So, you see that - I mean, these three are of course sort of interlinked, but they can also be quite separated. There could be people who are not very connected with India physically but who still regularly eat Indian food or practice or engage in Indian cultural forms.
Sumitra, I think one of the things we were really motivated to do at the very beginning, if you kind of rewind the clock, was trying to understand how Indian Americans view India's trajectory as a democracy, as a country. There is an assumption, I think, that the Indian diaspora is quite pleased with the direction of India. Narendra Modi is quite popular. We're going to talk more about Modi's popularity in a second, but at a kind of macro perspective, what do we know from the survey about the mood within the Indian American community insofar as India's direction is concerned?
So, there's a question on the American National Election Survey, the ANES, that has been employed by many other surveys that came after that, which asked: do you think things in your country are going in the right direction, or have they pretty seriously gotten off the wrong track? We use that same question in our sample with respect to India to gauge broad views about the trajectory of the country as per our Indian American response. So, what do we find? We find that 36% of our sample say India is on the right track, but 39% say it is on the wrong track. Now, we also asked this question about the United States, and the answers show a pretty stark contrast: for the U.S., 33% say it's on the right track, but 67% say it's on the wrong track. Another data point is that it's also worth comparing these results to what Indians in India think about the country when asked the same question, and an Ipsos poll conducted in June 2020 found that 60% of Indians say that India is on the right track. Now, compare that to the 36% in our sample who say the same thing. We could conclude based off of this that our sample of Indian Americans is slightly more pessimistic than the Indian population in India about the current trajectory. So, the assumption that you talked about, Milan, at the beginning of this question, sort of isn't [borne out] by our data. And one last thing that I'll say about this is that these responses also vary pretty largely by place of birth. So, a larger percent of the sample born outside the U.S. say that India is on the right track, but a larger percent of the sample born in the U.S. say that India is on the wrong track.
We'll come back to this, because I think one of the persistent themes across this report on many questions is the difference across generations and where you're born, whether you're born in the United States or not. Devesh, on the political question, which I think is probably the one that will get the most attention by the folks who pick up this report - we asked whether there was a political party in India that you associate yourself with, and about a third of respondents, 32%, identified with the BJP. Just 12% identified with the Congress; 28% identify with a host of much smaller parties if you aggregate them all together. Interestingly, a full 40% don't claim any particular partisan affiliation. But if you just think about the BJP versus the Congress numbers for a second, do these numbers surprise you? I mean, what do they tell us about the Indian American population?
In some ways, Milan, I didn't find the numbers particularly surprising. So, let's say we compare the share of Indian Americans identifying with the BJP and Congress - it's actually less than the share either party got in the 2019 general elections. In those elections, the BJP got about 38% of the vote, and Congress about half of that, slightly less than 20%. So, this compares to 32% and 12% for the BJP and the Congress in the U.S. So, it's somewhat lower than the share in India for the Congress than for the BJP, but the trends and the levels are broadly in the same direction. I think, in part, as you noted, about 40% have no opinion. This is compared to about one-third who did not vote in the last Indian elections. And one would expect that once people leave their country and are making their lives in the new country, their focus shifts, and this probably was even more so last year given everything that was happening in the U.S. So, I think both the relative support for the BJP and Congress, as well as the fact that a fairly high number did not have or did not identify themselves with any party - you know, the precise numbers, it's hard to say, but I think we would expect something on this side.
Sumitra, one of the most interesting nuggets in the survey is the idea that Indian Americans’ preferences in U.S. politics don't necessarily line up very neatly with their views on Indian politics. So, one of the commonly held views that's out there - you saw a lot of this in the reporting about the US election - is that if you are pro-Trump, if you approve of the job that Trump is doing, then that means you're pro-Modi, and if you are anti-Trump, if you disapprove of the president and maybe voted for Joe Biden, you're anti-Modi. What do the data actually show?
