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Homegrown Haley

As an Indian-American, she often found herself without a definite identity within a racially-charged milieu. One of the stories she has recounted is that being entered by her parents in a beauty pageant when she was five. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Jun 27, 2010 00:03 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

The election had been called late that evening. It was late fall and a dark-hued gangly man, relatively young for a politician, appeared on stage to address his supporters. He exhorted them with the catch-phrase “We can change. We must change. We will change.” No, it isn’t who you think it is. A year before Barack Obama was elected the President of the United States, Louisiana had elected an Indian-American Bobby Jindal as its Governor. Numerous Indian faces — his family’s — surrounded him on the stage.

The 39-year-old Jindal has till now been the only Indian-American to be elected Governor of an American state. Come November, he may have company. Only a dramatic implosion of her campaign will prevent Nikki Haley, a year younger than Jindal, from occupying the Governor’s mansion in South Carolina.

It’s curious that both Jindal and Haley have been successful in two states from the American South, states with a history of racism and that are deeply conservative. Dino Teppara, Chairman of the Wash-ington-based Indian American Conservative Council, said, “It just shows there are misconceptions about the Republican Party.”

One of America’s leading experts on Southern politics believes that Haley and Jindal were naturals for the party. Merle Black, a Professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said, “Republicans have wanted to attract minorities. Jindal and Haley are both entrepreneurial types. They feel more at home with Republicans.”

Haley, who was born in the town of Bamberg in 1972 to Dr AS and Raj Randhawa, has already tasted southern racism. Jake Knotts, a fellow Republican, described her as a “raghead” recently. As an Indian-American, she often found herself without a definite identity within a racially-charged milieu. One of the stories she has recounted is that being entered by her parents in a beauty pageant when she was five. The judges were to crown two queens — one white and one black. They couldn’t figure out where Nikki and her sister Simran fit and ended up disqualifying them. Now, she could easily fit into the vision of post-racial politics in Obama’s America, but religion is quite another matter.

As she emerged as a serious contender for Governorship, Haley also had a little mainstreaming makeover done. Born Nimrata Randhawa, she has always been politically known as Nikki Haley, but as her opponents increasingly attacked her during the campaign, she had to downplay one particular aspect of her Indian roots — Sikhism.

While campaign literature from 2004 when she was running for the State House says “Nikki was proudly raised with her Indian traditions”, questions over her faith have made her campaign wary to publicising those.

Like Jindal, Haley is a convert to Christianity. While Jindal converted in school, Haley did so when she was 24. In fact, she had two wedding ceremonies, one Christian and one Sikh. While her website originally spoke of an “Almighty God” that was recently changed to wording that wasn’t ambiguous. In the Truth In Facts section, she says, “My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make.” In the deeply Conservative Christian South, that mattered.

Minnesota-based physician Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, believes the barrier of religion looms large over Indian Americans in politics. “While we may have transcended race, we haven’t become truly pluralistic. Can my children dream of becoming the President of the United States as Hindu Americans? Right now, I don’t think so.” In a recent column online for the Washington Post, Shukla pointed out: “In 2007, when 359 Christian, Jewish and Muslim members of the U.S. House passed a non-binding resolution recognising the significance of the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali, Jindal, then a House member, was one of only a handful of legislators that publicly abstained.”

But being of Indian origin isn’t that much of a liability. Sampat Shivangi, Chairman of the Republican Indian Committee-Mississippi, said, “The easiest minority Republicans can court is Indian-Americans.” When elected to the US House of Representatives from Louisiana in 2005, Jindal quickly joined the India Caucus. According to Teppara, who has played a role in both Jindal’s and Haley’s campaigns, they are both “proud of their Indian heritage.” Haley’s official biography for the South Carolina legislature still proudly states that in 2005 she received the Indian American Pride Award from the Indian American Friendship Council.

While there have been close parallels between Jindal and Haley, they may just be on the collision course on the national stage. Jindal was on the shortlist of those John McCain considered as his running mate during the 2008 presidential elections, and Haley, even before she has been elected Governor, has had to fend off queries of being a possible Vice-Presidential nominee herself in 2012. That conjures up an interesting quandary for the Republican Party for the future — is there room for two Indian-Americans on the national stage.

vital stats

Nikki Haley: The 38-year-old Republican is aspiring for the Governorship of South Carolina. Nikki is actually her birth middle name. Her full name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley. Her parents, Dr Ajit and Raj Randhawa, are immigrants from Amritsar. Married to Michael Haley, she converted to Christianity when she was 24.

Bobby Jindal: Jindal, 39, Republican, is Governor of Louisiana. Raised in a Hindu household, he converted to Christianity in high school. His nickname dates to his childhood identification with a character in the sitcom, The Brady Bunch. Jindal’s first name is actually Piyush. He is married to Supriya Jolly who was born in New Delhi.