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South Asians and the Right Wing: A Case of Cognitive Dissonance

Updated: Oct 17, 2023


The success of South Asian Americans like Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley in conservative politics and the appeal of Modi-ism amongst the South Asian diaspora raise questions about a rising tide of conservatism within the Desi community.


Historically, South Asian Americans have voted consistently for Democrats and for left leaning policies. South Asian voting habits are inherently connected to their experience of America. Post 9/11 legislation like the Bush Administration’s PATRIOT Act, a law which allows the surveillance of Muslim and other marginalized communities, placed anyone that “looked Muslim” under suspicion, including South Asians. In addition to facing institutionalized racism from the government, South Asians were common victims of violent hate crimes, ranging from defacement of property to murder, following 9/11. The South Asian experience after 2001 informs the community’s preference for the more progressive policies of the left.


Though most of the South Asian electorate continues to vote progressively, a growing number staunchly support Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist, conservative Prime Minister of India. Modi has infamously presided over a myriad of Islamophobic policies, including passing a discriminatory citizenship law and revoking the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, with the aim of transforming India into a culturally Hindu nation.


Though Modi’s Islamophobic policies eerily echo the fearmongering of the post-9/11 era in the United States, a vast swath of South Asian Americans avidly support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. When Modi visited Washington, D.C. in July 2023, over 7,000 members of the diaspora joined him on the White House lawn, though the leaders within the Muslim South Asian community were notably absent. In 2019, over 50,000 gathered to welcome the Prime Minister, who was greeted by former President Trump, in Houston, Texas. Modi supporters within the diaspora cite the upward-trajectory of the Indian economy and the administration's numerous infrastructure projects as evidence of “the Modi effect”. They also point to historic events like the landing of Chandrayan-3 on the moon’s south pole and the rise of India’s tech-industry to illustrate India’s seemingly meteoric rise under Modi.


Despite India’s apparent progress, it has witnessed rampant Islamophobia and democratic backsliding under Modi’s premiership. How do left-leaning South Asian Americans reconcile the conservatism of BJP nationalism and nativism with the progressive policies they have voted for historically? Based on my interactions with the community and the rhetoric of Modi’s supporters, their cognitive dissonance comes down to a willingness to ignore the BJP’s discrimination against minorities as well as the latent Islamophobia within the Hindu-American community.


Especially within the baby-boomer generation, conversations on Modi focus solely on his economic and social accomplishments while ignoring the BJP’s impact on India’s legacy of political pluralism. Because upper-caste Hindus are largely shielded from the party’s draconian policies, they turn a deaf ear to intimidation campaigns against Muslims or the BJP’s repression of civil society. Other Modi supporters, like the President of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, Nikunj Trivedi, use overt Islamophobia to defend their Hindu nationalist perspective. In an interview on the “Jaipur Dialogues - USA”, Trivedi argued that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D) received support from the “Islamist lobby” to promote “anti-Hindu” policies. He also accused Pramila Jaypal and Ro Khanna of “working against our community” because they have spoken out against discrimination against South Asian minorities.


Similarly, lower-profile Modi supporters peddle Islamophobic misinformation on Whatsapp, one of the most infamous examples being that of The Kerala Story. This disingenuous documentary claimed that 32,000 Hindu and Christian women from Kerala were converted to Islam by radical Islamist clerics and sent to countries like Afghanistan and Yemen for the sake of “love Jihad”. When the film was finally released on Youtube, it described the stories of only three Keralite women. Similar theories surrounding conspiracies to build an Islamic state within India are shared widely amongst the South Asians on social media.


What does Modi’s rise amongst the diaspora say about the future of the South Asian-American electorate? Will conservatives like Ramaswamy and Haley appeal to South Asians in the upcoming presidential election? The anti-woke, pro-Trump candidates have yet to receive significant support from the South Asian community. Haley has relied on her own super-PAC to fund her campaign while billionaire Ramaswamy has bolstered his through personal funds. But perhaps some members of the community will find that Haley’s fiscal conservatism and Ramaswamy’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric resonate with them.


Ramaswamy promises that he will eliminate affirmative action on his first day of office, calling it a “cancer” and “anti-Asian and anti-white”. According to Pew Research Center, 19% of Asians that have heard of affirmative action agree with this view, though many, including Ramaswamy, benefit from the policy. Though Haley has deemphasized her race throughout her political career, she received significant support from the South Asian community during her campaign to be Governor of South Carolina. South Asians remain among the wealthiest minorities in the country, therefore many may be attracted to Haley’s fiscal policy.


Considering the self-serving, cognitive dissonance that fuels the South Asian diaspora’s support for Modi, their support for these up-and-coming Republicans is a distinct possibility. Just as much of the community has overlooked the Islamophobia and discrimination of the Modi government in favor of apparent economic prosperity, some may also choose to ignore Haley and Ramaswamy’s Trump-adjacent policies to the same end.