First, let me start by highlighting that a lot of people in this sample do approve of Modi: 50% of our respondents rate Modi's performance favorably. Of the other half of the sample, 30% don't rate him favorably, and 20% actually don't express an opinion. Now, we asked the same question about approval and disapproval for Trump, and like you said, there is this notion that support for Modi and support for Trump go hand in hand. So, we looked at whether these approval ratings for both leaders correlate with each other, and here's what we find: among respondents who do approve of Trump, 68% approve of Modi. So, in other words, if you are a Trump supporter, the likelihood that you also support Modi goes up. However, among respondents who do not approve of Trump – so, people who disapprove of Trump - 41% approve of Modi, 38% disapprove of Modi. So, in other words, if you are not a Trump supporter, the likelihood that you also support Modi remains largely unaffected. And you can see this with partisan identities, too: Republicans are more likely to support Modi in our sample relative to Democrats. So, to sum it up, there is this commonly held belief that support for Trump and Modi go hand in hand. We don't find that it's that simple. Trump supporters do like Modi, but disapproval of Trump does not automatically correlate with disapproval of Modi. The picture is a little more nuanced there.
Devesh, let me kind of ask you a follow up on this, because it is true: according to our data, Republicans expressed the greatest levels of support for Modi. Now, Democrats are slightly less enthusiastic, but still support Modi in pretty large numbers. In fact, Democrats and Biden voters like Modi more than they like either Rahul Gandhi or the Congress Party. I'm wondering if you could step back for a second. You know, this isn't something that we were able to really dig into in the survey, but just given that you've studied the data for a long time, what do you think it is that explains Modi's broad appeal across different segments of the Indian American diaspora here in the States?
I think in one word, it's that he's extremely popular in India itself. In fact, in a survey run by YouGov, the global leader approval rating tracker, Modi enjoys a net approval rating more than any other leader that they track. And within India, last month, India Today had a poll, and once again, there is just no other leader in India who is even remotely close to his level of popularity. And therefore it's not surprising that he would be popular among Indian Americans, as well. Now, why is he so popular in India? Now, that's a very different question. You know, surely one of the answers lies in the fact that, well, who else is there? The lack of alternatives. [Also,] marketing - there are all sorts of reasons. But I think the key reason he's popular here is that he's popular within India. In fact, his popularity here on a net approval rating is about one-third of his net approval rating within India.
So, if I could transition a bit from talking about specific political leaders to talking about policy: Sumitra, one of the most exciting parts of this report - a section we spent a lot of time kind of thinking about - was the issue of whether Indian Americans behave differently when it comes to policy in India versus policy in the United States. So, there has been some arguments put out there that Indian Americans tend to be more liberal on average in the United States, but when they look at policy issues in India, they tend to be more conservative. This is obviously a very complicated empirical question to study. Tell our listeners a little bit about what the report found and how we kind of went about putting this under the microscope.
Yeah. Honestly, this was one of the most exciting parts for me, also. So, let me start by saying why this is a complicated question to study and measure. So, if we want to compare people's attitudes toward political issues in two very different countries, it's not as simple as asking people which parties they support because parties stand for very different things in each country, and especially in India, it's not really easy or straightforward to understand political parties as occupying space on a traditional left-right dimension. So, the way we went about this was that we picked five issues that have led to pretty contentious policy debates both in India and the U.S.: minority rights, affirmative action, press freedom, the right to protest and police brutality, and issues of citizenship and immigration. For each of these five issues, we found a parallel example in both the India and the U.S. case. So, I want to give an example: in the case of affirmative action, we asked whether respondents supported the consideration of caste identity as a factor in university admissions. This is for the India case. For the U.S. case, we asked the same question, but we wanted to know whether they would support the consideration of race as a factor in university admissions. So, for each of these five issues, respondents were asked their views about Indian policies as well as U.S. policies, insofar as it's possible to create as parallel examples as we can. We also randomized the order in which they got these questions, so about half the sample got the US issues first and about half got the India issues first. This was to make sure that the order in which we asked these questions didn't affect responses. And, finally, what we also did was we asked about these issues in the abstract without a country example. So, when we're talking about race and caste in school admissions, we also asked what people thought about the norm or the value of affirmative action itself. So, now for each of these five issues, we have three points of comparison. What do people think about it as a democratic norm or as an issue in the abstract? What do they think when it's applied to an example in India? And what do they think when it's applied to an example in the U.S.? And taken together, they can tell us a couple of different and important things. So, first is the question you asked: Are policy views universal? So, does the same person have the same views on a given issue regardless of context, or are they contextual? And the second thing they can tell us is, what's the difference between the value or the norm and its example in each of the countries?
