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Vivek Ramaswamy & Nikki Haley: Decoding Their Balancing Act in US Prez Elections

The pair have used their Indian American identity to claim that their community is far from positions of authority.

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In America, people dream to do the impossible. The countless stories of immigrants who came to this country to find their ‘American Dream’ tell the story of grit and determination but also of exploitation, racism, discrimination, and exclusion they faced upon their arrival.  

America is also the land of contrarians. Within its two-party system, the Republican Party believes in the doctrine of “Originalism,” which the right-wing legal community in this country wants Americans to take at face value and in the historical context that the US Constitution was adopted in 1788.

This would mean taking the literal historical foundations of Black enslavement, indigenous genocide, and the subjugation of women who were the property of the men they married and had little to no agency in deciding anything in their lives. 

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Interpreting the constitution of the words of the white and male founders of this country would mean many of the rights that we now have in 2023 would be completely nonexistent. The right to make our reproductive health decisions, vote in elections, and live and exist in racially integrated communities would not exist. 

Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley have used their Indian American identity and the complicated histories of immigration and belonging to tie into the model minority myth that continues to see communities of colour disenfranchised from decision-making power.  

From Nimrata Randhawa to Nikki Haley 

Nikki Haley was formerly known as Nimrata Randhawa. She converted to Christianity upon marrying Michael Haley, whom Nikki met while studying at Clemson University. Her father Ajit Randhawa, and the rest of her family continue practising Sikhs. 

As the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in 2020, the former Governor of South Carolina addressed the world and spoke at length about her time working for Donald Trump and emphasised her upbringing through the ‘model minority’ life she experienced. The Randhawa family were the only Indian family in Bamberg, South Carolina at the time.  

However, Nikki’s siblings have recounted the many accounts of racism from the community in South Carolina by being outright denied housing because of their Indian background. Her father, Ajit Randhawa, taught at Voorhees College which is classified as a Historically Black University and College. He wears his dastar [turban] and fearlessly practices his Sikh faith. Nikki Haley has over the years, done a balancing act between appealing to those who are white and evangelical Christians and to Republicans of many other faiths. 

At the Republican National Convention in 2020, Nikki Haley made this point in her speech:  

“In much of the Democratic Party, it's now fashionable to say that America is racist. That is a lie. America is not a racist country. This is personal for me. I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small southern town. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. I was a brown girl in a black and white world. We faced discrimination and hardship. But my parents never gave in to grievance and hate. My mom built a successful business. My dad taught for 30 years at a historically black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor.”  
Transcript provided by the Public Broadcasting Corporation
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It doesn’t take long to look beneath the surface to witness Nikki’s opportunistic approach to talking about her identity in relation to talking about the struggles of having to ‘make it’ in this country to see the benefits of the Black community’s struggle for equal rights and how Asian, Latino and many other people of colour benefited from Black activism that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened the doors for racial integration into White American society. Many of the rights and privileges enjoyed by Indian Americans were also fought for through mass protest, arrest and, in some cases, death by the Black community.  

Nikki Haley has also controversially listed her race as ‘white’ on her voter registration forms while also taking strategically poised pictures at the Golden Temple in Amritsar during one of her many trips to India as the UN Ambassador.  

When Nikki Haley launched her campaign for President on 15 February, many prominent Indian American Democrats denounced her usage of Indian American in her appeal to minority voters. In an NBC article, Varun Nikore, executive director of the AAPI Victory Alliance, a nonprofit group that raises money for Asian American candidates running on the Democratic side of politics, denounced Nikki’s affiliation with being Indian

“She doesn’t represent the community," Nikore said, adding, “There’s a multitude of issues where she specifically and the Republican Party are diametrically opposed to where AAPIs are.”  

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The Anti-Wokeness Presidential Hopeful - Vivek Ramaswamy 

When we pivot to Vivek Ramaswamy, he likes to brand himself as the “CEO of Anti Wokeness” which means he is against people understanding the various forms of injustice that marginalised groups across the US have had to contend with and the awareness that organisers and movement raise when educating the next generation.