Anjali Khatri is the Blog Editor at Project Stree, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Project Stree. The success of South Asian Americans like Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley in conservative politics and the appeal of Modi-ism amongst the South Asian diaspora raise questions about a rising tide of conservatism within the Desi community.


Historically, South Asian Americans have voted consistently for Democrats and for left leaning policies. South Asian voting habits are inherently connected to their experience of America. Post 9/11 legislation like the Bush Administration’s PATRIOT Act, a law which allows the surveillance of Muslim and other marginalized communities, placed anyone that “looked Muslim” under suspicion, including South Asians. In addition to facing institutionalized racism from the government, South Asians were common victims of violent hate crimes, ranging from defacement of property to murder, following 9/11. The South Asian experience after 2001 informs the community’s preference for the more progressive policies of the left.


Though most of the South Asian electorate continues to vote progressively, a growing number staunchly support Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist, conservative Prime Minister of India. Modi has infamously presided over a myriad of Islamophobic policies, including passing a discriminatory citizenship law and revoking the autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, with the aim of transforming India into a culturally Hindu nation.


Though Modi’s Islamophobic policies eerily echo the fearmongering of the post-9/11 era in the United States, a vast swath of South Asian Americans avidly support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. When Modi visited Washington, D.C. in July 2023, over 7,000 members of the diaspora joined him on the White House lawn, though the leaders within the Muslim South Asian community were notably absent. In 2019, over 50,000 gathered to welcome the Prime Minister, who was greeted by former President Trump, in Houston, Texas. Modi supporters within the diaspora cite the upward-trajectory of the Indian economy and the administration's numerous infrastructure projects as evidence of “the Modi effect”. They also point to historic events like the landing of Chandrayan-3 on the moon’s south pole and the rise of India’s tech-industry to illustrate India’s seemingly meteoric rise under Modi.


Despite India’s apparent progress, it has witnessed rampant Islamophobia and democratic backsliding under Modi’s premiership. How do left-leaning South Asian Americans reconcile the conservatism of BJP nationalism and nativism with the progressive policies they have voted for historically? Based on my interactions with the community and the rhetoric of Modi’s supporters, their cognitive dissonance comes down to a willingness to ignore the BJP’s discrimination against minorities as well as the latent Islamophobia within the Hindu-American community.


Especially within the baby-boomer generation, conversations on Modi focus solely on his economic and social accomplishments while ignoring the BJP’s impact on India’s legacy of political pluralism. Because upper-caste Hindus are largely shielded from the party’s draconian policies, they turn a deaf ear to intimidation campaigns against Muslims or the BJP’s repression of civil society. Other Modi supporters, like the President of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, Nikunj Trivedi, use overt Islamophobia to defend their Hindu nationalist perspective. In an interview on the “Jaipur Dialogues - USA”, Trivedi argued that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D) received support from the “Islamist lobby” to promote “anti-Hindu” policies. He also accused Pramila Jaypal and Ro Khanna of “working against our community” because they have spoken out against discrimination against South Asian minorities.


Similarly, lower-profile Modi supporters peddle Islamophobic misinformation on Whatsapp, one of the most infamous examples being that of The Kerala Story. This disingenuous documentary claimed that 32,000 Hindu and Christian women from Kerala were converted to Islam by radical Islamist clerics and sent to countries like Afghanistan and Yemen for the sake of “love Jihad”. When the film was finally released on Youtube, it described the stories of only three Keralite women. Similar theories surrounding conspiracies to build an Islamic state within India are shared widely amongst the South Asians on social media.


What does Modi’s rise amongst the diaspora say about the future of the South Asian-American electorate? Will conservatives like Ramaswamy and Haley appeal to South Asians in the upcoming presidential election? The anti-woke, pro-Trump candidates have yet to receive significant support from the South Asian community. Haley has relied on her own super-PAC to fund her campaign while billionaire Ramaswamy has bolstered his through personal funds. But perhaps some members of the community will find that Haley’s fiscal conservatism and Ramaswamy’s hyper-nationalist rhetoric resonate with them.


Ramaswamy promises that he will eliminate affirmative action on his first day of office, calling it a “cancer” and “anti-Asian and anti-white”. According to Pew Research Center, 19% of Asians that have heard of affirmative action agree with this view, though many, including Ramaswamy, benefit from the policy. Though Haley has deemphasized her race throughout her political career, she received significant support from the South Asian community during her campaign to be Governor of South Carolina. South Asians remain among the wealthiest minorities in the country, therefore many may be attracted to Haley’s fiscal policy.


Considering the self-serving, cognitive dissonance that fuels the South Asian diaspora’s support for Modi, their support for these up-and-coming Republicans is a distinct possibility. Just as much of the community has overlooked the Islamophobia and discrimination of the Modi government in favor of apparent economic prosperity, some may also choose to ignore Haley and Ramaswamy’s Trump-adjacent policies to the same end.



Anjali Khatri is the Blog Editor at Project Stree, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young women and girls in India and providing them with sustainable period products. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Project Stree.

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