And, you know, generally speaking, just to quickly summarize - and correct me if I'm wrong - on some pretty critically important issues, namely citizenship and immigration and equal protection of minority religions, the survey finds that the same person tends to hold more liberal views on those issues in the United States and more conservative views in India. However, everyone is happy to subscribe to these liberal views in abstract, and their overall levels of support tend to decline when you ask them to attach these views in specific countries. Is that a fair summary?
Yeah, that's exactly right. Actually, for four out of the five issues that we talked about, Indian Americans appear to have a slightly more liberal view in the U.S. context relative to the Indian context. So, you gave the example of religious minorities being treated equally: 60% of the sample supports treating them equally in the U.S. but only 49% in India. The only issue for which you really don't see a difference between the U.S. and India examples is with respect to the use of police force against peaceful protesters. And the last thing to underscore here is that, for almost every issue, people are more likely to support the abstract democratic norm underlying the issue to a much higher extent than its application in a country context. So, again, taking the example of religious minorities, 90% of the sample says that treating religious minorities is important in the abstract, but this number comes down to 60% in the US context and 49% in the Indian context. So, my takeaway is that this shows us that asking about norms or issues in the abstract can generate very different survey responses relative to when they're accompanied by concrete examples. And even the context of that concrete example can generate very different responses.
I mean, this begs the question: What's going on? Right? A separate question which might shed some light here is, you know - we asked Indian Americans what they felt about the threat of white supremacy in the United States and [the threat of] of Hindu majoritarianism back in India, and what we seem to find is that, indeed, Americans are much more concerned about white supremacy as a potential threat in the United States than they are about the rise of Hindu nationalism back home in India. And so, we're sort of in the world of informed speculation, but I'm wondering how you make sense of these kind of diverging views.
So, since a majority of Indian Americans are Hindus - Indians are a minority within the U.S., and a minority will always feel apprehensive about majoritarianism. In this case, the majoritarianism might come from white nationalism. But, of course, Hindus are a majority in India, so they're less worried about the consequences of Hindu nationalism within India. However, Indian Americans who are religious minorities in India - Muslims, and Christians - we find are much more worried about Hindu nationalism, because of course there they are a minority, and like the overall Indian Americans here, all minorities feel rightfully apprehensive about majoritarian sort of tendencies. But, interestingly enough, we find that Muslim Indian Americans are much more worried about white nationalism than those who are of the Christian faith, because of course Christians are a majority in the U.S. And so Hindu and Muslim Indian Americans, who are religious minorities in the U.S., feel more apprehensive about white nationalism, which is [related to] Christian [majoritarianism], than Christian Indian Americans.
I thought this was one of the most fascinating takeaways, because it's sort of like, where you sit is where you stand, right? I mean, depending on your positioning, whether you're part of the majority community or not, that's going to shape your worldview, which I think makes kind of intuitive sense. I mean, any of us would likely think in that way. There are two other issues on the survey I want to get to before we conclude, because I think they're both important for their own reasons. Let me start with the issue of the media and social media. Sumitra, you study this stuff for a living, you think a lot about how Indians consume the media and social media. I want to ask you about what the survey has to say about Indian Americans. A significant proportion of them, I think it's around 40%, rely on social media, but that doesn't mean that they're not focused on more mainstream traditional news sources. Tell us a little bit about the news and information consumption habits of Indian Americans and what, if anything, jumped out at you.