While Nikki Haley has spent her time in government, Vivek comes into this race as a complete outsider with no government experience and seems to want to take the Elon Musk approach to downsizing otherwise good entities and reducing them to a complete shell. Having been emboldened by Trump when he ran for President in 2016, Vivek seems to think he has a shot as another outsider to the cut-and-dry political games played by the Republican establishment. 

To summarise him, we would have to observe his ‘ten points’ in which he says: 

“God is real. There are two genders. Human flourishing requires fossil fuels. Reverse racism is racism. An open border is no border. Parents determine the education of their children. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind. Capitalism lifts people from poverty. There are three branches of the US government, not four. The US Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedoms in history.” 

His parents originate from Kerala, and he grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has taken the tech-bro route in American politics, aligning with the idea that if you launch enough companies, you too can be successful and then cap everything you do in your professional life with a run for President. 

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Shaping of ‘Hinduism’ in the US Politics 

Despite catering to evangelical Christians, Vivek and Nikki still face bigotry. When Nikki Haley announced her run for President in February, Ann Coulter remarked that Nikki should ‘go back to her country’, and in the post-debate discourse on 25 August 2023, Coulter remarked that Indian American candidates Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Harsh Vardhan Singh were engaged in ‘Hindu business’ in regard to the spirited debate between Haley and Ramaswamy. With the recent report that the DeSantis camp is proposing attacking Vivek on the lines of his Hindu religion and Brahmin caste, there comes insight into how white Republican candidates will verge issues like caste in American politics. 

Hank Kunneman of One Voice Ministries unleashed a tirade against Vivek’s Hindu faith by saying in a video tweeted by Right Wing Watch on 24 July 2023: 

“If he does not serve the Lord Jesus Christ and stand primarily for Judeo-Christian principles, you will have a fight with God,” 

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Cash is King 

In American electoral politics, cash is king. The more donors you have, the better your chances of mounting a serious challenge against the likes of Donald Trump – who skipped the 23 August debate in favour of interviewing with right-wing media personality Tucker Carlson – and this race on the Republican side is showing how much more work Democratic elected officials have yet to do when it comes to strategically organising and building a firewall around the Asian American voters that overwhelmingly support them. On the Democratic side, there is only President Joe Biden, Mariam Williamson, and Robert F Kennedy Jr.  

Indian Americans are the true contest in both parties in terms of vote share, influence, and targeting when it comes to the new emerging electorate. Watching how Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who was Governor of New Jersey, which has a sizeable South Asian population – compete for the nomination will also illustrate how Indian American voters will be receiving these candidates and hearing their case and why they should be elected.

Republicans are in a situation where they rebuke any candidate that doesn’t toe the Christianity they preach to the masses as a solution; however, they continue to have an emergence of candidates who are attempting to align themselves with white power through proximity and validation. 

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On the Democratic side of politics in America, the influence of the Indian American IMPACT Fund is showing that in addition to having a Vice President of Indian American heritage, there is a growing need for Democrats to invest in down-ballot races and not leave the organising to individual Democratic candidates who seldom get backing or endorsements from the party itself. The Indian American IMPACT Fund supports Indian and South Asian Americans across the board to run for offices across the US. From the very local to the very national, the group focuses on a down-ballot strategy.  

While Vivek has no political experience, he still feels he can carve out his space in Republican politics and emulate a Rishi Sunak-type of Conservative in the UK. Becoming the tool of white supremacy and backwards politics will only continue to set the Indian American and South Asian communities even further back.  =

Both the Democratic and Republican parties need to realise that there is a growing appetite that will seldom pipe down, but the sirens will get louder in terms of the desire to have a representative Democracy that speaks to the issues that people care about. 

Trump skipped the debate to interview with Republican media personality Tucker Carlson, the candidates on the debate stage certainly tried to match his fire with their positions on the issues in Trump’s absence. The influx of dark money and the influence of Super Pacs who can spend unlimited amounts of money to either empower a candidate or destroy their electoral chances can influence the outcome of who is viable to face President Biden in the general election. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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