In Nikki, Vivek, and Kamala, Indian Americans Find Incomplete Representation

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley; Vice President Kamala Harris; Republican Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy Credit - Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images; Daniel Leal—AFP/Getty Images; John Lamparski—Getty Images

In late August, days after he got into a heated exchange with the other Indian American on the presidential debate stage, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s website got an update.

“Keep lying, Namrata Randhawa,” the site soon read, incorrectly spelling former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s birth name.

It was an unusually blunt effort by Ramaswamy to paint Haley as inauthentic, given both identify as American-born children of Indian immigrants. It also didn’t go unnoticed by other South Asians.

“I thought it was extremely disrespectful,” says Republican strategist Rina Shah. “It was a low blow. It was meant to question who she is, as if she's strayed from identity.”

Indian Americans are about 1.5% of the overall population. They make up a much larger share of the presidential field. Earlier in the year, the presence of two South Asians running for the Republican presidential nomination was something of a curiosity. Now, Haley, who has seen a recent surge in support, and Ramaswamy, who became a breakout star over the spring and summer, are scheduled to appear together on another debate stage next week—perhaps for the last time as the Republican field begins to collapse. And on the opposite side of the race is Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father.

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The presence of all three as standout contenders speaks to the complexity of the politics of representation; while their ethnic backgrounds are intertwined with their political identities, they all differ in distinct ways from the average Indian American voter. Neither Harris nor Haley nor Ramaswamy are likely to supercharge voting among South Asians or even Indian Americans the way Barack Obama did with Black voters. Yet their very appearance on the national political stage stands to reverberate within that community nonetheless.

“The folks I grew up with didn't really look at Nikki Haley and see, you know, a brown woman who reflected their experience and their communities,” says Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. “They saw a politician who was making decisions based on what would get her elected in the place where she was running for office."

Yet seeing South Asians in those rarefied political spaces causes people with similar backgrounds to pay closer attention, he says. ​​“At the end of the day, like, my grandmother's name is Kamala.”

Indian Americans make up the largest share of Asian Americans who identify with just one race. More so than most other Asian American groups, they tend to support Democrats: 56% generally think of themselves as Democrats, 27% as independents, and only 15% as Republicans, according to the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey. But that doesn’t mean the presence of Indian Americans in the Republican primary won’t have an impact.

“Studies have shown that when someone from our own community runs, it gets the attention of our community, and it actually draws more of our community to participate in the election process,” says Christine Chen, executive director of Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote “Now, whether or not they actually get the support of the candidate, I think really depends on their values.”

Part of the recent rise of Indian American politicians, experts say, has to do with timing. Indian immigration to America swelled following the Immigration Act of 1965 and surged every decade after. The immigrants who arrived in America at the turn of the century were largely focused on getting used to their new home and building stable lives. But as many of them amassed education and wealth, entering skilled white-collar professions and becoming one of the highest-earning Asian Americans subgroups, they gave their children the resources to consider getting involved in politics. Now, some of those children are becoming political leaders, and they’re drawing inspiration from their parents’ success, sometimes achieved after arriving in America with only a few dollars in their pockets.

“What we're really looking at are two people who do not believe anything's out of their reach,” Shah says of Haley and Ramaswamy.

Sam Joshi, mayor of Edison, NJ, a community that is roughly 35% Indian American, according to data from the American Community Survey, says the appearance of so many Desis on the national stage filters down to how families talk amongst themselves. He pointed to the kinds of careers younger Indians feel they can consider, given that many in the Indian community prioritize a few select fields like medicine and computer science.

“It sparks the conversation on a state and local level, on how Indian Americans should be involved in fields outside of the normal STEM-based industries, such as government and politics, which is where decisions are made,” Joshi says.

While both Republican candidates have spoken little about how their ethnic backgrounds affect their day-to-day lives, they regularly evoke their families’ heritage.

Such conversations seemed almost unavoidable on Wednesday during a debate between Ramaswamy and Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, another Indian American who had been critical of Ramaswamy’s right-wing campaign for months. At the event, Ramaswamy was asked about his vision for the future of America.

“What’s my dream for 2050?” Ramaswamy said. “That we’ll tell our kids and our grandkids that the United States of America is still the nation where no matter who you are, or where your parents came from, or what your skin color is, or how long your last name is, in some of our cases, that you still get ahead in this country with your own hard work.”

“We both have the same shade of melanin up here on this stage, so what?” he continued. “Diversity can be a beautiful thing. But it only matters if there’s something greater that unites us across that diversity.”

