15 Jan 2024, 13:27

Indian Americans rise in US politics, navigate identity

WASHINGTON, Jan 15, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Of the many attacks between this year's

US presidential candidates, some of the harshest have pitted Vivek Ramaswamy
against Nikki Haley.

Ramaswamy went so far as to hold up a sign at a debate calling the South
Carolina former governor and UN ambassador corrupt over her corporate work --
and she has hit back hard, calling him untrustworthy and berating him for
mentioning her children.

Personal attacks are routine in US politics, and both Haley and Ramaswamy, a
38-year-old entrepreneur who has never held elected office, are facing uphill
climbs to wrest the Republican nomination from former president Donald Trump.

But the two have something in common -- they are children of Indian
immigrants. Also expected on this year's ballot is Democratic Vice President
Kamala Harris, whose mother came from India and whose father was born in

Indian Americans are split on whether the Ramaswamy versus Haley feud
channels larger community tensions, but what is uncontestable is that Indian
Americans are more politically prominent than ever before -- and increasingly
wearing their identity proudly.

It is another sign of success for the community, whose average household
income is the highest of any US ethnic group.

Raj Goyle, a former state lawmaker in Kansas and co-founder of Indian
American Impact, a South Asian American political group, said that ethnic
groups in the United States historically have waited for a greater comfort
level and critical mass before entering politics.

"Indian Americans actually have had a quicker journey than other immigrant
communities in terms of political success," he said.

He noted that Indian Americans are unusual as an immigrant group in that many
arrived as educated professionals, highly regarded by other Americans.

"When the first wave of us were elected, we had to think about how voters
would react to our ethnicity," Goyle said.

While racism still exists, "Now, I think there's a very good argument to make
that it's a huge plus."

- 'I am a Hindu' -

While few give Ramaswamy much chance of winning the presidency, his candidacy
marks a watershed in his embrace of his religion.

Asked at a debate in Iowa about his religion, Ramaswamy said: "I am a Hindu.
I won't fake my identity."

Ramaswamy, who has made his name as a Trump-style rabble-rouser denouncing
"woke" politics, has cast his Hinduism as in line with conservative Christian
beliefs and has voiced opposition to gay marriage.

He also explained to voters in farm state Iowa, which holds the nation's
first caucus, how he is a vegetarian due to his religion.

Meanwhile, a Trump campaign aide, Chris LaCivita, told voters to "beware" of
Ramaswamy's diet, also calling him a "fraud."

Haley, born Nimarata Nikki Randhawa in South Carolina, has spoken of
converting to Christianity, and took her husband's surname.

A previous Indian American who nursed higher ambitions, former Louisiana
governor Bobby Jindal, similarly described his embrace of Christianity.

Harris has spoken at length of her Black identity but has also identified
with India, recording a video during the 2020 election showing her cooking a
masala dosa, a staple food for Tamils like her mother.

Maina Chawla Singh, a scholar at American University who has studied Indian
Americans in politics, said the candidates were all "navigating" how to wear
their identity.

She traces the political rise of the community to the presidency of Barack
Obama, who hired a number of Indian American staffers.

"Indian Americans have established themselves in many domains, and this is
probably the last stretch to conquer," she said.

Despite the prominence of Republicans like Haley, Ramaswamy and Jindal, the
community has overwhelmingly voted Democratic.

- Subtle dividing lines -

Dipka Bhambhani, an Indian American writer based in Washington, said the feud
between Haley and Ramaswamy showed a divide within the community.

Haley grew up helping with the bookkeeping at her parents' clothing store,
while Ramaswamy, an Ivy League graduate, was born in Ohio to an engineer
father and psychiatrist mother and later married an Indian American doctor.

"When I first saw the animus from Ramaswamy toward Haley, I knew what it was
about. There are wealthy Indians out there who malign other Indians for
deviating, exercising American choice in who they marry, how they worship and
the like," Bhambhani said.

"Ramaswamy criticizing Haley has been (a source of) anguish for so many of us
in the Indian community. There are enough spears thrown at people of color in
this country. Do we really need an Indian man to take up arms against his
Indian sister?"

But she said the Indian American candidates at the end of the day were
Americans, even as they brought Indian values such as commitment to family.

"It would be nice to see someone in the presidency who embodies those Indian
values," she said.



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