UNITED STATES, June 19, 2020: Meet the new wave of Indian-American politicians. At least eight children of Indian immigrants are running for Congress or statewide office, the most ever. The star of this trend is Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, who is favored to win the election for governor of South Carolina.
Indian heritage is where Haley’s similarity with the other candidates seems to end. She is the only Republican, the only one who has been widely mistaken for a white woman, the only one who has been accused of abandoning her heritage for converting from the Sikh faith to Christianity.
Bobby Jindal was elected the nation’s first Indian governor in 2007, at age 36. Named Piyush at birth, he told his Hindu parents when he was 4 that he wanted to be called Bobby. He converted to Catholicism as a teenager.
Speaking about their faith is rarely in the agenda for those who have not converted to Christianity like Jindal. J. Ashwin Madia, a Minnesota Democrat who lost a congressional election in 2008 and is a follower of the Jain religion, says their faith is irrelevant. “They can choose to be called what they want to be called, they can worship what they want to worship,” said Madia. “I don’t think being Indian-American is this thing they need to strive for or meet some sort of purity test. They are finding the right balance for themselves.”
Barack Hussein Obama, known as Barry in his younger days, proved that an unusual name was not an insurmountable political barrier. Some Indian politicians seem to be following his blueprint as they embrace their Indian names while describing their faith in voters’ lack of bias. “This campaign is all about vision and values and policies,” said Raj Goyle, who is battling for the Democratic congressional nomination in his hometown of Wichita, Kan. “I don’t spend time thinking about differences, I think about ways that Kansans can come together.” In 2006, he became the first Indian-American elected to the Kansas Legislature and the first Democrat to hold his statehouse district.
Indians began immigrating to the United States in large numbers about 50 years ago, but just two have been elected to Congress: Dalip Singh Saund in 1956 and Jindal, who entered Congress in 2004 and became governor midway through his second term. In 2008, Madia says he was the only major Indian-American candidate for Congress. Today there are six, including Goyle and Trivedi. Ami Bera in California, Ravi Sangisetty in Louisiana and Reshma Saujani in New York face upcoming primaries, and Surya Yalamanchili won a primary in Ohio.