US public opinion toward India

India’s revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has triggered substantial concern among Democrats in Congress, leading to a heated committee hearing in the House on October 22, 2019. In addition to House Democrats like Pramila Jayapal, several Senate Democrats, especially Chris Van Hollen (as well as Republican Lindsey Graham), have been vocally skeptical of post-August 5 Indian policies. Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have similarly criticized the human rights situation in the Kashmir Valley.

This made me wonder what the landscape of US public opinion toward India is, especially the party politics at play.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs runs excellent polling on US opinion toward foreign policy. Their 2019 report (p. 33) shows overall quite positive views of the US-India relationship among Americans (and very negative views of the US relationship with Pakistan):

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This overall favorability is borne out in data from Gallup (image from this article), asking about Americans’ views of India since 2000:

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With the bulk of criticisms on Kashmir coming from Democrats, what can we say about partisan divisions in US opinion?

The figure below is from the Chicago Council’s 2017 report (page 15), comparing confidence in countries to “deal responsibly with world problems”:

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In this measure, we see a partisan divide – Democrats are more pro-India than Republicans by 14-16 percentage points, with “Core Trump Supporters” similar to Republicans. There are similar partisan splits with regard to Russia (notice the striking shift in Republicans’ views from 2015 to 2017!), China (Democrats +12 in 2017), the EU ( Democrats +19 in 2017, and +25 vs. Trumpists), and Germany (Democrats +15). Japan doesn’t get that treatment.

The Council in 2017 also asked respondents what they think about countries’ global influence, from 0 to 10, with 10 being the greatest influence (p. 31):

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The differences are not massive, so we wouldn’t want to put too much weight on them, but here again we see evidence that Democrats are generally more pro-India than Republicans at the level of mass opinion. The variability by country is striking: Trump supporters are substantially more likely to view the US and Russia as more influential than Democrats and independents, while the pattern is reversed for the EU, Germany, South Korea, and India. There aren’t noticeable differences in views of China and the UK. The difference between Democrats and Trump supporters in views of India is .6, around the difference between Democrats and Republicans (but not Trump core backers, which is .8) in views of Russia; Democrat/Republican splits in views of India are similar to Democrat/Republican splits in views of Germany.

In her analysis of the 2015 Chicago Council poll, which asked about the desirability of countries’ leadership in global politics, Alyssa Ayres noted a Democratic tilt toward India (small, but larger than that on the EU or Russia).

In turn, there is evidence from Pew in 2018 that Indians join Russians and Germans as being “much more likely to say their country is playing a bigger role in world affairs than are people in other countries.” It does not bode well for mutual understanding if Americans think of India as somewhat important but not massively so, while Indians believe Americans do – or should – think India is more important than Americans actually do.

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While the House hearings have had minimal media impact in the US – the spiraling political crisis in Washington has sucked up all the attention, among various other pressing disasters – this is an interesting time for the politics of US-India relations. With all the caveats that come with these kinds of data, it does appear to be the case that Democrats have been more pro-India in recent years. Some of this may be due to Indian-Americans tending toward the Democrats, but they remain only 1% of voters, so it not simply due to that alone.

How might we make sense of this potential change? Put simply, the rise of the BJP as India’s dominant party is not something that most Democrats are likely to view with great enthusiasm, nor any kind of Indian embrace of the staggeringly-unpopular Donald Trump (one can imagine reactions when PM Modi said in Houston that “I admire him [Trump] for something more: his sense of leadership, a passion for America, a concern for every American, a belief in American future, and a strong resolve to make America great again”). India’s justifications for its actions in Kashmir have clearly not persuaded a chunk of Democratic lawmakers, despite Indian diplomatic efforts. The globalized media environment makes other countries’ political systems more legible than in decades past: every campaign speech by Amit Shah is immediately visible to a global audience, as is every report about conditions in the Kashmir Valley.

Blaming the “liberal media” is a standard Republican line that will not get much traction among those Democrats already inclined toward skepticism. Ambassador Shringla arguing that the American media has been peddling “half-truths, untruths, factually incorrect information” similarly may not have been wildly compelling.

As Ashley Tellis has recently argued, Trump’s foreign policy toward India has been “transactional” and characterized by “capriciousness”; the dominant Trumpist wing of the Republican party should not be seen as a source of consistent comfort. In turn, with Democrats putting a greater emphasis on values and human rights in the Trump era, and identifying the spread of global illiberalism as a threat to American democracy (see, for instance, Sitaraman, Wright, Sanders, and Magsamen et al.; it’s worth noting that none of them prominently mention India one way or another), India’s favorable domestic coalition in the US may be facing new strains in the coming years.

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