A Hindu for the White House?
Vivek Ramaswamy has burst on the US presidential race track by championing tradition and Trump, and arguing that wokeism replacing religion is the curse of America and the world.
Lord Curzon, the father of the British Empire, would have choked. Or so says British High Commissioner to India, Alex Ellis. Reason? UK Prime Minister of Indian descent, Rishi Sunak, uttered “Jai Shri Ram” at a Ram katha held by Hindu preacher Morari Bapu at Cambridge University. History has a wicked sense of humour and maybe, just maybe, it will be George Washington’s turn to disturb the grave dirt. A new brown face has gate-crashed the 2024 American presidential party with gunpowder gumption of bravado, racism, climate denial, US isolationism, anti-LGBTQ schtick, nationalism, ersatz Obamaphilia and severe Sinophobia: self-made biotech millionaire Vivek Ganapathy Ramaswamy, who was the most Googled name after the first Republican presidential debate last week. A rank outsider, who doesn’t inhabit the Washington swamp, he came second in the polling for a brief while, after which Donald Trump’s main challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, pulled ahead again. Trump, who didn’t attend the primary debate, is still the frontrunner with 42 percent.
THE TRUMP SURROGATE
America, at least its television pundits, editorial writers, politicians, talking heads and intellectual busybodies, is in the grip of Vivek Mania. The 38-year-old ever-toothy Ramaswamy is probably the most-talked-about politician in the US right now. His rhetoric is clever and flashy, but how did this outlier businessman, who was derided by presidential competitor Chris Christie as “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT”, steal the limelight? Ramaswamy has cottoned on to what the Republicans think is their victory medicine and MAGA juice: Trumpism. Ramaswamy is being referred to in the media as Trump 2.0 which may not be far off the mark; a young Trump with all the jingoism which Republican voters love sans the scandals and tantrums.
While the former president has been indicted in a slew of cases involving paying off porn stars, lying in court, defamation, business fraud and trying to steal the election and encouraging insurrection, Vivek pulled a rabbit out of his hat: he became a mini-Trump. For a tenderfoot, he has picked up the cardinal rule of politics: win by stepping over the corpse of mentors. Ramaswamy first kissed up to Trump, anointing him “the best president of the 21st century”. The delighted former president posted a video of his neophyte bhakt on Truth Social with the words, “This answer gave Vivek Ramaswamy a big WIN in the debate because of a thing called TRUTH. Thank you Vivek!” Ramaswamy ambitiously wants to be Trump 2.0 in 2024. He told The Atlantic, “I believe with a high degree of conviction that
I will win this election.” He has promised that one of his first acts in the White House will be to issue a presidential pardon to Trump.
Ramaswamy’s populist genius lies in appropriating the Trump plank which other Republican contenders are wary about: 61 percent of Americans polled the CNBC All-America Economic Survey believe Trump should not run again for president (70 percent say Biden should not run for a second term). Ramaswamy is gambling on Trump’s endorsement if the former president goes to prison or is debarred from contesting election. After a rousing speech in Iowa recently, Ramaswamy and Trump had a cosy tête-à-tête backstage. “I told him not to be surprised and to expect more of it,” recalls Ramaswamy, who expects a political interloper—obviously himself—to win the primary. “One way or another, it’s going to be an outsider,” he was quoted in an interview informing Trump, who agreed.
But Ramaswamy’s previous record is coming back to bite his newfound loyalty. In Nation of Victims, authored by him and published in 2022, he admitted that although he voted for Trump in 2020, “what he delivered in the end was another tale of grievance, a persecution complex that swallowed much of the Republican Party whole” and that Trump’s claims of electoral fraud were “weak” and “weren’t grounded in fact”. But what is a successful politician without a bespoke turncoat? At Milwaukee late August, Ramaswamy declared that he would’ve certified 2020 election for Trump had he been VP, and that Pence missed a “historic opportunity”.
The Los Angeles Times summed up Ramaswamy’s opportunism saying, “He personifies the utter brashness and hubris of a high achiever who looks in the mirror and sees a president.” Ramaswamy has spoken of picking Elon Musk, a Trump enthusiast, as presidential advisor if he wins: Musk had restored Trump’s Twitter (now X) account, where the former president posted his mugshot after the recent arrest—his first post on the platform since he was banned in 2021. Trump ran and won on the ‘America First’ slogan, which Ramaswamy has appropriated. Yet, he is subtly displacing his icon from the platform. He told ABC TV, “it doesn’t belong to me... It belongs to the people of this country. I think we take that agenda even further… And that’s what I’m bringing to this race.”
A TRUMPIST WORLD VIEW
What Ramaswamy stands for exhilarates some Americans, especially in the far right, but worries others. Sensing the national mood, China is his primary foreign target, followed by Ukraine. He is the new disruptor in US politics, with radical views sans balancing apologies. He promises that the US will train and arm every household in Taiwan to protect against a Chinese invasion. At the same time he wants to reduce or stop aid to Taiwan, and Israel too. He wants to stop Ukraine’s entry to NATO and let Vladimir Putin keep the regions it occupies. Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley smirked at Ramaswamy: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
He has a strong India angle: he wants to destroy the China-Russia Axis, and sees India as critical to this pivot. Ramaswamy shares common fears with India’s right wing. Like the BJP’s take on India, the presidential competitor believes that the US is undergoing a ‘national identity crisis’, which is caused not by economic and environmental problems, but by the replacement of traditional religion with “wokeism, transgenderism, climatism, Covidism, globalism”. America declared independence in 1776: Ramaswamy seeks a 1776 moment—read independence from the above.
“Ramaswamy advocating against wokeism and for lower taxes is in line with Trump’s approach and he has been careful not to criticise the former president. While Trump is the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination, Ramasamy has the possibility to be his running mate. It remains to be seen if mainstream America will vote for Trump,” says Meera Shankar, former Indian Ambassador to the US.
Ramaswamy thinks climate change is a hoax, in spite of the raging wildfires in Canada and Australia, and the heatwave in his own country and Europe. He supports rescinding birthright citizenship—a fave Trump theme, which liberals call altering the fundamental principle of the American Constitution. He wants to abolish the FBI and cut federal bureaucracy by 75 percent. His stance is anti-LGBTQ, a community which, according to him, wants to “create an us-versus-them destruction of modern order” by categorising incompatible ideas about sexual and gender minorities as a single entity.
It is an accepted maxim that politicians spit in the wind to gauge how it is blowing, with hyperbole and half-truths. Like Trump, Ramaswamy has accused the US governments of spending excessively on helping poor countries while foreign aid of all categories such as military, health, economic development or democratic governance is less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. His public philosophy too is coming under scrutiny. During the first Republican debate, he declared that “the reality is more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change”. Fact-checkers prove him wrong: the World Meteorological Organization reported that extreme weather events, incremented by climate change, caused about 12,000 natural disasters, which killed
2 million people between 1970 and 2021.
Ramaswamy has insinuated that federal law-enforcement officers were the ones armed during the January 6 storming of the Capitol and that there is little evidence of armed protestors being arrested. In early August, the Justice Department charged 104 out of about 1,100 defendants with entering a restricted area with a dangerous or deadly weapon.
Ramaswamy seems to be echoing the worst of the Trumpian ethos. The four years of Trump saw some of the worst racial violence in modern America: a 2019 Pew Center Poll noted that “58 percent Americans say race relations in the US are bad, and of those, few see it improving”. Not Ramaswamy. He has gone on record that white supremacists are bogeymen, and he has a better chance of meeting a unicorn than a white racist. For a brown man in a white country, he seems to identify with whites the most, perhaps because, like Indians in the US, they have more wealth than Blacks. Ramaswamy opposes affirmative action, saying that racism in America is “manufactured in a way that creates more racism in this country”.
His comments describing black Democratic politician Ayanna Pressley and activist author Ibram X Kendi “grand wizards of the KKK” was cringe: The Klu Klux Klan is a historical hate group of white supremacist terrorists, which lynched, raped and murdered Black men and women after the American Civil War. The day Ramaswamy outpaced Trump by reviling black Americans was the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington, which marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. Later that evening in a Florida city, a white gunman killed three Black people: the cops said he was targeting African Americans. The gunman shot himself in the end. But the invective didn’t get him a free coupon in the conservative world. Racist author Ann Coulter called the arguments between Haley and Ramaswamy in Milwaukee a “Hindu business”. “Nikki and Vivek are involved in some Hindu business, it seems. Not our fight,” she wrote on X.
THE FAITH CATWALK
Ramaswamy has two trump cards, pun intended: the surprise element, since he is unknown to most voters; and two, he is an Indian American bearing a white cause with Trump as Christ. Most Americans did not expect Barack Obama to become their president in 2008. In 2006, Obama travelled through many states talking to ordinary Americans: he later admitted that he wasn’t sure he would run for the White House. Then suddenly his mood changed; his doubt could have been Christian humility or just an act because he announced his presidential candidacy on February 10, 2007, standing in front of a large gathering at the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois. The symbolism was significant: it was on that spot that Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “house divided” speech in 1858. And the White House
got its first black president. Ramaswamy wants to be America’s first brown president—it is the great American Dream, a land of opportunity where anyone can be president.
The first words you read on ‘Truth’, Ramaswamy’s campaign website are, “God is real”. He knows that god is all powerful in American politics: no Republican can sit in the Oval Office unless he has support from the evangelical base. Ramaswamy also knows that he needs the powerful Indian American community behind him. The new demagogue of American political standup—“I’m a former aspiring standup comic. I’ll always forgive a bad joke”—wants to fill Trump’s shoes. He wants children to be banned from social media which, the Christian Right believes, is polluting young minds. His brass-bound views reflect the Southern white masculinity of where he grew up: he calls the Pride flag an example of “idolatry”. He is rooting for the voting age to be raised to 25.
A 2021 Gallup poll revealed that church membership in the US fell below 50 percent for the first time: in 2020, about 64 percent of Americans, including children, were Christian. What may endear him to the evangelists is his family-oriented political beliefs. Ramaswamy is a fan of Hungary’s approach to family planning. Its authoritarian president Viktor Orban—whom Ramaswamy met in his entrepreneur avatar—encourages Hungarians to marry and have more children in return for tax benefits, low interest loans and housing. For example, women with four kids are exempt from paying income tax. A committed Hindu politician, more Moses than Jesus, Ramaswamy is strategising to part the waters of both faiths and walk the road to Pennsylvania Avenue. There is no denying his political smarts. He insists that Hinduism is not a threat to Christianity. Instead of dancing around his views on matters of faith, he has decided to take on the evangelical voters directly. “Am I religious? Yes, I am. I am Hindu. I am not Christian. And we are a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values,” he said in a recent TV interview. His words are designed to strike a chord with America’s white Christians who voted for Trump because they believed that traditional politicians had lost their moral compass and were corrupt and power hungry.
Ramaswamy attributes his ideology to the instructions of his conservative piano teacher at his Catholic school in Cincinnati, where he was born. He told his interviewer, “I’ve probably read the Bible more closely than many Christians that I know, and I can tell you that we share that same value set. And for a guy who is not running for pastor-in-chief, but commander-in-chief, that’s really what matters.” Ramaswamy, however, makes no excuses for being a staunch Hindu. His parents are Brahmins from South India. He visits temples consistently and pujas are held at home. He and his laryngologist wife Apoorva are raising their two sons as Hindus. Indian Americans, among whom Narendra Modi is a popular icon, are happy about Ramaswamy’s admiration for the Indian Prime Minister. In July, he told a reporter that “Modi has been building on that experience (of free-market capitalism) in India, lifting people up from poverty.
Regardless of their background and identity politics, India has prospered economically. GDP growth is up. I think that’s the ultimate metric of a truly successful unifying leader.” M Chuba Ao, BJP National Vice President, says Ramaswamy is a dramatic milestone for NRIs. “In the UK, we have Rishi Sunak, another Indian-origin Hindu leader, stewarding the erstwhile nerve centre of global power. The world is changing fast and in this scenario a lot is being counted on Indian diaspora. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a big difference in giving a neo-confidence to the NRI power,” he says.
Ramaswamy has been a keynote speaker at fundraisers linked to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the US wing of VHP. Vinod Bansal, spokesperson of VHP in India, says, “Indians are doing well in nearly all spheres. Heads of major multinationals are now Indians. We wish that Vivek is nominated and makes us proud.’’ The difference between Ramaswamy and previous generations of Indian Americans is that he strongly asserts his identity while the others tried to be more American than Americans. The US media sneers at people like him, labelling them the “new Jews”: distinctive Americans who stand out as cultural tropes. Ramaswamy’s views on both faith and militarism will resonate with the Indian right. He told PTI, “The US is economically dependent on China today, but with a stronger relationship with India, it becomes easier to declare independence from that Chinese relationship.” Promising strategic ties with India, Ramaswamy doesn’t rule out a US-India military partnership in the Andaman Sea “knowing that India, if necessary, could block the Malacca Strait where actually China gets most of its Middle Eastern oil supplies”.
SMELL OF MONEY
Ramaswamy is one of the politicians who have not pandered to Political Action Committees, thereby potentially boosting his credibility among voters. He is a high achiever who made his millions using ethical business tactics and intuitively picking lucrative and ignored segments. Unlike Trump, he is contesting on money he earned himself: as of August, nearly all of Trump’s big donors have refused to pony up. Ramaswamy announced, “I’m the only candidate on stage who isn’t bought and paid for, so I can say this.” His beliefs, however, didn’t stop him from raking in $450,000 in the first few hours after the Milwaukee debate ended. When an election race heats up, dirt flies. Another spanner in his presidential run is his ‘unaffiliated’ voter status since he had not cast his ballot in three elections—because “I was a jaded person in my 20s”—except for Trump. Moreover, his spotless white shirt got some mud on it when he was called out for receiving a $90,000 grant despite his existing wealth. Ramaswamy’s explanation was that he required the scholarship to cover fee at Yale. But his tax returns reported an income of $2,252,209 in 2011, the same year he got the grants. The three years before that, he was worth $1,173,690.
The fact remains that Ramaswamy doesn’t need to be bought; his wealth in August 2023, according to Forbes, was more than $950 million, which mainly comes from biotech and financial businesses. He bought drugs and companies that were overlooked or undervalued, which he leveraged as efficacious profit-spinners. After he took public his drug-development company Roivant Sciences, its stock rose by about 40 percent this year. Its founder’s 10 percent stake climbed to $600 million. Ramaswamy had founded Roivant after graduating from Yale and getting a hedge fund to finance it. The following year, he took a spinoff named Axovant to Wall Street. Its $2.2 billion valuation was based on Intepirdine, an Alzheimer’s drug candidate, which he had bought for $5 million. It allowed him to increase his income by $38 million. But Intepirdine failed clinical trials. In 2020, Ramaswamy renamed Roivant Sciences as Sio Gene Therapies whose current net worth is $30 million.
Intepirdine is not the only drug he owned: in 2020, Japanese pharma major Sumitomo Dainippon bought five drugs from him for $3 billion and a 10 percent stake in Roivant from Ramaswamy’s portfolio. His earning from the deal was $176 million. In 2021, he resigned as CEO of Roivant to join politics. He is currently facing a lawsuit by investment management firm Alpine Partners and other shareholders on whether they had been fairly compensated for their stock. Ramaswamy has begged out from testifying, explaining that he is busy with his campaign. ‘Woke, Inc.’, is his Manifesto for 2024: it blasts American companies for spending on conscience-driven causes such as social justice initiatives, environmental movements and governance campaigns.
In 2022, he even founded the ‘anti-woke’ asset management company Strive Asset Management, which is valued at over $300 million with Ramaswamy holding one-third of it, according to Forbes. “We stand for this movement that we call ‘excellence capitalism’, as a counterpart to stakeholder capitalism,” Ramaswamy declared on a podcast. Many billionaire investors bought into his conservative world view. Hedge fund tycoon Bill Ackman, a big-time pharma investor, is Ramaswamy’s tennis partner. The young son of immigrant parents—an engineer-turned-patent attorney father and a psychiatrist mother—Ramaswamy is an example of the truth of the American Dream. In spite of all the wealth and spiel, he has a muted lifestyle, owning just two homes in Ohio, which are worth a combined $2.5 million—peanuts compared to the assets of other politicos and his super rich friends and colleagues.
In both adolescence and youth, Ramaswamy comes across as a regular guy interested in new projects and music. Though he studied biology in Harvard, his nose for business was sniffing dollars as a teen. In college, he co-founded StudentBusinesses.com, a website on which student founders pitch for funding. Money is not the only music Ramaswamy makes. It takes chutzpah to put oneself out there and going by his stump speeches, he has no problems with that. He is a long-standing rapper and performed often as ‘Da Vek’ at Harvard. The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, wrote that Ramaswamy “raps libertarian prose with utmost ease”. His varsity musical career started in 2004, when American rapper Busta Rhymes was to perform at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion. The authorities open-called students to be warm-up performers. Ramaswamy rose to the occasion. Paul Davis, fellow student and age-old friend, told reporter Jennifer Sandlin, “That definitely got him notoriety with the class.” Ramaswamy became a college celebrity and was a fixture at Harvard open-mic nights, where he often rapped Lose Yourself. But Ramaswamy has no intention of losing himself, or losing. He is just finding himself and hopes America will find him good enough to become the Leader of the Free World. For now, that is a slim chance. Albeit, one he is willing to take, with all bets covered.
THE RAMASWAMY CANON
God is real
There are two genders
requires fossil fuels
Reverse racism is racism
An open border is no border
Parents determine the education of their children
The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind
Capitalism lifts people up from poverty
There are three branches of the US government, not four
The US Constitution is the strongest guarantor of freedoms in history
(With inputs from Yeshi Seli)