In Nikki, Vivek, and Kamal, Americans of Indian descent find incomplete representation.

In late August, just a few days after getting into a heated argument with another American of Indian descent on the presidential debate stage, an update appeared on entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswami's website.

"Keep lying, Namrata Randhawa," the site soon read, misspelling the birth name of former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Ramswami made an unusually sharp attempt to portray Haley as unreliable, considering that both identify themselves as American-born children of Indian immigrants. This did not go unnoticed by other South Asian residents.

"I thought it was extremely disrespectful," says Republican strategist Rina Shah. "It was a low blow. It was meant to question who she is, as if she had strayed from her identity."

Americans of Indian descent make up about 1.5% of the total population, yet they represent a much larger portion of the presidential field. Earlier this year, the presence of two South Asian candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination was something of an anomaly. Now, Haley, whose support has recently surged, and Ramaswami, who became a breakout star in the spring and summer, plan to appear together on another debate stage next week—possibly for the last time, as the Republican field is starting to crumble. On the opposite side of the race is Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father.

The presence of all three as prominent candidates speaks to the complexity of representation in politics; although their ethnic backgrounds intersect with their political identities, they each differ from the average Indian American voter in various ways. Neither Harris, Haley, nor Ramaswami is likely to significantly sway the Indian American or South Asian American vote, as Barack Obama did with Black voters. Nevertheless, their presence on the national political stage may still have an impact on this community.

"The people I grew up with really didn't look at Nikki Haley and see, you know, a brown woman who reflected their experience and their community," says Mohan Seshadri, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Asian Pacific American Political Alliance. "They saw a politician making decisions based on what would get her elected where she was running."

However, according to him, the visibility of South Asian candidates in these rare political spaces makes people with similar backgrounds pay closer attention to them. "In the end, my grandma's name is Kamala."

Americans of Indian descent make up the largest share of Asian Americans who identify with just one race. According to a 2022 survey of Asian American voters, they are more likely than most other Asian American groups to lean Democratic, with 56% considering themselves Democrats, 27% independent, and only 15% Republican. But this does not mean that the presence of Indian Americans in Republican primaries will have no impact.

"Research has shown that when someone from our community runs, it draws attention from our community and actually draws more of our community into the electoral process," says Kristin Chen, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote organization. "Now, whether they get support from the candidate or not, I think that really depends on their values."

According to experts, the recent rise of American politicians of Indian descent is partly related to timing. Indian immigration to America sharply increased after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and continued to grow every decade thereafter. Immigrants who arrived in America at the turn of the century were largely focused on adjusting to their new home and building a stable life. But as many of them accumulated education and wealth, pursuing white-collar professions and becoming one of the highest-earning subgroups of Asian Americans, they provided their children with the resources to consider participating in politics. Now, some of these children are becoming political leaders and drawing inspiration from the success of their parents, often achieved after arriving in America with just a few dollars in their pockets.