Yeah, you're right, a large proportion of the sample reported getting their news online, but when you break up that number, you see that the most widely used online platform for news is YouTube. Facebook comes in a close second, but it stood out to me that YouTube was so popular. You know, unfortunately, we study this for a living, and as far as media effects research goes, I think there's been a disproportionate amount of attention devoted to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but this data shows us that perhaps we need to look harder at platforms like YouTube, where we know less about the pervasiveness and the channels of information - and misinformation - as well as the mechanisms for its spread. Now, apart from news mediums themselves, we also asked respondents which particular sources they use for news and how much they trust these sources, and we find that, for news about India, respondents' most trusted source is the BBC, followed by CNN and the New York Times. Now, on the other side of the spectrum, some of the least trustworthy sources are Republic TV, and Aaj Tak TV. This is what I found sort of surprising and really interesting, and I'll tell you why - because, as we've discussed, a large proportion of this sample approves of Modi, and conventional wisdom would have it that the sources Republic TV and Aaj Tak are pro-government, generally more favorable to the current government in India. So, the fact that they're trusted the least despite the partisan bent of this sample shows that either people perhaps really don't see a partisan slant in these sources, or they do but they still watch them despite low trust, perhaps for their entertainment value. And this stands out to me because we know in the U.S. that Republicans and Democrats are pretty strongly split in terms of their choice for television, right? Republicans [watch] Fox News - these days, Newsmax - and they don't like MSNBC at all. So, this sort of selective exposure to certain channels based on partisan bent, that somehow doesn't seem to be replicating in the context of India, which I think is something that as researchers we need to look into about why that's the case.
I agree, that was really interesting. One other interesting finding here is that, in addition to 10 or so mainstream media outlets, we also asked how Indian Americans would rate in terms of their trustworthiness information on developments from the Indian government, from social media, and for messaging apps, and those three were the three least trustworthy - messaging apps being the least in absolute terms - which I thought was very interesting. Devesh, let me transition here to the kind of final chunk of the report, which is on the important issue of foreign policy, which is getting a lot of airtime. There is a pretty interesting finding on China which I wanted to ask you about. The vast majority of Indian Americans have a pretty dim view of China, they're overwhelmingly unfavorable, but they're not at all united or agreed on what the U.S. and India should do to address the China challenge. What are some of the demographic differences here in how the U.S. Indian American population looks at this issue?
First, Milan, Indian Americans' views on China, the unfavorability, is something that you see more broadly in the American population. And, as we know, these unfavorability ratings of China have increased in public opinion in most Western countries over the last two or three years. You're absolutely right that we found differences among Indian Americans on how the U.S. should try and help or not help India vis-à-vis China, and these differences actually reflect something which we find on many issues in our report, which is that there are considerable inter-generational differences, in particular differences between those who came as immigrants from India and what one might call the "second generation" - that is, those who are born in the United States. Those who are born in the U.S. are relatively less favorable that to the idea that the U.S. should help strengthen India's military as a check against China as opposed to not provoking China further by strengthening India's military. That, I think, is understandable, because they are putting what they see as American interests first - you know, should America take any risks or put itself at risk by supporting India against China as opposed to really putting its own foreign policy interests as a priority? Whereas I think those who come from India think that it serves both India and the U.S. if the U.S. would sort of bolster India's military against a much stronger China.
I want to bring this conversation to an end by talking about some of the implications of these takeaways, and Devesh, let me let me start with you. I think what this report seems to suggest - and it's kind of what we began this conversation with - is that the diaspora does not speak with a single voice, right? It's much more heterogeneous and varied than it perhaps once was, which I think makes sense, given generational differences and so on and so forth. But it doesn't view U.S. politics, much less Indian politics, with any kind of uniformity. As you think about the future and the future of U.S.-India relations, what do you think this diversity or this heterogeneity portends for how these two countries will get along?
