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How Indian immigrants could save the Republican Party

The Republicans have a diversity problem on their hands. Six out of 10 white voters chose Mitt Romney, while blacks (93%), Asians (73%) and Latinos (71%) overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama. So far, strategy has focused on getting the GOP to embrace immigration reform.

That’s a good idea, but it’s going to take some time. It also doesn’t tackle the problem head on: The Republicans need to actually start looking more like America; they need real immigrant politicians behind real immigrant-friendly policies. It’s the only way to get over the party’s “angry white guy problem.”

Yet how to explain this: Two of the fastest-rising stars of the Republican Party are the children of Indian immigrants—Piyush Jindal and Nimrata Randhawa.

Never heard of them? That’s because most people know them better as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Both were elected in states that are more than 60% white. How did they cross the racial barrier? Fundamentally, they represent the parallel narratives of the Republican Party and immigrant life—family values, patriotism, hardscrabble work ethic, among them. But Jindal and Haley also reflect just what must be lost in order to make it as an immigrant Republican. They’ve changed their names, converted religions, and been very careful about invoking their backgrounds on the campaign trail. That’s helped them win over whites—and their own party. Now what about everyone else? As the party licks its wounds, recruits new blood, and ponders relevance in the new America, it clearly needs to reconsider messaging, even if that means an overhaul of traditional platforms.

The names just scratch the surface. Indians aren’t afraid of assimilation, and Republicans can use this to their advantage. My own Indian immigrant father, Mohesh, arrived in 1971 and promptly became “Mo.” He doesn’t see that as losing himself, just as an easier name for Americans to pronounce. That helped him make friends, find an apartment, climb the corporate ladder. Maybe the Republican Party needs to focus on these success stories instead of race-baiting and advocating English-only laws. As a piece on our sister site The Atlantic argues, the party must get control of folks like Rush Limbaugh who once said: “We have bent over backwards here to accommodate Spanish-speaking people by seeing to it they don’t have to learn English.”

Candidates like Jindal and Haley are self-made. Not so long ago, it was okay for a politician father to pass along a seat to his son. But wealthy, well-connected candidates can no longer just buy elections. (How else to get away with mocking 47% of Americans who expect handouts when Daddy’s been giving them out too?) What’s needed are candidates with working-class roots and firsthand struggle to attain success. Clearly, voters saw through Mitt Romney’s attempts to paint a life of hardship (one cartoonist added a butler to those early married years in a basement apartment, for example). But they eat up and relate to Nikki Haley’s memory of being 13 years old and working at her parents’ clothing store. Young Jindal, meanwhile, was writing manuscripts on Medicare in his spare time and convinced Louisiana officials to let him run the state’s healthcare system—at age 25.

Republicans need to pay attention here because the immigrant vote is still up for grabs. The largest sway among a voter bloc actually came among Asian Americans—up at least 27 points from 2008. What turned them off the Republican Party between then and now? Perhaps fringe movements like the Tea Party alienate more voters than they lure.

More importantly, the Democrats think they have the minority vote locked up. Yet frustration is mounting over a lack of diverse candidates among the Dems, too, and demands for payback are growing louder. This is a key point, and crucial to political gains for people of color. In my first book, Suburban Sahibs: Three immigrant families and their passage from India to America, I followed the campaign of a local New Jersey activist, Pradip “Peter” Kothari. He wanted desperately to run for political office, but the local Democratic machine wouldn’t let him. So he switched sides (he lost, but his candidacy sent a message that immigrant activists like him were ready). At the local level, Kothari reasoned, the party didn’t matter as much as the issues—and voters knowing their candidates as neighbors, rather than politicians. Republicans can adopt this strategy nationwide. Identifying with a candidate whose story resonates can help voters cross party lines.

Because let’s look at when the Democrats “let” immigrants run: It’s often when the party faithful and their sons have no chance. Of the six Indian-Americans who ran for the US Congress this week, five ran as Democrats and five (including one Republican) lost.

My liberal Indian friends (there are many) may shake their heads and say they will never switch allegiances. They need to stop and think about what could happen if Republicans seriously embraced immigrant candidates—both parties would actually have to work for the growing minority-becoming-majority vote. That could only be beneficial for the diverse needs of a diverse constituency.

This is where Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley fall short, though. Both are the products of a liberalized immigration policy (the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act) but they have been very careful to avoid overt support of more open US borders. Jindal’s website scarcely mentions his background; a timeline of his life starts only in 1988 when he graduated from Baton Rouge High School. Most of us children of immigrants, meanwhile, begin our stories with the year our parents came to this country—whether we were around or not. In Jindal’s case, it is actually relevant; his mother was pregnant with him when she arrived. Haley has been more open about her background but is still dogged by accusations of using race when it’s convenient; in 2001, she listed herself as white on her voter registration form.

Further, could it be just coincidence that both politicians converted to Christianity? He’s a Hindu-turned-Catholic and she’s a Sikh-turned-Methodist. Perhaps they have their legitimate reasons—it doesn’t get more personal than your name and your religion—but the party needs to proceed carefully: There’s a red flag if immigrant candidates don’t appeal to their own immigrant brethren. Indeed, Jindal and Haley have upset some Indians, who feel the candidates can take their campaign donations but had to become something else in order to be accepted by the Republican Party—and by America.

Actually that’s a sentiment the once-moderate Mitt Romney might share. Maybe even John McCain. They, too, had to embrace more conservative platforms that advisers told them were necessary for the win. If the elections of 2008 and 2012 proved anything, it’s that the only future of the Republican Party rests with a new, diverse slate of politicians and policies. Just one note of caution for 2016: Let those candidates be who they are.

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