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We Haven’t Seen the Last Vivek Ramaswamy

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The Hindu supremacist movement is becoming a key ally of the US far Right. This heightens the urgency of understanding how ethnonationalism crosses borders—and of building a united front.

Vivek Ramaswamy’s recently concluded bid for the Republican Presidential nomination might seem idiosyncratic and incoherent, but it manifested a process long underway: the convergence of Hindu supremacy and white supremacy in the United States. With this convergence comes the looming possibility that large segments of the wealthiest and second fastest-growing immigrant community could move squarely into the far Right.

Open alliances between Hindu supremacy and white supremacy are not new. During their tenures in office, President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi based their close personal relationship around the deep overlaps between their respective political projects—and, one could add, their cults of personality. These were epitomized by two massive showpiece events within the space of a year: the Howdy Modi rally in September 2019, and the Namaste Trump event that followed in February 2020, where each leader in turn offered a hearty public endorsement of his counterpart.

The Trump-Modi bonhomie, as splashy a media spectacle as it was, ultimately remained understood as an alliance between two leaders in two distinct locations. And while Modi represents the high-water mark of Hindu supremacist power in India, the political convergence between the two movements—epitomized by Ramaswamy but extending well beyond him—signals something quite different: that Hindu supremacy, as it manifests in the US, is becoming a key ally of white supremacy. 

This convergence comes at a time when the allegiances of growing non-white immigrant groups—like the Indian-American community—are beginning to emerge as a crucial battleground in the struggle against the authoritarian far Right in the United States. Amidst a growing wealth gap, multiple overlapping crises and deepening social precarity, immigrant communities’ support for democratic politics, and their prior aversion to the far Right, should not be taken for granted. In this context, pro-democracy actors in the United States must also develop a better understanding of the connections between transnational ethnonationalism and the health of our own democracy.

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Understanding Hindu supremacy

Hindu supremacy, also sometimes known as Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, has a great deal in common with other supremacist movements readers might be more familiar with. As an ideological tradition, Hindu supremacy emerged at a particular moment in both Indian and global history. In the 1920s, supremacist movements had taken root in post-war Europe; in India, anti-colonial movements had forced British colonialists into instituting some form of political representation.

Suddenly, as the possibility of expanded or even universal suffrage became visible, demographic weight and its relationship to representational power took on a new salience. As India’s elite, dominated by upper-caste leaders, realized that the construction of a Hindu majority (or indeed a Muslim majority, in the case of Pakistan) was critical to retaining access to power, religion began to take on a new political meaning. The promise of nascent democracy presaged, in many ways, a reactionary turn to fascism.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, founded in 1925, took this new political zeitgeist to another level by turning to a particularly extreme form of nationalism. They drew inspiration from these contemporaneous far Right movements that imagined a pure, halcyon past and were willing to subordinate or expel religious minorities to make their territory into a “pure” nation-state. Hindu supremacist leaders explicitly borrowed both organizational methods and key tenets of racial supremacy from the European far Right.

For example, the second leader of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar, argued that Hindus should draw inspiration from the genocidal treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis, writing that their obsession with racial purity was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan for us to learn and profit by.” Another founding ideologue, V.D. Savarkar, who coined the term “Hindutva,” told an American journalist that his vision of a Hindu ethno-state would see Muslims “in the position of your Negroes.”

Although some Hindu supremacist ideologues can be linked to a radical project to reshape a religious identity, others have often been ambivalent about spirituality or an attachment to the divine. (Savarkar, for example, was an avowed atheist.) Many have often fiercely distinguished Hindu supremacy from the much longer history of the broad array of traditions understood today as Hinduism, whose orthodoxy was structured around millennia-old caste hierarchies, but which was not inherently predisposed to this particular racialized, supremacist inclination.

Today, the RSS is nearing a century of existence, having straddled both the initial wave of fascism and today’s resurgence of the far Right worldwide, emerging with unprecedented hegemony in India—and to a smaller extent, in its diaspora. India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a lifelong RSS member, and under his control India has moved firmly into the ranks of authoritarianism—as has been evident in the V-Dem Institute’s decision to downgrade it to an “Electoral Autocracy,” and Freedom House’s designation of India as “partly free.”

