Two Indian Americans star - and clash - in Republican presidential debate

The only time India figured in the two-hour debate was when Haley rebutted Ramaswamy’s claim that climate change was a “hoax”, but said that to protect the environment “we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions” (even though an Indian’s greenhouse gas emissions are about an eighth of an American’s). Without mentioning his parent’s motherland, Ramaswamy said, “My parents came to this country with no money 40 years ago”. 

Arul Louis Aug 26, 2023
Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley face off during the Republican presidential nomination candidates debate on Wednesday, August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (Photo courtesy of Fox News)

Two Indian Americans seeking the Republican Party’s presidential nomination as outsiders in their own ways created high drama, arms stretched and fingers wagging angrily at each other, trading personal insults. Both flamboyantly presented themselves as outsiders but in different ways. It was a significant moment for Indian Americans, who are just 4 per cent of the United States population, to see two of their own on the debate stage, and never mind that 70 per cent of them support the Democratic Party, according to a 2022 survey by the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote) and two other groups. 

According to a 2020 study by two Indian American academics, 58.8 Indian Americans said they would vote for a fellow ethnic regardless of party affiliation.

The 38-year-old Vivek Ramaswamy, a multi-millionaire, revelled in his status as “not a politician”, but “an entrepreneur”, and as the youngest on the stage on Wednesday in Milwaukee, firmly making him an outsider amid the veteran politicians older than him. Modelling himself on former president Donald Trump, Ramaswamy hurled insults at the political veterans joining him on a seemingly impossible mission to wrest the lead for the party’s nomination from Trump.

He insulted them as puppets of interest groups who were parroting memorised lines fed to them and beholden to SuperPACs (Political Action Committees) that help fund their campaigns. Unlike them, Ramaswamy doesn’t need SuperPAC money.

And smilingly he declared that the debate was going to be a fun ride – a departure from Trump’s sour demeanour. He garnered the second-most talking time on the debate after former Vice President Mike Pence, according to a New York Times tally, boosting his visibility,

Nikki Haley, 51, a former South Carolina governor, the first Indian American to serve on the US cabinet when she was the UN permanent representative -- and the only woman on the stage -- pitched herself as the outsider to both the Republican Party establishment and the mainstream driven by former President Donald Trump.

She dared condemn Trump as “the most disliked politician in all of America” and denounced fellow Republicans as profligates who added $8 trillion to the national deficit.

In contrast to Ramaswamy, she presented herself as a candidate of maturity and moderation – and mostly calmness, except in the confrontation with him.

In a high-tension moment, the man from a Tamil family from Palakkad in Kerala and the woman from a Sikh family from Punjab shouted down each other with angry gestures after his controversial statements about cutting aid to Ukraine and Israel.

“You have no foreign policy experience and it shows”, Haley shouted at him.

He, in turn, accused her of seeking a directorship on the boards of defence manufacturers like Lockheed Martin.

“You want to go and defund Israel,” she said, and he retorted, “Nikki, you have been pushing this lie all week long”.

When former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ramaswamy were locked in dispute over climate change, Haley interjected, “This is exactly why Margaret Thatcher said, 'If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman'”.

One of the two debate moderators, Fox News host Martha MacCallum, needled Haley pointing out that Ramaswamy outperformed her in polls.

But she didn’t take the bait.

According to polls aggregation by RealClear Politics, on the eve of the debate Ramaswamy at 7.2 per cent had nearly more than double Haley’s support of 3.2 per cent.

Ann Coulter a right-wing extremist media flame-thrower tweeted ignorantly about their faceoff: “Nikki and Vivek are involved in some Hindu business, it seems. Not our fight”. Haley was never a Hindu; born a Sikh, she converted to her husband’s Methodist Christian sect. Ramaswamy follows a Hinduism based on pluralism and respect for all religions like enunciated by his illustrious namesake, Swami Vivekanananda.  

At the end of the day, Ramaswamy who has been following Trump’s 2016 playbook of insults and bravado emerged as his staunchest supporter, gaining his praise in a social media tweet as the debate’s winner and the cheers of his supporters in the debate venue.

And Hailey was declared the “adult in the room” by moderates for her measured stands on controversial issues like abortion and her denouncement of Trump amid the raucous snipings. 

The Wall Street Journal’s conservative columnist Kimberly Stassel declared her and former Vice President Mike Pence, “Adults on the GOP debate stage”.

The early polls after the debate were mixed: Insider Advantage poll had Haley having her best showing so far at 11 per cent and Ramaswamy at 7 per cent while Morning Consult had him moving up to 11 per cent, with her at 3 per cent.

The only time India figured in the two-hour debate was when Haley rebutted Ramaswamy’s claim that climate change was a “hoax”, but said that to protect the environment “we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions” (even though an Indian’s greenhouse gas emissions are about an eighth of an American’s). Without mentioning his parent’s motherland, Ramaswamy said, “My parents came to this country with no money 40 years ago”. 

While it’s a long time for either of the two Republican Indian Americans to make it to the ballot, as things now stand Kamala Harris of partial Indian descent is slated to be the Democrat’s vice president candidate again.

Even their snipings at each other only showed Haley’s and Ramaswamy’s independent way of thinking and their different perspectives beyond their mutual ethnicities, the identity politics that they disdain.

And for the Republican Party often called racist or broad-brushed as anti-immigrant (although it is only against illegal immigration), the party had two Indian Americans elected as governors, Haley in South Carolina and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, both southern states parodied as racist.

Even though there is no Indian American Republican in Congress now, Jindal was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004, ending a 41-year gap since Dalip Singh Saund, a Democrat, had served there.

While a two-term governor, Jindal made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2016 without even making to the main debate platform.

Trump imperiously boycotted the debate, but Ramaswamy was his stand-in and, therefore, the punching bag.

But unlike Trump, Ramaswamy took it in his stride, smiling and sometimes sniggering, taunting his elders, “We're just going to have some fun”.

Christie said Ramaswamy sounded like “Chat-GPT,” the artificial intelligence generator of texts.

Borrowing from former Democrat President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign line, Ramaswamy began introducing himself joking, “Who the heck is this skinny guy with a funny last name ...”?

Christie pounced on him for that, saying “I'm afraid we're dealing with the same type of amateur”.

Ramaswamy taunted him, asking him for a “hug” like he had given Obama that could help his election.

Pence called Ramaswamy “a rookie” and turning on his outsider status, he said,  “Now, it's not the time for on-the-job training ... we don't need to bring in people without experience”.


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