Vivek Ramaswamy and his Complicated Relationship with the Indian American Community

Photo by Unsplash.)

The Indian American community appears sharply divided on Vivek Ramaswamy’s candidacy. While some view him as a figure aligning with their family values and heritage, others perceive him as a candidate who exploits his background to appeal to white Republican voters and undermine discussions of racism and diversity.

A first-generation American, Vivek was born in Cincinnati, OH, and raised by his two parents who immigrated to the United States from India. While Ramaswamy is Hindu, he often emphasizes that he shares many values with Christians. If elected, Ramaswamy, who is 38 years old, would make history as the youngest president ever and the first Indian American President to hold the office.

Many minorities have criticized Ramaswamy for his consistent and offensive use of racial rhetoric, as well as his policies related to diversity and immigration.

“I feel like many of Vivek’s comments about his ethnicity and heritage are tailored to resonate with white individuals,” said 23-year-old Ushni Gupta of New York City. 

“His statements, like not minding mispronunciations of his name or suggesting that the Indian community lacks leverage in accessing opportunities, indicate a lack of awareness about certain privileges held by Indian Americans,” said Gupta.

During a town hall in Iowa on Aug. 27, Ramaswamy boldly declared, “Our diversity is not our strength,” and made a comparison between Ayanna Pressley, a Black congresswoman, and the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, he said, “I’m sure the boogeyman ‘white supremacists’ exist somewhere in America – I have just never met him.”

In a separate statement made on Aug. 6, Ramaswamy called Juneteenth a “useless” holiday, expressing his desire to cancel it. This day commemorates the moment when slaves in Texas first learned of their emancipation through the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Gupta, a Democrat and intake specialist at a legal firm, elaborated on how Ramaswamy appears to downplay essential aspects of his cultural identity and its historical significance as part of his campaign against “wokeness:” something he describes as “a cultural cancer.”

Jahnavi Mehta, a 21-year-old Indian American woman from Syracuse, New York, noted the hypocrisy rooted in Ramaswamy’s immigration policies. 

“He talks about how his parents moved here with no money and worked their way up, and his stance on birthright citizenship would imply that if your parents were illegal, you would be too. So, under his own policy, he wouldn’t even be a citizen,” said Mehta.

Like Ramaswamy, Mehta is also the child of two Indian immigrants and acquired her citizenship through birthright. Mehta’s father came to the United States under the H-1B visa program, something that Ramaswamy has pledged to terminate if elected to office.

“It’s great that he’s talking about how his parents came to America to pursue the American dream,” Mehta said. 

“But then he goes on to say that he doesn’t want to extend that opportunity to future generations, and it would end with him. I think that’s dangerous because he’s promoting Indian American heritage on this grand stage, saying he’s thankful for the opportunity he got, but he doesn’t want to give it to anyone else.”

Despite facing criticism from some members of the Indian American community for his offensive language and his stance on immigration, some Indian Americans view him as a trailblazer for their community, proudly showcasing his culture and Hindu roots.

“I see a lot of my childhood and the values I was raised with in him,” said 35-year-old Jelena Vathielil of Parkland, Florida. 

Vathielil’s family hails from Kerala, India, the same state as Ramaswamy’s family. She grew up in a household with mixed political ideologies but always resonated more with her conservative father’s beliefs. 

“I feel he grew up with the same beliefs as me,” said Vathielil. “Like a more conservative focus on family and education and everything, so a lot of his background and beliefs really resonate with me.” 

Vathielil, a dentist and mother of two, manages an Instagram account called “Indians4Vivek” in her free time. When asked why she created this account, Vathielil explained that a well-educated Indian American friend of hers, whose family also hails from Kerala, had never heard of Ramaswamy. This revelation left Vathelil shocked and motivated her to spread the word about Ramaswamy within the Indian American community. 

“I feel like I would really like to see a little bit more support from Indian people,” said Vathielil. “You know because I think that he can do well for our country.” 

Sam Martinez, the Deputy Director of Ramaswamy’s South Carolina campaign, has observed a significant level of engagement among minorities in Ramaswamy’s campaign, noting that he has witnessed “an explosion of excitement, not just from Indian Americans, but from minorities in general, which is pretty cool.”

“Our college director is of Indian American and Hindu descent,” said Martinez. “Additionally, we have two Indian American students from the University of South Carolina who are actively involved in the campaign, along with a Hispanic student helping as well.” 

When asked about the support for Vivek among minorities, Sam stated his belief that Indian American support for Ramaswamy exists but isn’t highlighted enough in the news. “On the Republican side,” said Martinez, “diversity isn’t something that’s really announced or in your face. It’s definitely important, but Republicans don’t prioritize diversity over other things like liberal news outlets,” 

According to data from the Pew Research Center, Indian Americans constitute approximately 2.1 million registered voters, representing about 16 percent of eligible Asian American voters in the United States. Insights from the 2020 Indian American Attitude Survey reveal that among Indian Americans, 56 percent identified as Democrats, 22 percent identified as Independent, and 15 percent identified as Republicans, with the remaining seven percent selecting “other” or “not sure.”

Given this demographic makeup, Ramaswamy’s approach to addressing concerns raised within his community, or his decision to stand firm in his beliefs despite reservations expressed by fellow Indian Americans and minorities in general, holds significant implications for his popularity within the Indian-American community.

Ramaswamy’s ability to navigate this divide and align with the values and priorities of his constituency will be closely watched as the 2024 presidential campaign draws closer.