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Children of the Empire

Why are so many politicians of Indian origin who find success in the West such total jerks?

Let’s start with Vivek Ramaswamy. He is a no-hoper candidate for the Republican nomination for President who has spent his campaign being obnoxious about everybody. He likes to flaunt his wealth (he is a millionaire) and to use his single-minded unpleasantness to draw attention to himself.


At the last Republican debate, he managed to suggest that Ukraine’s President Zelensky was a Nazi (Zelensky is Jewish) and called him a ‘comedian in cargo pants’. So obnoxious was his behaviour that another of the candidates, Nikki Haley, who is also an Indian-American, said to him “You are just scum”.


   And what about Suella Braveman who now has the unique distinction of being sacked as Home Secretary by two different British Prime Ministers? Apart from her lack of competence (which, after two sackings, is fairly well-established) there is the problem of her politics. She says all the terrible, racially-dodgy things that white racists long to say but don’t because they do not want to seem so openly bigoted.


   Braverman solves their problem for them. She says all of these things with an air of unpleasant self-righteousness. “How can you call me a racist? I am a brown person, myself!” her smug manner always suggests.


   When people of Indian origin started doing well in US and UK politics, most of us were thrilled. And to be sure, there are many who have performed with distinction. No matter what you think of his Prime Ministership, Rishi Sunak was a very good Chancellor of the Exchequer (the UK’s designation for its Finance Minister) and has never stooped to abuse or to attack racial minorities in an effort to win support from racists. He is not apologetic about any of his identities (British, of East African origin, Punjabi and Hindu) and will visit temples to pray because he is proud of his Hindu religion.


   So yes, you can be yourself and still do well. Sunak has got much further than any of the other politicians of Indian origin.


   But he has had to balance out the prejudice in his own party. There are many people on the right wing of Britain’s Conservative Party who do not like the idea that a famously white kingdom that had once kept the natives in check in every corner of the Empire should now allow them to come to the UK and get to the top.


   In the 1960s and 1970s, such white politicians as Enoch Powell introduced the poison of racism into the British political mainstream. As racism has become less and less acceptable in public discourse, the political descendants of Powell have had to tone down their rhetoric or move out of the mainstream.


   For such people, brown politicians who are willing to revive Enoch Powell’s rhetoric are a godsend. That’s why the Tory right warmed to Priti Patel, an East African Gujarati, who advocated a hard line on immigration when she was Home Secretary. But no one has made them happier than Braverman.


  At a time when Brits are coming to terms with the damage the empire did to the people it subjugated, Braverman has stood up for the British empire. It was not a bad thing, she told a Conservative party meeting. It did a lot of good. And she is herself proud to be a daughter of empire.


"What this means, in effect, is that they have no special affinity with India so it is time for us to stop treating them as our own."

   You can see, at once, why the racist right loves her. To have a brown person call herself the proud child of the British empire is every white racist’s fantasy.


   It is a little more complicated in the US. Many of the Indian-origin politicians who have made it in America like to suggest that they have emerged from a melting pot with their ethnicity boiled away.


   When Bobby Jindal (his given name is Piyush) made it to governor of Louisiana, the first Punjabi in history to get the job, many people joked that they thought he had become Governor of Ludhiana, not Louisiana. In fact, there is nothing of Ludhiana in Jindal. He has declared that he doesn’t want to be called an Indian-American. He wants to eliminate the hyphen and be called just an American. (“When my parents came to America, they did not want to be Indian-American. They wanted to be American.” And so on.)


   Though Jindal is well educated — he went to Brown and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford — the level of his rhetoric has been adjusted to account for Louisiana’s prejudices. He was raised as a Hindu but soon converted to Christianity and joined politics. You can, of course, agree or disagree with Jindal’s politics but given his efforts to distance himself from his country of origin, I don’t think there is much for Indians to be proud of in Jindal’s success.


   I make a distinction between Indian origin politicians in the US and the UK. Because of the nature of American politics, especially in the South and Mid-West, politicians often have to make changes to their identity. Even Nikki Haley, born into a Sikh family has converted to Christianity (though she did go to the Golden Temple when she visited India). And often they need to play down their ethnicity. What this means, in effect, is that they have no special affinity with India so it is time for us to stop treating them as our own.


   In the UK, none of this necessarily applies. It is possible to get to the top without playing down your ethnic origins and rewriting the history of your people. The politicians who choose to approach their careers in a way that appeals to racists and empire-lovers do it only because it offers an easier ride.


   Braverman’s career demonstrates how far she will go to appeal to racists, reactionaries and bigots. “I have a dream” she once told a Conservative Party gathering, echoing Martin Luther King. But her dream was not of racial equality. She dreamt of a plane taking off from England taking immigrants to detention in Rwanda. (Fat chance. The UK Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the Rwanda plan was illegal.)


   It is strange thing for a child of immigrants to be dreaming about deporting other immigrants. Even stranger was Braverman’s claim that multiculturalism had failed in the UK at a time when the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary were all from migrant families. And yet because such demonstrably untrue claims please her reactionary and racist supporters, she continues to make them.


   Nikki Haley may or may not have been right when she called Vivek Ramaswamy ‘scum’ on live television. But what’s true is this: we, in India, should stop taking pride in the success of people of Indian origin in the politics of foreign countries. Yes, there are those who are a credit to their sub-continental roots. But there are also an awful lot of humbugs, phoneys and unscrupulous apologists for racism and empire out there.


   And when it comes to the crunch none of them will act in India’s interests.



Posted On: 16 Nov 2023 11:00 AM
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