Indian American Democrat Shekar Narasimhan, Founder and Chairman AAPI Victory Fund, speaks about the election, in the latest episode of The Bridge Project.
By Rajesh Mehta and Carl Jaison
In the latest episode of The Bridge Project, Shekar Narasimhan offers his take on the upcoming U.S Presidential elections and what it means for the future of America. Narasimhan is the Chairman and Founder of AAPI Victory Fund, an organization that focuses on mobilizing eligible voters from the Asian American and Pacific Islanders communities and moving them to the ballot box. Narasimhan speaks on a range of issues including the latest on the debate performances of U.S President Donald Trump and Democratic Nominee Joe Biden, the significance of the recent Vice-Presidential Debate, the impact of voting-by-mail, the possibility of violence in the aftermath of the elections and the key issues that matter to the Indian American community. This episode was co-hosted by Rajesh Mehta, an International Consultant and Columnist, and Carl Jaison, Co-Founder of The Bridge Project. (Listen to the podcast.) Here is the full transcript of the podcast:
Rajesh Mehta (RM): According to you, who won the Vice-Presidential debate yesterday, Kamala or Mike Pence?
Shekar Narasimhan (SN): I am biased. So, if I say Kamala, everyone will feel that is what he has to say. I would like to dissect it a little bit. The objective of going for debate for the Biden-Harris team was to make sure people know who you are. Much of the country doesn’t know who Kamala is. She is a Senator from California which is the largest state. However, that does not mean the rest of the country knows her. If you recall, she has only made one speech when she accepted the nomination. To make that positioning, explain who you are, talking about your mother Shyamala, she achieved that. Secondly, it is the job of the VP candidate to highlight that this commander in chief has failed the American people, his failures on COVID, his failures on healthcare, his failures and foreign policy. To my mind, she hit it out of the park. It is fascinating to see someone who is Black and Indian-American. What was the objective for the other side? It was about turning this around as the ship is going in the wrong direction. He is their best weapon because he’s smooth and silky, and he acts like a decent, normal human being, unlike some other people in the Republican Party. Yet, he had no way to answer the most basic questions. Will you accept the results of the election? How about your position on Roe v. Wade, if this Supreme Court nomination is jammed through? If you cannot answer core questions, I feel that nothing particularly changed in the election. They failed in their number one objective while we succeeded in our number one objective, which is to position her as a potential President, make sure the country gets to know her better and realize what an incredibly smart, talented person this is. I think if you achieve your objectives and the other side doesn’t, you win.
RM: How would you access the performance of both candidates in the first presidential debate?
SN: The debate was really strange. In school, there is always one bully who says that this is my turf, you can’t enter here. If you come, I’ll yell at you and or beat you up. I felt that there was a school bully who was going to try to intimidate Joe Biden and say, ‘You can’t speak you’re wrong’. The problem with that approach is he’s losing right now. If this was a winning strategy to somehow convince people how strong he is, and how weak Joe Biden is, Joe did a brilliant job. He looked straight into the camera, talked to people. He said, I care about you. It was a miserable failure (for Trump). From my point of view, the first debate only had two punch lines that I think are worth remembering. Joe Biden is caring and empathetic. He believes in people, that is who he is. He said, you don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican, you don’t have to vote for me, for me to care about you. When has Donald Trump ever said that? Every President before this has said that in their first inaugural speech. They stand up and say, you didn’t have to vote for me for me to care about it. Joe has never said that he doesn’t care. It’s so clear. He established the core value here. On the other hand, Donald Trump cannot repudiate white nationalism. He cannot address the issue of white supremacy directly. He has to obfuscate and say things around the edges. My grandfather taught me that whatever’s in your heart will ultimately show up on your sleeve. When you look at this man, you see it on the sleeve. Now, it’s written all over in tattoos, I want America to be a white country. It means I’m a brown person and I don’t belong to his (idea of) America. I can contribute, pay taxes, become CEO of the largest company, but I’m not equal. In this unequal America, Joe Biden could talk about unifying while Trump was talking about dividing further. It was a clear win. Nobody thinks otherwise, even if they now have to deny it or spin it. Nobody in the focus groups said that Trump won the debate. I still worry about Biden if there was a failure. Clearly, both candidates did what they wanted to do at that debate. However, one won and the other one lost.
RM: Do you foresee a boiling turn in the aftermath of the election, especially if it is a closed thing at the end?