In a recent interview, Haley responded with a similar message when asked by Charlamagne Tha God why she doesn’t get into identity politics and play up her Indian American background. “I think the problem is, when you start labeling people, you’re assuming that they’re different than you,” she said. “I don’t want to just be a woman. I don’t want to just be Indian. … Why add more divisions by talking about labels? I don’t want to talk about labels. I think that’s what’s caused us to get into this situation where everybody in this country’s so divided.”

Sangay Mishra, a political science professor at Drew University who authored the book Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, suggests that Haley’s and Ramaswamy’s backgrounds have been uniquely beneficial among the white voters who make up most of the GOP primary electorate.

“Both of them use their own biography to make people in the Republican Party who feel defensive about white nationalism or about racism, they make them feel good,” says Mishra. “Here are two minority candidates and their life stories are vindication of the fact that the U.S. is not a racist society.”

The myth of the model minority—the idea that Asian Americans as a whole are uniquely well-behaved and successful—may also have something to do with Indian Americans’ political rise. Though based in stereotypes, those positive associations can also give candidates a leg up.

Where many Indian American voters might relate strongly to the immigrant success stories that propelled Ramaswamy, Haley and Harris, their religious backgrounds are less representative. The majority of Indian Americans are Hindu, while much smaller fractions are Christian or Muslim. Among the three Indian Americans who appear closest to the presidency, only Ramaswamy is Hindu, and even he has focused on courting Christian voters and said at his high school graduation speech that he had developed “a personal faith that was neither Catholic nor strictly Hindu, but was finally something that I could call my own.”

Haley, meanwhile, grew up Sikh and converted to Christianity around the time she got married, years before entering politics. And Harris, whose mother was Hindu and whose father was Christian, grew up attending both temple and church, but now identifies as Baptist. In 2021, she was sworn in on a bible.

The fluid views on religion of all three politicians may appeal to many Indian Americans, even those who don’t share them.

“You've just got these two candidates talking sensibly on the issues,” Shah says of Haley and Ramaswamy, “Whereas you've got Senator Tim Scott, former VP Mike Pence, talking about the Bible all day long, talking about God all day long. A lot of Indian Americans are people of faith, but the vast majority are not of the Christian faith.”

As Indian Americans are still overwhelmingly Democratic, most are unlikely to support Haley or Ramaswamy. In general, they are motivated by the same pragmatic issues as other voters: jobs, health care, and education. Because of their own personal experiences, Mishra says, many are also passionate about immigration and discrimination, issues where their positions more frequently align with those of Democrats. Some may be particularly hostile to Ramaswamy, who has advocated for eliminating birthright citizenship and gutting the H-1B visa system that allowed many Indians to initially move to America.

“I think it's a good thing for people of different backgrounds to be participating in democracy, but we have to link it with history and I want to make sure whoever the candidates are, are acknowledging America's racial, past and current challenges,” Khanna told TIME the day before his debate with Ramaswamy, rattling off historical markers like the profiling of Muslims that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, Japanese internment camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, a 1923 Supreme Court ruling which barred Indian Americans from citizenship. “I believe, as Asian American politicians with large platforms, we have an obligation to speak to those challenges, and then still speak to the hopeful vision of America becoming a composite nation, a cohesive, multiracial democracy.”

His view reflects the way many Democratic politicians of Indian descent, including Harris, see the role of race and identity in national politics and in their own careers.

“My mother and father, they came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America—one from India and the other from Jamaica—in search of a world-class education,” Harris said soon after becoming Biden’s running mate. “But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And that’s how they met, as students in the streets of Oakland, marching and shouting for this thing called justice in a struggle that continues today.”

For the multiracial vice president, talking about identity goes beyond discussing her Indian American heritage.

“There's a way in which she had made much more outreach to the Black community, which is understandable, because issues are much more, sort of, pressing there,” Mishra says. “And it's a bigger constituency.”

Still, her role in the White House has continued to excite many Indian Americans who feel that horizons have broadened for them and their children. Her presence on the ticket could help juice engagement and donations among Indian Americans ahead of 2024.

“It seemed that Indian Americans in 2020 were organizing fundraisers and different events a lot more aggressively than I ever had seen in the past,” Chen says.

To Khanna, the efforts of Harris, Haley, and Ramaswamy, as well as other candidates of color, are helping the country grow more comfortable with its increasing diversity.

“You never ask the question, if there are seven white candidates, ‘Why are there seven white candidates?’” he says.

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