Row over 'Nimrata' Nikki Haley, and Indian-American politics in US elections, explained

Indian-Americans will play a big role in the November 3 elections

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On Wednesday, at the Republican National Convention (RNC) ahead of the US elections, top Indian-American Republican politician Nikki Haley narrated her story to the American voters, urging them to strongly reject the Democratic Party's "fashionable" statement that "America is racist". 48-year-old former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Haley was the only speaker of Indian descent to be listed at the RNC, which formally re-nominated US President Donald Trump as the party candidate for the November 3 presidential elections.

Born as Nimrata Randhawa in South Carolina, she is the daughter of Ajit Singh Randhawa and Raj Kaur Randhawa, who emigrated from Amritsar in Punjab. Haley said her family faced discrimination and hardship, but her parents never gave in to grievance and hate. "My mom built a successful business. My dad taught 30 years at a historically Black college. And the people of South Carolina chose me as their first minority and first female governor," Haley said.

"America is a story that is a work in progress. Now is the time to build on that progress, and make America even freer, fairer, and better for everyone. That's why it is tragic to see so much of the Democratic Party turn a blind eye toward riots and rage," she said.

But, the statement raised heckles within the community. Advocacy group South Asians for Biden alleged in a tweet that Haley had to change her name from Nimrata to Nikki mainly because of racism. "If America isn't racist, why did Nimrata Haley feel compelled to change her name to 'Nikki'? Maybe just the Republican Party is?" they tweeted.

However, following backlash from community members, the group apologised and deleted its tweet later in the day. "Upon further reflection, an earlier tweet drawing attention to the name of Ambassador Nikki Haley has been removed. South Asians for Biden regrets the tone of the message," the group tweeted after deleting its previous tweet.

With Indian-Americans, and South Asians in general, set to play a big role in the coming US elections, it is pertinent to look into the political aspects of the desi experience. 

How important are Indian-Americans in the elections?

Around 1.3 million Indian-Americans are expected to vote in this year's election, with nearly 2,00,000 in battleground states like Pennsylvania and 1,25,000 in Michigan. This has the potential to make or break presidential contenders in crucial states, as Indian-Americans generally register and vote at high rates. 

In the 2016 presidential elections, 77 per cent of Indian-Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, according to statistics by CRW Strategy, a research firm. However, this time, things could change. Recent surveys carried out by Republican pollsters claim that 50 per cent of Indian-American voters in key battleground states are moving towards Trump. This has been a cause of huge worry for Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his party.

As a little over 100 days are left for the elections, both the Republican and the Democratic parties are making huge efforts to reach out to the small but influential community in some of the key battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Thomas Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that Michigan has 1,25,000 Indian-American voters. "We lost Michigan by 10,700 votes in 2016," he said, referring to the loss of Hillary Clinton, the then Democratic presidential nominee at the hands of President Donald Trump. "In Pennsylvania, there are 1,56,000 [Indian-American voters]. We [Democratic Party] lost presidential elections in Pennsylvania by 42-43,000 votes. In Wisconsin, there are 37,000 Indian-Americans. We lost Wisconsin by 21,000 votes in 2016," said the head of the Democratic Party.

"Today in all the polls and surveys, the Indian-American favorability for Biden over Trump is 2.3 to one, which is very close to what it was in 2016 [2.4 to one]," he said, asserting that the party can aspire to get 75-80 per cent of the Indian-American votes, if they do the work.

What are the Democrats planning to do?

The selection of Kamala Harris, born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, is expected to rustle up the South Asian base. She has, throughout her campaign speeches, played up her Indian identity, speaking of life in South India and the values embedded by her grandparents. 

On Independence Day, Biden, in a first by any presidential candidate, came out with a policy document for Indian-Americans. "Indian-Americans of all backgrounds Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Jain, and others have been subjected to bullying and xenophobic attacks and need now, more than ever, a reassurance that the US leaders in Washington will have their backs," Biden said. He asserted that, if elected, his administration will stand with New Delhi in confronting the threats it faces and called for strengthening the "bond" between India and the US. "If elected president," Biden said, "he will continue to believe this and also continue to stand with India against the threats it faces from its own region and along its borders."

Biden has also added some personal touches to his campaign, constantly speaking of the time he was elected as one of the youngest US senators in 1972. "One of the first letters that I received was from Mumbai, with the sender having the same last name as mine," he had said. The 'Biden from Mumbai' had congratulated Biden on his election as the senator from Delaware and told him that they were related to each other. The former vice president spoke about how he wanted to follow up on the letter and get in touch with the 'Biden from Mumbai', but it remains a wish unfulfilled nearly five decades later.

Indian-American advocacy organisation IMPACT has played a major role in bringing in many Indian-American voices to the Democratic Party fora. They recently endorsed prominent progressive names like Congressmen Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Ro Khanna and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, along with numerous state level candidates such as Nina Ahmad (Pennsylvania Auditor General), Ronnie Chatterji (North Carolina Treasurer), Jay Chaudhuri (North Carolina State Senate), Jeremy Cooney (New York State Senate), Nima Kulkarni (Kentucky State House), Jennifer Rajkumar (New York State House), Kesha Ram (Vermont State Senate), Ravi Sandill (Texas State District Judge), Nikil Saval (Pennsylvania State Senate) and Amish Shah (Arizona State House). 

What is Trump planning to do?

He will play on his close relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Aiming to woo the influential Indian-American voters, the Trump campaign has released its first video commercial that has short clips from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches and US President Donald Trump's historic address in Ahmedabad. Modi and Trump addressed a huge crowd in Ahmedabad during the US president's visit to India in February this year. Trump was also accompanied by his wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and top brass of his administration on his trip to India.

"America enjoys a great relationship with India and our campaign enjoys great support from Indian-Americans!" Kimberly Guilfoyle, national chair of Trump Victory Finance Committee said in a tweet releasing the video commercial. The president's son Donald Trump Jr, who is leading the campaign and is well connected with the Indian-American community, also retweeted it as the commercial soon became viral on social media with over 66,000 views on Twitter in the first few hours.

Titled 'Four More Years' the 107-second video starts with the footage of Modi and Trump walking hand-in-hand at the NRG Stadium in Houston during the prime minister's visit to the US last year wherein the leaders of the world's two largest democracies made a joint address before a strong crowd of Indian-Americans numbering more than 50,000.

-Inputs from agencies

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