Opinion by Jeff Vasishta
(CNN) — In a move surprising even for a mercurial figure like Vivek Ramaswamy, the millionaire businessman this past week took a backhanded swipe at fellow Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley.
His dig was not over her proposed economic policies, or for her track record as governor of South Carolina. Instead, he lambasted her for having the temerity to use her married name professionally, rather than the Indian name she was given at birth – Nimarata Nikki Randhawa.
It seemed an odd distraction from real campaign issues – unless you know a little bit about Indian history. For many Indian Americans and many Anglo Indians like me, Ramaswamy’s line of attack might not seem particularly surprising.
The sad fact is that Indians have been denigrating one another for centuries, especially since colonial rule, when the British used the caste system to divide and conquer the Indian subcontinent. A look at the terrible treatment of India’s 200 million Muslims by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is a Hindu, shows us that the strategy continues to be employed in India with some effectiveness as he claims “there’s no place for discrimination in India.”
But why would Ramaswamy – himself the child of Indian immigrants – resort to an implied dig over race and ethnicity while running for the presidency of this country? The answer, in my view, is straightforward enough. In casting Haley as an inauthentic politician who is trying to obfuscate her ethnic past, Ramaswamy hopes to paint himself as a better choice for Americans who care about electing a politician who plays it straight.
Some American voters won’t exactly swoon at the prospect of electing the son of immigrants “with a funny name” like Ramaswamy, as he said during the debate, paraphrasing a line that then-Senate-candidate Barack Obama made famous during his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
But Ramaswamy understands that what many American voters like even less is a politician who is inauthentic. High on their list of wants when choosing a president, Americans want their leaders to be themselves, to be genuine. Ramaswamy’s knock against Haley — a fair-skinned convert to Christianity with a slight Southern twang, and a last name that many Americans will find inoffensive — is that she is as Indian as he is.
In short, Ramaswamy — who is gaining a reputation as a particularly adroit political bomb-thrower — weaponized Haley’s Indian ancestry, and his own, in hopes of gaining a political advantage. Good luck with that.
With his jab at Haley, Ramaswamy almost certainly was not looking to ingratiate himself with Indian Americans. Polls from the last presidential election showed that Indian Americans were stalwart backers of Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris (whose mother hailed from India) — and had little affection for then-President Donald Trump. And on the whole, surveys show that nearly seven in 10 Indian voters in the United States identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.
Both Ramaswamy and Haley are the children of Indian immigrants who aspire to one of the hardest-to-attain goals for those who have bought into the American Dream — becoming the president.
Their backgrounds and their personal styles are dramatically different, however: Haley has decades of political experience as the governor of South Carolina and as Trump’s UN ambassador, among other roles.
Ramaswamy, although a political neophyte, is surging in the polls in a field of candidates who potential voters already feel perhaps that they know a bit too well. His reputation for creating controversy is serving him well so far, and is keeping his name in the headlines.
But as I said, Indians in the United States tend to be Democrats. The Indian family members and friends I speak to are left-leaning professionals in Silicon Valley who supported Obama and are dismayed by Ramaswamy’s politics.
They are also disappointed by his attack on Haley and feel certain it will backfire: It smacks far too much of the divide-and-conquer politics that we and our parents happily left behind.
Instead of finding a way to champion an Indian woman for her accomplishments — even one who is a political rival — which would have cast him in a positive light and endeared him to female voters, he chose to attack her. This did Ramaswamy no favors with Indian voters, especially Indian women.
Haley is a Republican, but she is viewed among Indian women — and apparently by a lot of non-Indian voters who seem to have been impressed by her outing in the first debate last month — as the grown-up in the room, mature and dignified.
By contrast, Ramaswamy came across as entitled and abrasive — a turn-off to many Americans and to many Indian Americans of my acquaintance as well. We would welcome an uplifting candidate who unites minorities instead of adhering to the divisive trope we have seen before and are familiar with Indian politicians in the country from which many of us, or our parents, chose to emigrate from.
The elephant in the room is that Ramaswamy has to appeal to working-class Trump voters, many of whom are likely to find his race, name and religion a huge turn-off. It remains to be seen how he will manage to square the circle.
At the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee last month, Ramaswamy was quick-witted and beguiling, able to shimmy his way around more experienced politicians with a smile and scant regard for their years in office.
As best I can tell, his strategy is to slip-stream his way to the nomination like a nimble skateboarder hanging onto the side of a city bus. But this 54-year-old British Indian father of two living in New York found his performance hard — even embarrassing — to watch.
If he does get elected by default, he won’t be met with the kind of adulation and delirious joy that met the last politician of color’s inauguration. If Ramaswamy wants to stand a chance of being respected, not just as a politician but as a human being, he needs to find a moral compass.
America needs a leader who has one. We’re tired of the politics of Trump. And as an Indian, I’m desperate to see a positive, motivational role model in the public eye who unites, not divides.
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