In April 2019, a cold winter in Medford, Massachusetts was soon giving way to spring. I thought I would expedite the change of seasons by warming the audience up. So, I quipped during my speech on the "idea of nation states” that there was a distinct difference in the Indian education system from that of the American one. The Indian education system followed such a pattern – “A…B…C..H-1..B”.
There was indeed fact to the facetiousness.
In a country of godmen and astrology, very little was left up to chance. The remnants of a socialist India, parsimonious upbringings, and the sacrosanctity of education, which was revered in the scriptures, and given idolatry reverence in Saraswati (the Goddess of Knowledge), made education second only to godliness .Cleanliness can make a strong case too, but we’ll ride the education debate train.
If stern parents were to be believed, it was the only way to achieve upward social mobility. India created its own version of the intellectual hunger games: Failure to excel in examinations was akin to failure in life itself.
I am constrained by brevity, so permit me temporary use of these broad strokes.
The Great Indian-American Dream
For large swathes of the English-speaking middle to upper-middle class urban diaspora, for a good four decades or so, almost up until the recession years of 2008-2010, the script wrote itself.
The Indian Dream was the American Dream. There was an overt intellectual arranged marriage code. In school, one would ‘flirt’ with Humanities and the Arts, in the sense, that one likes it just enough to excel in them till high school, because, let’s face it, they count for grades. Ace it and then drop it like a hot potato to marry the STEM(Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), because cue the "jobs argument and the upward social mobility fear”.
The prodigious talent in STEM would take one’s career to the US or “Amreeka” as it was colloquially known. If medicine weren’t the case, the undergrad or grad school STEM-based degrees would unfurl a world of opportunities on both the Eastern and Western seaboards, where the exceptional Indian talent would get their pick between Silicon Valley and the Pacific North-West’s dynamic tech sector, or Wall Street and the East Coast that would enrich coffers with lucrative consulting and finance options.
This is where the elixir of professional lives for the Indian diaspora comes in. A lot of this was possible with the non-immigrant visa used by companies to hire skilled talent called the H-1B. So, central to the Indian imagination of careers in the US, this nebulous acronym in the smorgasbord of the alphabet soup of American visas, is now common parlance in a lot of Indian households and a lot of temple prayers.
The Rise of Ramaswamy: The Far-Right Aspirational Indian
Furthermore, the upward social mobility ladder had a literal path too. The H-1B visa would in a few years' time lead to a Green Card and then the Green Card would change to citizenship (mere formality) at this point, and then the progeny and posterity would be born in the land of freedom fries and be American citizens at birth and thus, never having to know what the “get out of jail card’ looked like. Which was, the F-1 student visa that led to an H-1B that led to a Green Card, and then the next generation could now sing paeans of being born an American.
One such child of that same process is Indian-American GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. The politics of polarisation means that the Republican Party in a Trump MAGA (Make America Great Again)era has gone so far to the Right, that Ronald Reagan, the darling of the Conservatives would find himself an outside candidate in these races today.
Ramaswamy, at only 38, in some ways, is the Republican Pete Buttigieg. The current Secretary of Transportation was also a 38-year-old candidate during the 2020 Democratic Primary and was younger than Biden’s own son. Ramaswamy like Buttigieg, boasts of phenomenal intellectual pedigree, that of Harvard and Yale Law School.
It’s an unlearning for many, who are used to a narrative of Indian-Americans being Democrats, and certainly, someone of Ramaswamy’s intellectual rigour, and humble Midwest upbringing wouldn’t necessarily jump out as a Trump acolyte.
But as I wrote earlier, Ramaswamy like his GOP competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, wants the MAGA base, without the figurehead (Trump). As a Trump acolyte, he has crooned hagiographies of Trump being the best President of the 21st century.
Ramaswamy’s campaign has been centered around ‘meritocracy’, and his ideological axe has taken swipes at wokeism, affirmative action, and the progressive left, all of which he finds antithetical to the idea of meritocracy.
The Hunch Around H1-B Visas
In one of his diatribes, he spoke about slashing the H-1B visas calling it ‘indentured servitude’. There are a few items to unpack. On one hand, Ramaswamy isn’t completely wrong. Only a handful of companies have the financial bandwidth, legal resources, or workforce to undertake processing American bureaucracy's most punishing visas.
The asymmetry of power between corporation and individual also makes it a case of golden handcuffs, where an individual is tied to a company since immigration precedes employment. Furthermore, other career opportunities are stifled in the quagmire of moving H-1Bs from one employer to the other or finding employers who have the bandwidth to sponsor the said H-1B.
Furthermore, the H-1B is literally and not metaphorically, a lottery system. The USCIS website notes that for the fiscal year of 2023-2024, well over 700,000 applications were received, and less than a tenth of those will be “randomly picked”. Vegas gives better odds.
Ramaswamy’s “meritocracy” metro ride means he wants to get rid of the lottery and replace it with a more "meritocratic” system. Sure, a lottery inherently means luck and unpredictability, so a more efficient system would benefit those deserving of those visas. However, the devil is in the details. What this system is as nebulous as nebulous can be.
Immigration Act: Missing the Forest for the Trees
Ramaswamy, however, has tangled himself into a web of ironies. On one hand, he slams the woke and invokes the famed civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, saying “We need to judge not on the color of your skin, but the content of your character”. The irony again is that MLK Jr was left-progressive and not only helped usher in the rights for disenfranchised African Americans with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but that very Act paved the way for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to fructify.
This epochal moment ended race-based migration and ironically had a more meritocratic approach, thereby, even benefitting the plethora of Indian diaspora, including Ramaswamy’s own parents.
The story of the Indian immigrant to the US largely begins here – they came for the education and stayed for the employment.
If irony were a moving train, Ramaswamy would find himself on that trainwreck, since his desire to gut the H-1B visa is incongruous to the very system he espoused when he was running his biotech company. According to data from the USCIS, Ramaswamy filed 29 applications for H-1B visas over the course of five years from 2018 to 2023 for employees at his company – Roivant Sciences.
There are complexities and nuances to unpack. Yes, the US immigration system is broken, and the backlog is overwhelming. Lotteries mean luck and luck is never fair. Merit seems fair, but merit is also in the eyes of the beholder. What that merit is and how it is implemented remains ill-defined. But alas, the complexity and nuance, we are all unpacking, slowly but surely, is the enigma of an Indian-American midwestern Harvard undergrad and Yale Law graduate who shills for Trump in ways that none of us could have previously fathomed.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)