Why did Nimrata Randhawa change her name to Nikki Haley and does Kamala Harris identify as Black or of South Asian origin?
As US President Donald Trump narrowed the gap between himself and his opponent Joe Biden after the Republican national convention last week, the ‘South Asians for Biden’ advocacy group tweeted, “If America isn’t racist, why did Nimrata Haley feel compelled to change her name to Nikki?”
Why, indeed. You could argue that Nimrata wanted to assimilate, because she grew up in a Sikh family in South Carolina, with a father who “wore a turban” and a mother who “wore a sari.” Nikki was easier on the White Anglo-Saxon tongue, and in any case, “nikki” is a familiar, affectionate term of endearment in Punjab. It fitted the bill in every way.
Kamala Harris, meanwhile, has sent at least half of India – the southern half, because few people north of the Vindhyas understand what the Tamil word ‘chithis’ (aunt) means – into paroxysms of delight, as “one of our own” ascends the second-highest rung of the US political ladder.
Question is, does Haley’s defence of Trump against the charge of racism at the Republican National Convention last week mean that she leans towards the “Whiteness” scale? And what does it matter that Harris, who has admitted that her South Indian mother brought her up as a Black woman, is now choosing to add brown to black?
A crucial community
Certainly, both Haley and Harris – and the Indian-American political elite — have come a long way since 2016, when a supporter of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal had had his portrait painted in a much lighter skin tone. (“Of course, I’m white,” Jindal had joked at the time, adding the “whole thing is silly.”)
But as both India and America well know, the “whole thing” is not silly at all. America still needs to hashtag the fact that #BlackLivesMatter in 2020 and when Miss New York Nina Davuluri won the Miss America contest earlier in August – days before Kamala Harris was named the Democratic vice-presidential candidate – she apparently woke up to a question in an Indian newspaper asking, “Is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?”
Still, the South Asian for Biden advocacy group has since apologised and deleted its tweet about Nikki ‘Nimrata’ Haley, fearful it might backfire on its own candidate. But for a second, as the curtain lifted, it showcased the seething bitterness between the Republicans and the Democrats and how the Indian-American community – and its crucial approximately 2 million voting population — is being pulled into the vortex.
For now, the rumour mill won’t stop speculating about Nikki Haley replacing Mike Pence as Trump’s vice-presidential candidate and making it a Haley-Harris direct fight. There’s no denying Haley’s interest in the top job, the main motivation for her trip to India in 2018, when she came to check out how the mother country might react. (It was lukewarm, sort of.)
If Nikki Haley does replace Pence, a man who has hardly been seen and even less heard these last four years, she is sure to charge up the fight. The math about the Indian-American community capable of tilting an election is no doubt being done by both sides.
Abki baar, Trump sarkar?
First, the facts. In 2016, Trump won three “swing” states with slim margins — Michigan by 0.2 per cent, Pennsylvania by 0.7 per cent and Wisconsin by 0.8 per cent.
It so happens that the Indian American voting community is spread exactly across these three states – besides a little bit in Arizona, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. It also happens that Trump’s wooing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Texas with the “Howdy, Modi!” blockbuster meeting last year, followed up by his visit to India earlier this year, has succeeded in helping the Republicans infiltrate the Indian-American camp.
In 2016, about 77 per cent of the community voted for Hilary Clinton; as of 2018, only 50 per cent of registered Indian-American voters favour the Democrats. While 18 per cent identify as Republican, a significant 32 per cent said they were “non-identifiers”.
PM Modi’s ‘Abki baar, Trump sarkar’ has certainly been a great boon for Trumpians. Not for nothing does a Trump video released a few days ago insist that “America loves India,” with panoramic shots of the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event and Trump’s red carpet visit to India. Not for nothing does the ongoing virtual summit of the India-US Strategic Partnership Forum feature both Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, but no Democrat of any consequence so far.
But back home, India is already beginning to moderate itself. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has insisted that “India is a common point” despite differences between the competing candidates. Meanwhile, India’s ambassador to the US, Taranjit Sandhu, has been busy “reconnecting” with influential Democrats.
Certainly, the world is a much tougher place than it was in 2016 and there’s no higher forum to seek forgiveness for abandoning a bipartisan principle that gave India such enviable pre-eminence in the US elite as well as on the street.
In the Modi-Jaishankar school of foreign policy where power is everything, Trump had to be wooed no matter the high moral ground because there was so much at stake – beginning with the scrapping of Article 370, which Trump’s top diplomat for South Asia Alice Wells subsequently defended with such elan in the House foreign affairs committee, and ending with the confrontation of India’s chief rival, China.
For Modi’s India, the red carpet for Trump was a necessary gamble – which it won.
But as Biden leads the polls, Delhi has begun to argue that the US will have no option but to deal with Modi’s hardline on Kashmir because of the bigger picture – India is the only large enough country with the potential to stand up to China.
Certainly, China will be a common rallying point. The Indian argument — that hard politics will force the potential Biden-Harris team to overlook the bad blood from Jaishankar’s cancellation of a meeting with US lawmakers last December because it included Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had introduced a resolution urging India to lift restrictions in Kashmir — is sure to hold.
Modi’s India for Trump
Biden has gone out of his way to woo Indian-Americans, releasing a campaign document for India on Independence Day and Kamala Harris urging South Asian women to participate in politics in larger numbers. “I want you to know that leadership begins the day you are born,” she told the South Asian for Biden advocacy group.
That’s the interesting thing this election. While the Indian-American community tends to lean towards Democrats, Modi’s India, in her heart of hearts, still favours Trump.
But whatever the result in November, India’s ultra-realist PM will surely emphasise the love between the oldest and largest democracies, much like his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh did with George Bush. After all, foreign policy is just a manifestation of the pure politics being wrung out at home.
Views are personal