3 Indian American candidates are making history in the 2024 race: How their families' journeys shaped them

The candidates, though very different, are unprecedented, experts said.

November 6, 2023, 4:01 PM

With a year to go until Election Day and two days before the next Republican primary debate, one group has emerged on the national political stage in a way they never have before in U.S. history: Indian American candidates.

Only a handful of GOP hopefuls are set to qualify for the next debate; two of them are former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and commentator whose White House bid has skyrocketed his profile.

While both Haley and Ramaswamy trail front-runner Donald Trump in polls, like the other Republican candidates, they have earned more support from voters than rivals like former Vice President Mike Pence, who already suspended his campaign.

"You have to sit and wonder, we have these two folks who are showing these all-star abilities -- will we end up with an Indian American on this ticket?" said Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and co-author of the Indian American Election Survey.

In one of the buzziest moments of the last Republican debate, Haley sparred with Ramaswamy over social media security and China, exclaiming, "Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber."

Four years ago, it was then-California Sen. Kamala Harris making headlines for going on the attack at a debate -- when she challenged Joe Biden on his decades-old record of opposing school bussing to address desegregation when he was a senator.

Harris went on to be Biden's running mate and now, as vice president, is the highest-ranking person of Indian descent in the government.

Haley, Harris and Ramaswamy have many notable political differences. In a way, each is competing against the other in the 2024 election.

But together, they represent a remarkable moment in American politics, experts told ABC News: Indian Americans account for about 1.3% of the country's population, according to census data -- and three Indian American politicians have risen close to the top of both major parties.

"Mathematically, you would not have expected this," said University of California, Riverside, public policy professor Karthick Ramakrishnan.

Less well known is the common journey that binds them and much of the Indian American community, experts said.

In this Nov. 3, 2010 file photo South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley shares a hug with her mom Raj Randhawa after speaking to voters at Hudson's Smokehouse in Lexington, S.C.
Chris Keane/Getty Images, FILE

Coming to America

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson are often credited with ushering a very specific wave of immigrants into the country in the 20th century.

Kennedy wanted an edge during the Cold War. He also had a big policy priority with immigration, writing in "A Nation of Immigrants," while he was in the Senate, that he wanted to get rid of the U.S. quota system because of its "strong overtones of an indefensible racial preference" and replace it by first considering "skills of the immigrant and their relationship to our needs."

The unfolding civil rights movement bolstered the political and social fight against racial discrimination. In the wake of Kennedy's assassination while in the White House, Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, getting rid of a quota system that limited migrants from outside Western Europe, which was described by one of the bill's sponsors as a "rigid pattern of discrimination."

While Johnson promised the law would not be "revolutionary," analysts have linked it to a decadeslong increase in legal immigration into the U.S., with many of those people being from Asia and Central and South America.

Harris' mother arrived as a student in 1958, then applied to stay after 1965. Haley's parents arrived in 1969. Ramaswamy's arrived in the early '80s.

The parents of the first major Indian American presidential candidate, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, came in 1971. Rep. Ro Khanna, seen as a rising Democratic star in California, has said his dad came in 1968 and his mom arrived in 1975.

In 1960, there were only 12,000 Indian immigrants living in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Today, the number of Indian Americans or Indian immigrants has climbed to more than 4 million, census data shows.

It's still a relatively small number, compared with the country's total population of more than 333 million. But Devesh Kapur, co-author of "The Other One Percent: Indians in America," said he was not surprised to see three Indian Americans in the political spotlight in the 2024 race.

"Indian Americans have been selected to be the outliers -- they have been selected for success," Kapur wrote in his book with Sanjoy Chakravorty and Nirvikar Singh.

That is something Kapur said he often told students of his Indian history class at Harvard -- students like Ramaswamy.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley; Vice President Kamala Harris and Republican Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.
Getty Images, FILE

Preparing to succeed

Haley, Harris, Ramaswamy and other leading Indian American politicians are not defined by their race or ethnicity, as Ramaswamy has noted when he speaks of his American identity being about pursuing "excellence unapologetically, no matter your skin color or where your parents came from."

But, Kapur said, the stories of their families and their ancestry are part of the broader story of Indian migrants building homes and success in the U.S.

Indians who immigrated to America were often from higher social castes, Kapur said. Harris' family was reportedly Brahmin, and Ramaswamy has written at length about also being Brahmin -- the highest caste. Ramaswamy wrote in a 2021 book that "seeing how much this system revolved around honor and status helped me understand how much the American system revolved around wealth."

Haley's family is Sikh, and caste did not play a similar role in Sikhism, but she has written that her parents still "were both from prominent families."

Kapur said that those of higher castes and status had access to education. Like America, India was colonized by the British, so many educated young Indians learned English.

"Among all Asian American groups, [Indians] tend to have the highest levels of English proficiency," said Ramakrishnan, the professor. "Of course, we're talking about the children of immigrants here, but it does make a difference intergenerationally -- facility with a language and integration into American culture."

India's first prime minister also believed science was important for progress and set up competitive technology and medical schools, according to Dr. Prema Kurien, a professor and director of the South Asian Center at Syracuse University.

But Kurien said, "Despite having these institutions, there were few opportunities for postgraduate study in these areas and not many good job options in India."

That led to what's known as "brain drain," experts said.

Kapur said Indians were selected to enter the U.S. after 1965 based on their expertise in science, technology, engineering and math fields. "Globally, STEM has always been the fastest ladder of social mobility," he said, while breaking through in local creative fields is usually far more nuanced.

The impetus for Harris, Haley and Ramaswamy's parents all leaving India revolved around pursuing professions in the sciences or engineering.

