Nikki Haley: Indian-Americans’ alter ego?
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Nikki Haley: Indian-Americans’ alter ego?

Last week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was chosen “Person of the Year” (2010) by India Abroad, a New York-based Indian-American weekly newspaper. The choice of Haley is understandable, but ironic because there’s nothing remotely alluring about Haley to a majority of Indian-Americans, except, of course, a bit of ethnic pride in her political ascendancy.

Only the second Indian-American to be elected to such high office, Haley is also the first woman and the first nonwhite governor of the deeply conservative southern state. Since her election last fall, Haley has gained national media attention, particularly with her frequent appearances on Fox News channel and flattering portrayals in right-wing publications.


Nikki Haley. Pic: AP.

A majority of Indian Americans, who believe that their fortunes are dependent on secular and liberal laws and liberties, are understandably ambivalent toward Haley, who has come to power by projecting herself as an ultra conservative politician with all the trappings of a tax-cutting, Bible-thumping, evolution-denying, creation-trusting, union-baiting, gay-bashing limited government protagonist. Among her ardent supporters are, of course, the small but influential Indian-American Republicans, who may be genuine conservatives (minus the religious parts). In addition, there are the genuinely naive, who think Haley’s public persona and policy postures are merely politically expedient ploys.

Haley is also lucky not to be resented for her conversion to the Christian faith, even though the same cannot be said about Piyush (Bobby) Jindal, the conservative Republican Indian-American governor of Louisiana. Jindal is widely, if not necessarily openly, ridiculed by Indian-Americans for flaunting his born-again Christian credentials; many see it as a betrayal of the Hindu faith he was born into.

Haley, who deftly played up her Christian faith during the campaign, perhaps, gets a pass because she was originally Sikh rather than Hindu. A majority of Indian-Americans, who come from small towns in India and belong to lower-middle-class conservative Hindu families, tend to be even more conscious of their religious, cultural and caste identities than average Indians back in India. This is true more so of Indian small-business community in the U.S. whose ranks have surreptitiously swelled over the past three decades.

But a majority of these very people might have a problem in reconciling with Haley’s emergence as an acerbic critic of President Obama, who continues to be popular among ethnic minorities that regard him as a symbolic bulwark against the sway of majoritarian whites. While Haley’s conservative politics and policies have little bearing on Indian-Americans – considering that there are few of them in South Carolina – her increasing profile in national politics might become discomfiting in the coming presidential election year.

A favorite of the so-called Tea Party wing of the Republicans, Haley has been a bitter critic of President Obama’s health care reform, which has widespread support among minority communities. She’s also currently locked in a public spat with the Obama administration which is pressurizing Boeing to reverse its decision to move its manufacturing base for the second line of 787 Dreamliner aircrafts from pro-union Washington State to anti-union South Carolina.

Haley has also bolstered her conservative bona fides by signing into law the controversial bill that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest for another reason but who they suspect may be in the country illegally. The law reportedly allows the state to move illegal immigrants to federal custody and creates an Illegal Immigration Enforcement unit in the Department of Public Safety. According to a Reuters report, employers in South Carolina will be required to use the federal E-Verify system to check the citizenship status of employees and job applicants. Indian-Americans, like most other new immigrant groups, may not take kindly to such laws that make them vulnerable to being targeted for special attention based on race and color, whether by design or default.

It is a curious irony of the American politics that both Haley and Jindal – two of the only three nonwhite governors (the third being Deval Patrick of Massachusetts) – should emerge as visceral opponents of the first black president of the United States. Jindal, the other “skinny guy with a funny name,” too, had political run-ins with Obama on a host of issues including health care reform, cap and trade, off-shore drilling and the Gulf oil spill cleanup, even if the tenor of his criticisms tended to be less shrill than those of Haley.

But Haley will have greater influence in the coming election year, given the crucial role that her state plays in the Republican primaries. South Carolina, which holds an early primary, traditionally chooses the candidate who becomes the party’s eventual nominee. Haley’s endorsement, therefore, will be prized by the contenders and if her candidate should secure the nomination, she will have a strong presence in the party.

Not surprisingly, she has often been touted as a possible running mate for the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. That’s probably more hyperbolic television punditry than political plausibility, considering that Haley brings nothing to the presidential ticket in terms of her state (which invariably votes Republican) or demography (Indian-Americans are numerically too few to be a factor in electoral politics).

Similar projections were made about Jindal during the 2008 primaries, when he was among those considered for running mate of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. But Jindal, despite remaining a very popular governor, ended speculation about his national potential when he exhibited a singular disdain for charisma during his disastrous Republican response to President Obama’s first address to a joint session of the Congress.

Being a young and attractive woman who has the backing of powerful establishment in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, Haley has a better chance of making forays into the national scene, provided she doesn’t make mistakes and keeps her superconservative credentials intact.

Needless to say, Indian-Americans will remain grudgingly expectant.