Vivek Ramaswamy doesn’t shy away from his Indian heritage.
It is present in his name (his name rhymes with “cake,” he explains) and in his Hindu faith. During the election campaign he explained that he is a vegetarian due to his family’s tradition. And during a Republican debate in August that was a spectacular performance, he introduced himself as a “skinny guy with a funny last name,” echoing former President Barack Obama.
Still, Ramaswamy recently said in an interview that he does not identify as American Indian. Being Hindu and Indian is “part of my cultural identity, for sure, and I’m proud of it and very comfortable with it,” he said after a campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa. “But I’m an American first.”
Ramaswamy, 38, a first-time presidential candidate and conservative author, is both deeply in touch with his Indian roots and convinced that the growing focus on diversity and racial inequality in the United States has come at the cost of national unity.
His message is aimed at a predominantly white and Christian Republican electorate, and he has tailored his personal story to his audience. When voters ask her about her Hindu faith, for example, she is often quick to emphasize that it allows her to maintain “Judeo-Christian” values.
Brimming with energy and brash speech, Ramaswamy attracted enough attention at the party’s first debate in August to earn a surge in the polls; some briefly showed him jumping to second place, though well behind former President Donald Trump. He has since returned to support Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration.
Still, Ramaswamy has attracted enough support to qualify for the third Republican debate Wednesday in Miami.
Many Indian Americans, even those critical of Ramaswamy’s political beliefs, have said in interviews that they feel a special pride in seeing him on the national stage, more so than they have with other Republican presidential candidates of Indian descent, such as Bobby Jindal and Mrs. Haley, who converted to Christianity in her youth and adopted Anglicized names.
Ramaswamy’s story is emblematic of many Asian American millennials whose parents came to the country after immigration laws were liberalized in 1965 and migration from outside Europe grew dramatically. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the country, and Indian Americans now constitute the largest independent group among them in the United States.
As a child, Ramaswamy was involved in a small but close-knit Indian community in a region of Greater Cincinnati that was majority white. He belonged to a Hindu temple but attended a private Catholic high school, where, he said, he was the only Hindu student in his class. As a teenager, he co-founded an Indian Association at school and also worked for a local Indian radio station, according to a 2002 article in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
As a student at Harvard University, Ramaswamy seemed to move comfortably between different worlds, classmates said in interviews. He studied biology, was president of the Harvard Political Union, and rapped under a libertarian alter ego known as ‘Da Vek.’ (At the time, he told The Harvard Crimson that Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was the theme song of his life, which he unexpectedly reprized this summer at the Iowa State Fair.)
At Harvard, he took a comic turn in the annual cultural extravaganza organized by the South Asian Association and was active in Dharma, the Hindu student association. And he served as a student liaison for Jindal, then a rising political star who was a visiting professor at the Harvard Institute of Politics in 2004 before becoming governor of Louisiana and the first Indian-American to run for president.
«If you had asked me when we were in college if being Indian American was a big part of your identity, I would have said yes,» said Saikat Chakrabarti, Ramaswamy’s Harvard classmate and former chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria. Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York.
Ramaswamy made a fortune as a biotechnology entrepreneur. After the 2020 police killing of George Floyd galvanized the racial justice movement, Ramaswamy made a name for herself in conservative circles by criticizing identity politics and the corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion, which she referred to as as “wokeness”. Ramaswamy has since said that he believes liberals have become obsessed with skin color and race in a way that has contributed to division in the country.
Like many Republican candidates of color, he has at times spoken about his own experiences facing discrimination, but has said the country does not have systemic racism.
«I’m sure the bogeyman of white supremacy exists somewhere in America,» Ramaswamy told voters at a late August event in Pella, Iowa. «I’ve just never met him, never seen one, «I’ve never met one in my life.»
At a late August event with voters at Legends American Grill in Marshalltown, David Tracy, a 37-year-old businessman, asked Ramaswamy to explain what it meant to him to be a Hindu with “Judeo-Christian” values. Mr. Ramaswamy responded by explaining that he had attended a Christian school and shared the same values, and weaved in a Bible story as if to prove it.
“I may not be qualified to be your pastor,” Ramaswamy told the crowd of older, mostly white voters. «But I think I can be your commander in chief.»
Tracy, who lives in Des Moines, said in an interview last week that he understood why Ramaswamy has sometimes downplayed his Indian and Hindu roots in trying to appeal to Republican voters. But she also said that Ramaswamy has lost some authenticity by doing so. “He speaks more like a conservative white man than like a Hindu son of immigrants,” she said.
Tracy said he didn’t think Ramaswamy was against diversity, but that the candidate felt too many Americans were focusing on their individual identity.
«I think the point Vivek is making is that there is a personal identity and a national identity, and I think right now young people don’t know collectively what that national identity means,» he said.
Susan Kunkel, 65, an undecided Republican, said last week at a Haley campaign event in Nashua, NH, that she didn’t like Ramaswamy’s constant pandering to Trump’s base. But she appreciated that he was a new face in the party and agreed with his opposition to affirmative action.
«It’s good to have different ages, sexes and genders, and you know, minorities, but it should be based on merit,» Ms. Kunkel, a practice manager at a medical practice, said of recent corporate diversity efforts.
On the stump, Ramaswamy has often cited his family’s story as an example of how anyone can achieve the American dream and should not blame racism for holding him back. «My parents came to this country 40 years ago with no money,» she said. “In a single generation, I have founded multi-million dollar companies.”
But many immigrants from India after 1965 arrived with advantages that other people of color lacked, said Devesh Kapur, professor of South Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the book “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.” Mr. Ramaswamy’s parents came with advanced degrees; His father was an engineer at General Electric and his mother was a geriatric psychiatrist.
«It’s a gross underestimation and underestimation of his privileged background,» Kapur said of Ramaswamy’s backstory.
In October, via social media posts, Ramaswamy agreed to a debate with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., held last Wednesday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, NH. Khanna’s team had framed the event as a civil conversation between two children of immigrants who were rising Indian American political voices.
In an interview, Khanna, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, said that acknowledging the history of racism and discrimination in the United States was crucial to building a cohesive, multiracial democracy. She said that not everyone in America could have “the opportunities that people like Vivek and I had,” referring to her middle-class upbringing.
Until «everyone has that opportunity, we can’t say that race and class don’t matter,» he added.
Tricia McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Ramaswamy’s campaign, said Ramaswamy’s decision to debate Khanna had little to do with their shared Indian identity.
It was more about Mr. Ramaswamy being Mr. Ramaswamy.
“Vivek does just about anything,” he said.