SN: It’s hard to project as this is a democracy where power has transferred 45 times peacefully. I only hope because at this point as I don’t have optimism about this. It’s not about the exact notion of violence because that is a consequence of what will happen. Firstly, you have to analyze what could possibly happen. So, let’s say that at 11:30 EST, on the third of November, Florida has announced its results that Joe Biden has won Florida. For all practical purposes, the election is over because there is no arithmetic. Forget science, it is just a simple adding up of where Donald Trump can win without Florida. This is true about other states also. Florida is not only one of the largest states but also the one that starts early counting of its absentee ballots. They start 22 days before the election by taking the ballots, receiving mail and absentee and feeding them through the machine. The count is there but nobody knows what it is. On the main day, they count everybody who comes and after the polls close, they’ll have a pretty good idea (within an hour). Some of the larger counties may take a little longer like Broward which are more Democratic.
This is my hope, not optimism that the leadership of the Republican Party when they see that result says to itself that it’s over. They should realize that they are better off regaining their own morality which is to stand up and accept the verdict, regroup and come back in a different form. I’ve seen their behavior over the last 12 years, since Obama took office, and they have done nothing but lie and obfuscate. I’m not optimistic but I do think there is a core value. Perhaps Mitt Romney is the kind of senator who can leave that court and stand up. It’s time for the Republican Party to regroup and regain its morality and ethics. There is another scenario which is the one you’re painting, which is that it’s very close (contest)- Ohio, Pennsylvania is close. Some of these results will probably drag out for a week. As many state legislatures are controlled by the Republicans, there can be allegations of fraud. Isn’t it amazing that India can have 800 million people vote and they do it while here we have, have 100 and 50 million votes with all these issues? It is a derivation of a denationalized system. It is run by the states and by the counties in the state. Sometimes, it is run by the cities inside the counties. There are many electoral systems in the United States. That is how the framers of the Constitution wanted it and it’s not easy to manipulate because it’s too decentralized to be able to control. If it is going to take a week, Donald Trump will do everything to declare that he’s the winner. Perhaps at night, when he is leading in Florida by 700 votes, and they haven’t finished the word count, and he says, I won Florida, I won the election. This is a possibility because he is a bit crazy. My personal view is that this is not going to be that kind of election because people are voting. According to data, 50 times as many people have early voted already at this moment in history than they did four years ago. Though people would like to credit it to COVID but it also reflects energy and enthusiasm. If it takes more effort to fill it out and certify it. 4 million votes have already been cast and 76 million might be cast before election day. In other words, the result in a sense is baked. My sense is not to ignore the polls and always run like you’re behind. Yeah. My goal personally has been that this has to be a repudiation of massive proportions. The vast majority of Americans believe in a decent human country which cares about all its people, allies and friends around the world. The repudiation needs to be large, significant and overwhelming. Americans are smart and decent people. We came back and we discovered we made a mistake, and we fixed it.
RM: My last question before my colleague, Carl takes over. Why do you think Biden would be better for India?
SN: I feel actions speak louder than words. He’s the first US Senator to say bluntly and clearly that India and the US need to have the most important defining strategic relationship of the 21st century. He envisions compatibility between the two countries. On multiple occasions, he has told the story about the Bidens in Mumbai. When he came to Mumbai, he tried to find them which reflects an emotional connection. There’s a strategic connection. During the Indo-Us nuclear treaty, he was the man who went and gathered the votes to get that treaty passed. It was bipartisan, but he gathered the votes to push it over. When Vivek Murthy was sworn in as Surgeon General, which is a very proud moment for Indian Americans, he called him right after the vote on the floor and said that I want to do your swearing in. He went to Vivek’s mother and said, I am so proud that you selected our country to bring your children up. He understands India though there will be disagreements like disagreements in your family? In that case, try to quietly sit down, have those conversations and communicate that there are some things you are doing I’m not happy with. Let’s talk it through and figure it out. You will not get a divorce because you had that conversation. He’s that kind of sensible fellow and so is Kamala. She is one of the master negotiators. I see a conversation happening about issues that we may not agree with this current government today, but I don’t see any of it causing any ruptures or disillusion or disenchantment. We asked Joe Biden explicitly two questions, the last time we did that Independence Day event, which by the way, no presidential candidate in history has ever done that. He is doing these things to make a statement. He said we will not tolerate cross border terrorism tolerate and we will stand with India against it. He understands that China has an expansionist outlook not just in trade, not just in its way it manipulates its currency, but in actual defense, and in capturing territory. He said we will stand with India against Chinese expansionism. He stands up and he says I’m with you. Therefore, Biden is good for India. He’s quite sane, he’s sensible about what he says he will do, he will not repeat himself three times and he will not call himself great. He won’t say and contradict himself 10 minutes later. I think if you are a leader of India, this is a pretty sensible discussion one can have with this man. So why not have a relationship with somebody like that, which is well beyond today’s relationship between US and India is, in my view, 20% of what it can and should be. The only one who can take it to that other place is someone who is willing to listen first, and not keep on putting his own interests in front. I think that’s why Joe Biden is right for India.
