I was heartened to see increased candidate participation of Indian Americans in the recent US mid-term elections, regardless of the results. After all, as a growing minotiry, the best way to carve a presence and forge an identity in a representative democracy is by representation. As many as 8 Indian Americans ran for the Congress or for one of the State offices. Of course, it was a wide-spread Republican victory indicating a voter perception of a lack of focus from Obama on the struggling economy holding him responsible for the excruciatingly slow recovery. Nevermind the fact that studies have shown time and again that the party wielding power has little influence on the national economic fluctuations. It must be sweet irony for the Republicans who watched Obama’s landslide victory coincide with the economy going to the crapper towards the end of Dubya’s regime, even if Bush personally had little to do with a global economic downturn. But voters don’t care about these facts. They want their leaders to control things they don’t always have the power to influence. So, it was no surprise to see that the only winner among these desis was a Republican cadidate, a Nikki Haley, who ran for the governship of South Carolina.
Nikki Haley was once a Nimrata Randhawa, born in South Carolina to Indian Punjabi immigrants. Following the footsteps of a fellow Republican governor from Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, a.k.a, Piyush Amrit Jindal, she converted to Christianity about seven years ago. Just like the Lousiana governor, Nikki had to defend her “faith” vigorously as people questioned her Sikh background. Nikki has chosen to run without trying to acknowledge her Indian background focusing primarily on her American-ness. Both Bobby and Nikki might have truly been touched by their experiences with Christianity. Speaking about his faith, Jindal said “after watching a short black-and-white film on the crucifixion of Christ, realized that if the Gospel stories were true, if Christ really was the son of God, it was arrogant of me to reject Him and question the gift of salvation.” For all I know, that might be true for Nikki too, even if the cynic in me wonders about the coincidence of her conversion with her political apsirations.
As political campaigns go, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and a skill for galvanizing people to buy into what you stand for and win. But the fact is, while Obama’s victory proved how Americans can rise above the racial prejudices, they still feel very strongly about their religious affiliations. If Nikki Haley was a muslim and went by Nisreen Hussain or if she remained a sikh by the name of Nimrata Randhawa, and ran these elections standing for the same things she stood for now, she wouldn’t have won. Religion should have no say whatsoever on the policies or regulations they might pursue in power. From that perspective, it shouldn’t bother me if their “transformations in faith” are acts of higer political aspirations. But if it is an act of manipulating the voters’ perspective, it does speak to a person’s character and self belief or lack thereof, and how they feel they can’t stand for fundamentally who they are to pursue public service. Never affirming her Indian background, she ran and won as a South Carolina native riding the Republican wave. There’s really nothing wrong with that. I know of a couple of desi acquaintances of mine who go by different anglicized names now. If they feel more assimilated or more integrated by doing that, that’s their prerogative.
I don’t begrudge their actions one bit, but as someone proud of my own heritage and background, I could care less for anyone who all but disowns their identity. When they aren’t secure in their own self, how can they be looked upon to establishing a presence for their own? Back when Mohammed Ali fought Joe Frazier in those epic heavy weight battles, Ali was the champion of his people. African Americans looked up to him for what he stood for and gleaned a pride they all felt inside from his refusal to appease to the establishment based on his personal beliefs even at the cost of exile at the height of his boxing career. And rightfully or wrongfully, they had little sympathy for Joe Frazier, not because he did anything wrong, but because he didn’t stand for anything they could relate to and worse yet, he was in the way of their champion. So, along with Nikki, among those 8 Indian American candidates, there were a few Democratic candidates who ran for the congress with an open affirmation of their Indian background and culture, without choosing a faith of convenience.. Raj Goyle (Kansas), Manan Trivedi(Pennsylvania), and Ami Bera(California) among them.. and they all lost.
I have a hell of a lot more respect for these losers.