These indices have pointed to the fact that in its pursuit of a Hindu ethno-state, the Hindu supremacist movement has conducted significant violence against minorities, furthering their marginalization; arbitrarily detained, harassed, and assassinated political opponents; and embraced a crony capitalism that has concentrated wealth in the hands of a tiny elite, often at the expense of urban migrant labor, indigenous communities and the environment.

Of course, in today’s moment, such a far-right resurgence is not a one-off. Modi has been joined by the likes of Jair Bolsanaro, Viktor Orban, Benjamin Netanyahu, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump in eroding democratic norms and institutions, and reshaping their nations around populist, ethnonationalist visions. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, these different movements are not abstract analogies; these actors are aware of each other’s existence, and keen to both ally with one another and borrow repressive tactics out of a growing authoritarian playbook.

“I started studying Modi in 2013,” Steve Bannon once told an Indian outlet. “In fact, Modi and Abe foreshadowed Trump. As a nationalist, Modi was a Trump before Trump.” Bannon’s words exemplify the manner in which far-right movements across the world are well-networked.

In the United States, it is indeed accurate to understand Hindu supremacy as a project of the Indian diaspora, brought into US politics by immigration, and focused around actors who support, lobby for, finance, and otherwise find common cause with a movement seeking to establish the absolute political hegemony of Hindus in India. But what precise form does this project take in the US itself, where its main progenitors actually live and work, and where Hindus—and indeed all South Asians—remain a minority? 

“Yankee Hindutva” and the pursuit of whiteness

This question brings us to Vivek Ramaswamy, a figure who consistently courted both the Hindu far-right as well as the white supremacist movement. Ramaswamy openly denied the existence of white supremacy, compared Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Black Democrat, to “modern grand wizards” of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and promoted a politics of malevolent race-blindness as a cornerstone of his campaign, tapping into the growing reactionary movement against a substantive and just multiracial democracy.

Likewise, Ramaswamy repeatedly praised Indian PM Narendra Modi, arguing that US actors should emulate the way in which Modi “talked unapologetically about Indian national identity.” He expressed similarly regressive views around caste, patronizingly claiming in his 2021 book, Woke, Inc: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, that unfettered capitalism allows for lower-caste delivery drivers to compete for better tips while serving their privileged customers. He actively associated with Hindu supremacist groups in the United States—most notably the VHP of America, whose two affiliated advocacy wings have both hosted galas featuring Ramaswamy as keynote speaker, and whose leaders have deep ties with him, to the extent that Ramaswamy credited one of them with teaching him Hinduism.

Both appearances saw Ramaswamy emphasize particular talking points, including “the revival of merit,” “the anti-woke agenda,” and the need to defend India, Israel, and the US from what he characterized as unfair criticism. These talking points represent the key elements of both supremacist movements distilled to their core: attempts by entrenched elites (whether along lines of race, caste, religion, or class) to protect their access to power.

Ramaswamy’s rise parallels the growing influence of the Indian-American community in US politics. President Biden’s administration, for example, has a record 130 Indian-American members, and Indian-American representation at federal, state and local levels continues to rise dramatically. It is in fact this dramatic arrival of the Indian-American community into political power that also might give us insight to this unprecedented alignment between Hindu supremacist and white supremacist politics.

A decade or two ago, a figure like Ramaswamy, given his educational and social background, would likely have landed in the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party. Indeed, upper-caste Indians had made attempts as far back as a century ago to claim that their caste bestowed upon them Whiteness, a precursor to the more contemporary pursuit of the category of the model minority. Older conservative talking points, such as a hostility to regulation and the pursuit of pro-business policies have often appealed to professional Indian immigrants. But until the past decade, it was impossible to find an organized formation that was both Hindu and Republican.

With the election to power of both Trump and Modi, and as the Indian-American community gained a degree of political maturity, new organizations began to take shape to fit a variety of political positions. These predecessors to Ramaswamy, numerous but subterranean, began to pave the path for an open convergence between the MAGA far Right and the Hindu supremacist movement.

