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The South Asian Identity In The Current Political Moment


Two prime spots at the political conventions went to two Indian American women, Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris, who each leaned in to their South Asian immigrant identity in their speeches. Here's Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., kicking off the Republican National Convention yesterday.


NIKKI HALEY: This is personal for me. I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. They came to America and settled in a small Southern town. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari.

KELLY: Meanwhile, last week, while accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president, Kamala Harris thanked her mother for raising her to be proud of her Indian heritage. Well, here to talk through this moment for South Asian Americans in American politics is Karthick Ramakrishnan. He's a professor of public policy at UC Riverside.

Hey there. Welcome.

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So two conventions, two women speaking about their families and their upbringing with so many Americans watching. What do these two moments represent, do you think?

RAMAKRISHNAN: I mean, it's a pretty remarkable moment. When you look at the Indian American population, it has grown tremendously in the last two decades. Now, of course, in the case of Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley, they were born in, you know, the 1960s and early 1970s. So, you know, they've been part of a prior wave of Indian American migration. But still, the vast majority of Indian Americans have arrived in the United States since 1965. And it's remarkable to see how quickly the next generation has come up in politics.

KELLY: And how big a deal is their national political prominence for the South Asian community here in the States?

RAMAKRISHNAN: This is a big deal. I mean, what you've seen, for example, is more and more Indian Americans running for office. So you had the so-called Samosa Caucus, which had five Indian American members of Congress, if you include the House and the Senate, after 2018. I think what you're going to see now, and especially with Harris's candidacy, is even more people getting inspired - more Indian Americans, South Asians more generally and especially Asian American women feeling inspired to run for office. And I think the same you're probably going to see on the Republican side, although when you look at candidates running for office who are Indian American, the vast majority of them tend to be Democrat rather than Republican.

KELLY: Well, I was just about to ask 'cause we hear so much about Latino voters, Black voters, other groups. I was going to ask which way - understanding it's hardly monolithic - but which way South Asian voters tend to lean and how big a role they could play in 2020.

RAMAKRISHNAN: So South Asian voters tend to lean Democrat and pretty heavily Democrat. One way to think about this is that they tend to be the most Democrat-leaning, either in terms of their party identification or presidential vote choice, among all of the Asian American groups. And their lean is stronger than among Latinos but less strong than among African Americans. So that's a kind of good benchmark.

Now, there has been a lot of outreach by the Trump administration. So President Trump had a rally in Houston called the Howdy Modi rally with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He made a high-profile trip to India this year as well. That said, it's really going to be hard to shift Indian American voters and other South Asians, given their partisan lean and also where they stand on the issues. And on most issues, like health care and immigration and gun control and the environment, they tend to be progressive. So it's going to be a group that's going to be very difficult to dislodge from the Democratic column.

KELLY: That was professor Karthick Ramakrishnan of UC Riverside talking about the Indian American vote. It's about 1.8 million Indian Americans who will be eligible to vote in this coming November's election.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTHER COLORS SONG, "YOU KNOW THE ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.