Ramaswamy's father became an engineer at General Electric and Ramaswamy has written that his mother skipped undergrad "thanks to a good test score," attending medical school at 16 and then coming to America to finish her residency and become a doctor.

Haley's mother earned a law degree and her father got a master's in biology before he moved to Canada for his doctorate, later accepting an associate professor of biology job in South Carolina.

Harris' mother graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, applied to the University of California, Berkeley, graduate program and ultimately became a breast cancer researcher.

At the same time that more skilled migrants were arriving in America, "The U.S. was training relatively few physicians, and a considerable fraction were called up in the Vietnam War ... around the late '60s, 10% of all new U.S. physicians were from India," Kapur said.

Indians who wanted to stay in America had to have the right skills for the country, he said: "In the metaphor of the marketplace, supply and demand matched."

Some of the experts who spoke with ABC News said that had a generational impact.

"What do you expect when you hold the intellectual Olympics? Those people come here, have kids and their kids are going to do big things like run for the highest office in the land," said political strategist Kevin Liao.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy holds his son Karthik at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 27, 2023 in Simi Valley, Calif.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE

Watching hard work

While Indian Americans now have a median household income of nearly $142,000, according to the census -- about double the average -- and with nearly half of them having some kind of post-graduate degree, migrants who were first arriving to the country faced financial challenges.

Because of "strict foreign exchange regulations, those who arrived before the early 1990s came almost empty-handed," Kapur said.

Haley has said her dad left India with $8 and her mother "left everything she had back in India, and she was concerned about the inheritance she would leave us," Haley wrote in her 2012 memoir.

Ramaswamy has said that "growing up, we did go through our moments of hardship. I did not grow up in money."

Harris' memories echo that, previously recalling how her mom rented their home for most of their childhood until saving enough for a down payment when Harris was in high school.

"It's this paradox: You were privileged in a social capital sense, but not privileged in a financial capital sense ... how they transformed their social and human capital to financial capital over the past two decades, that's really the central story," Kapur said.

Decades before she became California's top prosecutor, Harris said she'd follow her mother to the research lab as a kid where she'd be given small jobs and was challenged to formulate hypotheses and challenge her own assumptions.

Haley has said that at age 12, she became a bookkeeper at her mother's store, where she "developed a huge love of numbers" and learned more from her example than any classroom. "By virtue of hard work and sheer will, my mother built the gift shop in our living room into a multimillion-dollar high-end clothing store," she wrote in her memoir.

That love of numbers earned Haley an accounting degree and, later, a position as treasurer and president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Ramaswamy has said he was inspired to become a conservative as a middle schooler when he joined his dad during long car rides to law school classes, often sitting in the back and later challenging his arguments. During other times, he'd be with his mom while she worked as a geriatric psychiatrist, often in nursing homes with patients who had Alzheimer's.

He later went to law school himself and built a multimillion-dollar biotechnology company.

'More experience with democracy'

Haley, Harris and Ramaswamy's parents' home country all gave them another edge, according to experts: lessons from the world's most populous democracy.

"India is not only the world's largest democracy, it is one of the highest voter participation rates in the world for democracy," said Snigdha Sur, the founder and CEO of The Juggernaut, a media outlet for South Asian readers.

Harris has said her grandfather was a part of India's independence movement and later became an official in the government, and her grandmother was a skilled community organizer. Her mom "had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally," she wrote in a 2019 autobiography, and she has passionately spoken about her parents taking her to civil rights marches when she was still in a stroller.

In this Jan. 8, 2004 San Francisco's new district attorney, Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, left, during inauguration ceremonies.
George Nikitin/AP, FILE

Ramakrishnan said that immigrants from other democracies, like those who raised Harris, Haley and Ramaswamy, are more likely to carry a sense of social engagement.

"People think the people who will be the most politically active will be those that come from repressive regimes, communist regimes ... the reverse is true. If you come from a democracy, you have more experience with democracy and so you're quicker to adopt those tools in the U.S." he said.

Or in another country: The current leaders of the U.K. and Ireland have ancestry in India.

Struggles remain

While the 2024 field stands out for its number of Indian Americans, they aren't numerically represented in other parts of politics, experts said: The five Indian American members of Congress members make up slightly less than their share of the population. There are no current senators or governors of Indian descent.

Both Haley and Harris have spoken about the challenges either they or their family have faced because of their ethnicity.

Haley has said her Sikh father was discriminated against for wearing a turban in South Carolina and that, "We were always the 'other.'" She has said she has been discounted because she has Indian ancestry and wrote in 2012 that the country had still not put "bigotry and racism behind us completely."

On the campaign trail, Harris has spoken about her mom's challenges: "She was a brown woman. She was a woman with a heavy accent. She was a woman who people -- many times -- would overlook her or not take her seriously or, because of her accent, assume things about her intelligence. Every time, my mother proved them wrong."

And Harris, whose father is Black and Jamaican, also had a different experience because of her parents' different ethnicities. As she wrote in her autobiography: "My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters."

Setting the stage

One person who won't be at the next Republican debate, on Wednesday night, is Trump. But with his yawning lead in the polls, he is widely seen -- at this early stage -- as the likely nominee in 2024.

But who will his No. 2 be? Whomever he chooses will have to debate again, too, against Harris.

Ramakrishnan said that could set up another bit of history next year, with two non-white vice presidential nominees facing off on stage together for the first time.

"I think both Haley and Ramaswamy have tried to position themselves in ways that wouldn't rule out Trump picking them as a VP," he said.

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