Sunday, April 27, 2008

South Asia Community on Hillary vs. Obama

The views of South Asian-Americans are heavily influenced by the perceived positions of the presidential candidates regarding the South Asian nations. While there are no polls indicating their preferences, there is anecdotal evidence that the Democrats are likely to attract the largest share of South Asian-American votes this year.

The Clintons have had quite a love affair with things Indian since Bill Clinton's days in the White House. Indians see the couple as friends of India and credit them for the close ties between the two nations and the start of the outsourcing trend from the US to India that has intensified in the recent years. On the contrary, Pakistanis still remember Bill Clinton's patronizing speech on PTV during his brief visit there in March 2000.

While some Indians seem pleased with Barack Obama's rhetoric about "sending US troops into Pakistan", many see him as an unknown quantity as far as India is concerned. Some Indians were also turned off by a document released by Obama surrogates critical of President and Senator Clinton's links to India in an effort to portray Mrs. Clinton as having a poor record on outsourcing and protecting American jobs. The three-page piece of opposition research, titled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)'s Personal Financial and Political Ties," was obtained from a source unaffiliated with the Obama campaign. The "Punjab" reference is an apparent reference to a joke that Mrs. Clinton made last year at a fund-raiser hosted by a top Indian-American supporter. "I can certainly run for the Senate seat in Punjab and win easily," she was quoted as saying. The "Punjab" here refers to the Indian state of Punjab.

In the past elections (including Bush's first term), most Pakistanis have played it safe by supporting Republican candidates for President, based on the common perception that Democrats have been much more pro-India than the Republicans. However, this trend changed in 2004 when most Pakistani-Americans voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry as a protest against the Iraq war and Bush's perceived anti-Muslim bias. This year, it is likely that the Pakistanis would again support a Democratic candidate in spite of their reservations about both Obama and Clinton. Obama's aggressive stance about sending troops into Pakistan initially turned off many Pakistanis. However, Obama has been trying to clarify and backpedal on those remarks. Obama has said there was "misreporting" of his comments, that "I never called for an invasion of Pakistan or Afghanistan." He said rather than a surge in the number of troops in Iraq, there needs to be a "diplomatic surge" and that U.S. troops should be withdrawn within a year.

Among Indians, there seems to be a generation gap in how they perceive Clinton and Obama. While the first generation immigrants from India tend to favor Clinton, the younger Indians are supporting Obama. An Indian commentator Alka Sabherwal of Danville, CA, attributes Obama's opposition among first-generation Indian-Americans to "racial prejudice".

While some Pakistani-Americans have serious reservations about US-Pakistan relations in an Obama administration, many of them support Barack Obama because of his unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war. Some Pakistani-Americans favor Obama because of the fact that he is the son of an African Muslim who lived in Indonesia as a child with a Muslim step-father. Their expectation is that he may have a soft spot for Muslims because of his Muslim heritage and early life in the largest Muslim nation. Of course, it would be political suicide for Obama to profess any love for Muslims or Islam in the current political environment. Even the hint of any Islamic connection could be bad for his campaign.

Obama has to constantly bend over backwards and re-iterate total and unqualified support for Israel to avoid conflict with AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US. While Obama's commitment for direct talks with Iran and a summit with the Islamic countries to discuss and resolve the current distrust has raised hackles in some quarters, it does offer a promise to many Pakistanis and Muslims in the United States for a better relationship between the US and the Islamic world in a future Obama administration.

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