A landmark moment came in 2015, when Shalabh Kumar, the industrialist and Trump donor, joined hands with Steve Bannon to set up the Republican Hindu Coalition. (Bannon has long had a fascination with Hinduism, extending back to his origins within the Traditionalist movement and its fascination with a long-lost golden past marked by pure “Aryan” rule.)

These organizations had grown significantly after Modi’s 2014 election victory, but were also finding themselves saturated; Modi’s speech in Madison Square Garden that year, attended by tens of thousands, was considered a triumph, but also saw a notable moment of infighting as various leaders tussled for time in the spotlight with the PM. These tussles presaged the creation of new pathways for the Hindu supremacist movement, flush with resources but searching for political entry points.

In that moment, Kumar’s partnership with Bannon set a precedent, signaling to the Hindu far Right that avowed white supremacists like Bannon were willing to make space for them—and were keen to accept their votes and money. Kumar was soon followed by Jay Kansara, the former Director of Government Relations at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), who left his job to organize for “Hindu Voices for Trump.” 

Two months before the 2020 elections, HAF even published a statement taking note of this shift, including data showing that support for Donald Trump had almost doubled among Indian-Americans. However, rather than self-reflect on their own convergences with the far-right, including their own allies and former staffers, HAF blamed these developments on “unchecked attacks and recent anti-India activism” within the Democratic Party.

Many other figures followed suit ahead of the 2020 election, including a handful of VHP of America affiliates who joined the Republican Party in its MAGA avatar. One such figure, Purnima Nath, also campaigned for the Trump campaign, and founded a platform called #iExitLeft, seeking to convince Hindu-Americans to leave the Democratic party for the far-right. (Srilekha Palle and Manga Anantatmula are a couple of other figures whose politics have taken similar trajectories.)

The Americans4Hindus PAC, also founded by Hindu supremacists, was established in late 2019 by another set of Hindu far-right leaders with the explicit purpose of punishing the Congressional Progressive Caucus for some of its members’ positions on human rights violations in India. Another VHP of America affiliate, Vibhuti Jha, also ran for state office in New York in 2022 as a Republican, and has become a close associate of the infamous anti-Muslim ideologue Robert Spencer, who is a recurring guest on his popular talk show, and has found in the Hindu far-right a pathway to renewing a flagging audience.

As a consequence, Hindu supremacist positions are increasingly taking on a partisan hue. The VHP of America’s advocacy wing recently tweeted in support of the Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action ruling. One of its members, Manga Anantatmula, has since boasted of her role in that case, and is running for Congressional office from Virginia. The VHP-A’s officers have also joined other right-wing PACs opposed to affirmative action.

The partisan divide has translated into recent legislation as well. In Georgia, a resolution condemning “Hinduphobia” was championed and passed by Republicans. In California, opposition to SB-403, a bill seeking to add caste as a protected category became an entirely Republican endeavor. When the bill passed the California State Senate, HAF noted that not a single Democrat had voted against the bill, and not a single Republican had voted for it, tweeting the phrase, “We Will Remember.” 

Notably, organizations that claim to be bipartisan or non-partisan, like HAF and the US-India Relationship Council (USIRC), have increasingly taken these partisan turns. USIRC hosted a fundraiser for Ramaswamy, while HAF leaders spoke positively of his candidacy and boasted of their personal ties to him. These trends all point to a broader transformation underway, marking the alignment of the entire Hindu supremacist ecosystem with the US far Right.

Racializing Hindus and drawing them into MAGA’s orbit

Ramaswamy’s own talking points of choice point to another trend: that the US far Right’s embrace of certain moral panics—around trans people or “wokeness”—as the primary tool of mobilizing its base allows it a certain malleability around race-making, offering inclusion to non-White actors who enthusiastically buy into or promote these moral panics. 

