It’s not so long ago that the sight of an Indian American name on the ballot was unusual. I recall struggling to find candidates to write about for a piece on desis in politics. Today that folder is full, with a name or two being added almost daily. It took us a while, but we finally figured out that we need to be represented at every level, whether on the PTA board of our children’s school, the planning commission of our city, or the assembly of our state.
It could have been a quiet revolution, as Nikki Haley probably hoped, with her Anglicized name and her mainstream American back story—until she got called a “raghead” and was catapulted to the national headlines. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal had already generated a frisson of interest in the phenomenon of the politicized desi when he was selected to give the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union Address last year, and the overt racism that Haley faced stoked those embers, even as it drew the focus away from the merits of her candidacy and towards the “exoticism” of her origins.
Given the attention span-challenged, reality TV-influenced state of American media, it is not surprising that the story du jour is whether candidates like Haley and Jindal are rejecting their ethnicity by modifying their names and adopting new religions.
I am pretty sanguine about this; politics, after all, is about marketing yourself to your constituents, and if it means that you have to draw attention away from what makes you different from your voters, that’s fine. I have friends who shorten or even change their names at the local Starbucks so they don’t have to hear a mangled version over the PA system; surely a politician is entitled to do the same, without compromising on their culture or heritage. As for the media coverage, a provocative story on “funny” names and strange eastern religions is so much easier than doing serious legwork on how these politicians represent their constituencies and how the policies they espouse represent or depart from those of the Indian American diaspora. It’s a 24-hour news cycle, checkout aisle tabloid-style treatment, and it will pass.
What I take issue with is a “with us or against us” mentality of the diaspora when it comes to desi politicians. Perhaps it is because Indian Americans are still quite under-represented, but the expectation seems to be that, as desis, we should blindly support the candidacy of a member of our community, even if our politics are quite different. I refuse; to do so is demeaning, as if their appeal can be reduced to the color of their skin or the syllables in their name. In its own way, that is racism too.