At a minimum, there'll be more noise. We know that India is a very diverse country. We also know that both in India and the U.S. - despite increasing polarization, on one issue, there has been actually a pretty strong consensus across Democrats and Republicans, which has been to build stronger relations with India. And this really stands out given the multiple other issues where there are very strong differences. But I think that the polarization within India is undoubtedly [leading to] more heterogeneous views within Indian Americans, and that is likely to result in different groups of Indian Americans pressing - especially in Congress - their representatives on different aspects of U.S. foreign policy related to India. I think it's likely to translate into some groups trying to put more pressure on the Indian government on a variety of issues - it could be human rights, it could be the treatment of Muslims, or it could be about Indian democracy. So, that's, I think, likely to happen. Indian Americans were very much an upper caste group, but now they are, we saw in our sample - they reflect India's religious diversity, they reflect India's regional diversity. Yes, they still are much more educated than the distribution within India, and they still are much more upper caste than the distribution of the caste population within India. But unlike the past, we now begin to see middle castes and the lower castes who are now more educated also finding their way to the United States. So, this heterogeneity is only going to grow, and it's going to grow even more because of the growing share of the second generation. So, besides the other cleavages, there are generational differences between the first generation who came as immigrants and their children who see themselves, of course, as more American. So, I think at a minimum, this translates into more, shall we say, interesting times. And a lot, of course, also depends how the government of India itself manages its own domestic politics.
Yeah, I think interesting is a good word. I think we've seen in the events of the past week, with a lot of commentary around the farmer protests in India, precisely that kind of cacophony of voices coming from Indian Americans. Sumitra - this report really covers a lot of ground, right? I mean, it covers issues of citizenship, connectivity, Indian politics, American politics, foreign policy, social issues. You know, you and I are different categories of Indian Americans. You were born in India, you were raised there, you came here as a student, and I've been living here for a long time. From your perspective, if you had to sort of highlight one overarching takeaway from this report, at least as you see it, what would it be?
For me, I think it's something we've discussed already in this recording, and that's that the community is not a monolith. They have very divergent views, not just about politics in the U.S., but also about India. And we've talked about polarization, but for me, the overarching takeaway is that this polarization [in the Indian American community] is not precisely [akin to] how it operates in the U.S. context. Let me give an example. One thing we haven't talked about today is gender differences. Men in our sample of Indian Americans are actually more likely to support certain policy issues in India relative to women, but we don't see gender differences in support of Modi. That's pretty different from the way in which Indian Americans generally view politics in the U.S. as a product of gender. And we've already discussed differences in religion with respect to attitudes in this sample, and we already also talked about how there's not a connection between the media sources that people watch and their partisan identities. So, though people are polarized, we're not seeing the precise mechanisms or patterns or polarization that we would expect given the American population at large. So, all this means, I suppose, that we need more theorizing about this community. Why do they have the attitudes that they do? How do these attitudes differ in different contexts? And does this kind of polarization eventually have downstream effects on people's views about each other? And what kinds of solutions can we work towards? You mentioned the farm protests. I did want to say that one of the things that's personally interesting to me is, what is the effect of increasing channels of communication via the internet on people's awareness about political issues, especially younger Indian Americans? And one thing I'll note is that for a lot of our questions, a sizeable proportion of our sample says they don't have an opinion. For example, support for Prime Minister Modi - 20% of the sample says they don't have an opinion. This means that they're - think of them as sort of undecided in an election context. They can be moved. So, what is going to be the impact of new sources like the internet on moving these people's attitudes, and how will they break? That, I think, is one of the questions that we need to think about as we continue to study this.
My guests on the show today are Sumitra Badrinathan and Devesh Kapur. The three of us are co-authors of a new study: How Indian Americans View India: Results from the 2020 Indian American Attitudes Survey. The report is out now, and we'll link to it in our show notes. We have one more report in our three-part series. The third and final report, we hope, will come out later this spring and will focus on the social realities of Indian Americans living in the United States. Devesh and Sumitra, thanks so much for coming back. Hope to have you back one more time later this spring to talk about the next report.
Thank you, Milan.