In an interview with Jha, for example, Anantatmula grounded her rhetoric in the precise language of the Republican Party, only tailored to Hindus. “Let’s not be daydreamers, thinking that bringing your paycheck home is enough to take care of your family. No, your next generation is about to be hanged,” said Anantatmula. “If they think that Hindus are safe in this country, they are not safe. The demographics and the culture of this country is changing. If we don’t change along with the changes that are being forced on us, then we will perish.”

This, then, points us to the likely answer to the question of what form Hindu supremacy will take in the US: the pursuit of an alliance with the far Right, and the construction of the term “Hindu” as a new racial category, proximate to Whiteness, and animated by a series of shared enemies and fantasies.

In the process, Hindu supremacists have amplified existing strands of anti-Blackness in the community—which itself has a long history in the subcontinent. Simultaneously, the pursuit of whiteness also leads to Hindu supremacists wrenching themselves apart from other South Asian communities and communities of color, undermining a politics of solidarity that recognizes our shared histories and shared struggles. 

At a moment when the language of aggrieved victimhood and resentment has become so central to far-right politics, the unique victimhood claimed by Hindu supremacists, and the unique protection hence demanded, is essential to their pursuit of this new racial category. It should come as no surprise that Hindu supremacists are also seeking to emulate the pro-Israel movement in pushing bad-faith and poorly defined accusations of bias, while also pursuing a broader geopolitical alignment with US imperial interests, including with the state of Israel.

Whether or not this effort will succeed depends, in part, on whether liberals and progressives can ground in a deep enough understanding of racism to withstand identity-based appeals by far-right non-white actors. To date, this has not been the case: Hindu far-right groups have been welcomed into some liberal and progressive spaces because they’re repeatedly misrecognized as civil rights groups, and because naive actors are often reluctant to reckon with the reality that non-white groups can perpetuate a supremacist politics of their own. 

The political trajectory of the Hindu far Right could portend the broader long-term direction of the US far Right as a whole. Despite the deep-dyed racism of most elements of the far Right, the political roles of non-white immigrant communities are growing in this moment where both US political parties find themselves at an inflection point. The Indian-American community doubled in size between 2010 and 2020, and the Hindu supremacist movement within it could emerge as a powerful ally to the white supremacist far Right, offering a ready-made infrastructure to transform the Indian-American immigrant—via their identification as a re-racialized Hindu American and an uneasy Modi Democrat—into a MAGA Republican. 

If left unchecked, here in the US we might well see a series of transnational far Rights manifest into a multiracial far-right. If left unchecked, the Hindu supremacist movement could lead the Indian diaspora to the far Right, with an influence that will be deeply deleterious. Consider, for example, the cover that will be offered to far-right and white supremacist politics when one of its most popular faces is a Brown man who can cheekily claim, as Vivek Ramaswamy does, that he is a “Non-White nationalist.” Such a far Right will be only more virulent and many times more difficult to uproot than the one that already existentially threatens our democracy.

Progressive responses must converge too

The overlapping of different far-right movements in the manner visible today presents an existential challenge to our movements. Can we continue to organize merely as Hindus, South Asians, Jews, or Muslims, when the movements that stand in the way of our collective liberation are so intertwined? The challenges of the moment must push us towards more interconnected approaches, akin to a new type of united front.

Savera, a new platform bringing together an interfaith, multiracial, anti-caste coalition united against supremacy, is born out of this analysis. The campaign recently released a rigorously researched report, titled “The Global VHP’s Trail of Violence,” that focuses on the Hindu supremacist movements emerging ties with other far-right actors, as well as their deep complicity in anti-minority violence in India. “This report offers a robust and insightful analysis of the impact these actors have had on our own, similarly fragile democracy,” said the foreword to the report, co-authored by six leading civil rights leaders. The foreword to the report ends with this precise call:

“To challenge these tendencies, we must build a multi-racial coalition of our own, crossing any existing siloes, that stands united against supremacy. While this most crucially involves a challenge to deeply entrenched structures of white supremacy within the US, progressive movements within communities of color and religious minorities within the US must also confront supremacist and reactionary strands within our own communities.”

An earlier version of this article appeared in Religion Dispatches.