In a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates who will say anything, no matter how absurd, for attention, Vivek Ramaswamy stands apart as a spouter of strategic silliness. His views on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, climate change, the war in Ukraine, single mothers and Juneteenth may be uniformly risible, but they are calculated to ingratiate himself to a specific audience. And his elevation from a curiosity to a contender suggests he has a good bead on the paranoias and prejudices of a sizeable proportion of the party faithful.
But his snide attack on fellow aspirant Nikki Haley over her name represents a failure to read two cultural constituencies — the American whole as well as the Indian American subset, to which both of them, and I, belong. On his campaign website, Ramaswamy pointedly referred to the former US ambassador to the United Nations as “Namrata Randhawa,” misspelling her first name and using her maiden surname. (She was named Nimarata Nikki Randhawa at birth, is commonly known by her middle name and has used the surname Haley since her 1996 marriage to Michael Haley.)
Haley’s response to the gibe was appropriately dismissive: “I’m not going to get into the childish name-calling or whatever, making fun of my name that he’s doing,” she told Fox News Digital. “I mean, he of all people should know better than that.”
What’s in a name?
Ramaswamy’s purpose, evidently, was to cast Haley as inauthentic — someone who, unlike himself, was seeking to conceal their roots. The implication is that “Nikki” is not a proper Indian name but rather an affected anglicisation. The use of her parents’ surname, presumably, was meant to underline the point.
But in truth, there’s no such thing as a “proper” Indian name. Thanks to the country’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, as well as its rich history, Indian naming conventions reflect a wide range of influences. This was captured in the title of a blockbuster Bollywood movie from my childhood: Amar, Akbar, Anthony. The names match the faith of the three heroes, respectively Hindu, Muslim and Christian.
It goes farther than that. Many Indians name their children after famous and inspiring people, who may themselves be from other countries and cultures. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 debut novel The Namesake, a family from the eastern Indian state of Bengal call their son Gogol, after the Russian writer. In real life, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu is named Stalin, after a rather different kind of Russian.
My father had initially intended to name me after Helmut Haller, a German soccer player he admired. My mother vetoed that one, but they agreed on a nickname taken from another player, an Englishman: Bobby Charlton. They also gave me a formal moniker, Aparisim, derived from a Sanskrit word. It adorns my passport and other documents, but neither of them ever once called me by that name.
Among my colleagues at Bloomberg Opinion are Indians Candice Zachariahs, Andy Mukherjee, Mihir Sharma and Pankaj Mishra, Singaporean-Indian Karishma Vaswani and my fellow Indian American Nisid Hajari. To my ears, every one of those names sounds properly Indian, none of them more or less than the rest.
Nikki, it follows, is as authentically Indian as Vivek.
The other thing Ramaswamy doesn’t get is that his name, and Haley’s, are also authentically American, for this is a country of even greater diversity of naming conventions than India. We’ve already had a president named Barack, after all. And if the next one goes by Nikki or Vivek — or Kamala, even — they would not be any less American for that.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs.