In 2013, I began an ambitious project to track the South Asian experience in America with the creation of the South Asian American Political Activity Database (SAAPAD). This is the first attempt to compile the electoral experiences of only political candidates of South Asian descent in the United States. I am interested in as many variables as I can collect: party affiliation, state of residence, military experience, country of birth, political office sought, political success or failure, political appointments, self-identification, religious conversion, and so forth.
However, the variable that intrigues me the most is the use of a non-ethnic nickname. By “non-ethnic,” I am referring to the transformation of a South Asian name into one that is devoid of any clues to nationality, ethnicity, religion, caste, etc. I am sure most of us know at least one desi who doesn’t use his or her birth name, but instead something more palatable to a wider audience. This is more than just using “Jay” instead of “Jayaraman,” as my own uncle did; I am talking about actually running for elected office with the nickname.
There are two questions of interest here: why do South Asian American candidates use non-ethnic nicknames? And what is the effect? While one could speculate that renaming is a vehicle for political assimilation or, perhaps, what John Tehranian dubbed “whitewashing,” it is impossible to know for sure without asking the candidates directly. What if the candidate chose a non-ethnic nickname as a child and long before his or her political career? Such was the case, we determined, with Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana. Contrary to popular belief, Jindal did not change his name from “Piyush” to “Bobby” when he decided to run for office, but rather as a child, when he adopted the name of his favorite character on “The Brady Bunch”!
But what about the latter question as to effect? Well, that can be tested; and that is what I did in collaboration with stonegarden grindlife at the University of California, Los Angeles. Our paper is currently under review at the journal Politics, Groups and Identities. We examined 193 South Asian American candidates for office from 1956 to the present. Of these, 58 used a non-ethnic nickname (approximately 30 percent).
One of the most profound observations was the diversity of religions these candidates represented. While the majority of candidates were Hindu, there were also Muslim, Sikh, and Christian men and women in our dataset. The non-ethnic nicknames ranged from the fairly straightforward — “Harry” for Harvinder, “Abe” for Abraham, “Vin” for Vinay, “Tej” for Tejinder, and “Ro” for Rohit — to the more challenging — “Nikki” for Nimrata, “Susi” for Saraswathi, “Saggy” for Saghir, “Ricky” for Ranjit, and “Kay” for Ketki — to the audacious: Bhaskararao Chakravartula became “Chuck Chakravartula” and Surya Yalamanchili became “Chili Yalamanchili.” As a point of contrast, there were many candidates in the dataset who did not use nicknames, but were still electorally successfully. These included, among others, Kumar Barve, Mohammed Hassan, Seema Moondra, and Gurpal Samra.
What does it all mean for our community that so many candidates, who want to become part of the American political apparatus, have chosen to replace their names with nicknames that sound less desi? While our findings suggest that South Asian American candidates are more likely to be elected at all three levels of political office — local, state and federal — with non-ethnic nicknames, what are the social and cultural implications for doing so? Is it just politics, or is there a deeper problem motivating our belief that in order to obtain political office, our names need to be “less Hindu,” “less Sikh,” or “less Muslims?
However, the goal of political campaigning is to win; if your name potentially holds you back from appealing to the widest swath of voters, then electoral strategy would suggest a name change is in order. While this may have worked for the most recent South Asian American to be elected to Congress (Dr. Amirish “Ami” Bera, from California’s 7th congressional district), it backfired for Ramakrishnan “Nag” Nagarajan, who lost in the 1998 Indiana Democratic Primary for the 6th congressional district. According to one witness to that election: “Nagarajan is not a Hoosier-sounding name.”
The salience of South Asian American political behavior is at an all-time high and it is rewarding, as a political scientist, to see so many people from our community running for office and following the lead of other immigrants to the United States. But at what cost? Paraphrasing Pink Floyd, are we exchanging our cultural heritage for “a lead role in a cage”? What is more important to us — getting South Asian Americans elected, or getting Americans of South Asian descent into office without the loss of cultural markers as significant as our names? What’s in a name after all? Only our past.
 “Saapad” is also the Tamil word for “food.”
 Khagram, Sanjeev, Manish Desai, and Jason Varughese. 2001. “Seen, Rich, but Unheard? The Politics of Asian Indians in the United States.” In Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects, ed. Gordon Chang, 258-284.
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Shyam Sriram is a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His primary area of focus is Asian Pacific American politics, but he also works on the political attitudes of refugees. Although born in Chicago, he lived in India from age nine to 17.