Haley and Ramaswamy show the rising political power of Indian Americans even as they feud in debates

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FILE - Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, left, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. Ramaswamy and Haley, two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, are Indian Americans, even though polling points to an Indian diaspora that overwhelmingly votes Democrat. The two candidates are running significantly behind former President Donald Trump and also trail Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but theyre outpacing others in the field. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

The tension between Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy was hard to miss when they last met on a debate stage.

“Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber for what you say,” Haley told Ramaswamy.

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Responding to the broadside, Ramaswamy argued “we will be better served as a Republican Party if we’re not sitting here hurling personal insults.” He later told reporters he would “use smaller words next time to make it easier” for Haley.

The two are poised to meet again on Wednesday for the third presidential debate, one of their final chances to make a case in front of a large audience before voting begins in the GOP primary next year. Though they are polling far behind former President Donald Trump in the race for the 2024 nomination, Haley and Ramaswamy represent the growing political influence of Americans of Indian descent and are a reminder of the nuanced views within the Indian diaspora.

“It is a growing, heterogeneous community,” said Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who co-wrote a study about how Indian Americans vote.

Haley and Ramaswamy exemplify the diversity of views among Indian Americans.

A former South Carolina governor and later U.N. ambassador for Trump, Haley generally aligns with the party's traditional establishment, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. The 51-year-old has called for continued support for Ukraine in its war with Russia and has portrayed the 38-year-old Ramaswamy as untested in world affairs. A biotech entrepreneur, Ramaswamy has pilloried the GOP’s establishment wing and questioned the need for continuing to back Ukraine.

They both are out of sync with the broader community of Indian Americans, who overwhelmingly support Democrats. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 68% of Indian American registered voters identified as Democrats and 29% identified as Republicans.

“What we are seeing with the Republican field is not representative of where the Indian American population is as a whole,” Vaishnav said.

Republicans may not be on the verge of winning over the Indian diaspora in America. But even marginal gains could be notable in closely contested states.

There are segments of the diaspora that still support, fund and engage in advocacy related to Indian politics. But for most Indian Americans, issues stateside matter more, said Maina Chawla Singh, a scholar-in-residence at American University's School of International Service.

“The political positions for Indian Americans will be shaped by what matters within the U.S. context — whether it is reproductive freedom, anti-immigrant policies, recession or hate crimes,” she said. “That is what ultimately swings it for them because it is their future.”

Sangay Mishra, a political science professor at Drew University in New Jersey, said he believes Indian Americans now are well placed to produce conservative thinkers and political aspirants because they can easily get behind ideas such as a free market, low taxes and the meritocracy.

"If we say 3 out of 10 Indian Americans are Republicans, we can conclude that these candidates are not aberrations, but they also do not represent the dominant thinking in the community,” he said.

Indian Americans have now “settled in and become a part of the U.S. society” compared with where they were between the 1960s and the 1980s when the first wave arrived, Mishra said.

He said Trump’s election in 2016 also motivated more progressive Indian Americans to get involved in local city council and school district races.

“I’ve seen examples of people who felt like they needed to challenge that environment where populations such as immigrants, women and Muslims were being marginalized." The election in 2008 of Barack Obama as America's first Black president and Kamala Harris, whose is half Indian American, as vice president in 2020, also played a role, he said.

While Mishra and other researchers see no potential shift in party allegiance among younger voters, 26-year-old Rohan Pakianathan, a graduate student of public policy at Rutgers University, says he can envision himself working in a conservative think tank someday. Pakianathan is supporting Ramaswamy.

“I identify with Vivek because I think that’s what the future of politics and the future of the Republican Party should be,” he said.

Like Ramaswamy, Pakianathan’s parents emigrated to the United States from southern India. Even though his parents are Democrats and progressive, they respect Ramaswamy’s candidacy, he said.

Pakianathan, who is Christian, says Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith is not an issue for him because he views America as a Christian country that was founded on Judeo-Christian values.

Pakianathan said he sometimes feels alone in his own community, with his sister and most of his friends leaning Democrat, but he has never had a problem engaging in civil debates.

“Eventually, I’d like to see America have a candidate whom both parties can acknowledge and respect,” he said. “I hope we can get to a place where it doesn’t have to be one side against another.”

Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said the candidacy of Indian American candidates is an extension of a “real openness” the Republican Party has shown to people of color.

“There is no barrier to the rise of talent when talent shows itself,” he said.

Regardless of these candidates’ prospects, the Republican Party does have an urgent need to “do well with people of color” because their share of America's electorate will continue to rise, Olsen said.

He added that the GOP might also have to position itself as “less observably and doctrinally the Christian party” in order to appeal to large swaths in diaspora communities that are not Christian, as well to those who are unaffiliated with any organized religion.

“If you tell people they are not welcome, they will most likely not knock on the door," he said.

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Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.