Carl Jaison (CJ): That’s well articulated. I’d like to ask you about the potential voting behavior of the Indian American community. According to the joint survey conducted by Indiaspora and AAPI Data, around 66% of Indian Americans favor Biden, whereas only about 28% favor Trump. Also, in this election, there is the option of voting by mail or absentee ballot. Do you think that can significantly play to the Democratic Party’s advantage given that low voter turnouts among certain sections hampered Hillary Clinton’s chances last time?
SN: It’s a great question. To tell you the truth – around 87% of the people have already made up their mind on who they’ll vote for. And this is huge. You can have 14 more debates and you can have 38 more ads, but the fact is 87% are decided. So, you’re dealing with this 13%, out of which some of them don’t vote, some of whom may not show up, some of whom may have sick children that day etc. This is how Donald Trump won the election last time ie; a very significant number of those people went into the booth and voted for him. So, our job has been very simple. Two thirds of Indians are naturally going to vote for Biden, and I think 20-25% are naturally going to vote for Trump. Then there is the small group of 6-7% who will be influenced by issues going on in India. They are influenced by WhatsApp and fall for lies, deception and disinformation. We don’t spend all our time concentrating on them. However, this is what is called a marginal voter. First of all, it’s usually a low-information voter. They’re only going to read & consume what they already know. Does that mean you ignore them? No. You also have to go after them. Last time 77% of Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. 23% voted for Donald Trump. People are saying Trump has made inroads into the Indian American votes and that the Modi factor will drive more votes to Trump. People will be biased one way or the other. But what I really feel strongly about is that the vast majority of people will vote for their children. Why? Because these are the people who are going to be there who will feel the impact of this incredibly important election. That’s why this election is so important. So, I finally believe that we’ll probably end up in the same place we were when Hillary contested. However, there are single issue voters who can never be convinced. But I would be surprised
if we don’t get 75-80% of the Indian American vote, especially in the battleground states. For Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I think there’s an X factor here that people underestimate.
CJ: Speaking of the issues that matter for the Indian American community, the likes of immigration and education feature very prominently in their decision to vote for one candidate or the other. But do you see a generational divide within the Indian American community (between first generation immigrants and American born citizens)?
SN: I wish I had more facts behind all these things. But I can tell you an anecdote. I grew up in India and I came here when I was an adult. I kept one foot in both countries for almost 20 years. But after sometime I stopped doing that. Not everybody stops. Some people, even after they have turned 70, go back to India after living here for close to 50 years. So that divide can never be conquered. For my son’s generation, the example is that of Kamala Harris. She is of Indian heritage whereas the connection to India may not be as strong. I cannot call myself Indian because neither was, I born there nor do I know it very well. But I have the heritage. I don’t have to lose my heritage to be an American. So, I’m still American. But, of course, you’ll have people in this generation who talk about CAA and Article 370 etc? But how exactly does it impact this election?
All you want is someone who can do the job in a sane manner. On immigration, you want someone who offers a humane immigration policy. Not like Trump’s policy of putting children in cages. If there are 500,000 Indians who are undocumented because they’ve overstayed their visas, the solution is to have a human approach to solving this. You will hear Joe Biden trying to address all of this in a humane manner. So that’s what young people care about. They don’t care so much about some of the things I care about like family reunification. If Donald Trump is there, it won’t happen. If Joe Biden is there, it could happen. My son, on the other hand, will care that the immigrants represent 14% of America. Recent immigrants comprise 70% of Indians who came to this country after 2000. But ultimately what matters is the economy. Can this president deliver a fair and equitable economy that works for everybody and give an opportunity to everyone? The Black Lives Matter movement has benefited our community as well. That is important for everyone to realise to some extent,
Many Indians don’t know any of this. They think that somebody gifted them this value system. However, each of us should know that we got here because of actions taken by others. If they recognize and appreciate the history, they will recognize it’s not about being Democratic or Republican. It’s all about humanity and fairness. And that’s what the Democratic Party and Joe Biden stands for.
(This interview was compiled by Prarthana Puthran, a Research Associate at The Bridge Project.)
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Shekar Narasimhan’s name.