“I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every single day how blessed we were to live in this country.”
That’s how Nikki Haley would begin every speech when running for governor of South Carolina in 2012. And that’s how she began her speech at the 2012 Republican Party convention in Florida to nominate Mitt Romney as the presidential nominee. This time, she added another line to her life story. “They loved the fact,” she said about her parents, “that only in America, we could be as successful as we wanted to be and nothing would stand in our way. My parents started a business out of the living room of our home and, 30-plus years later, it was a multimillion dollar company.”
And that daughter of Raj and Ajit Randhawa, immigrants from Punjab, was on Wednesday named by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next US ambassador to the UN, a cabinet-rank position never reached by anyone of Indian descent before.
At 44, Haley, whose birth name is Nimrata Randhawa, is already a typically American success story. She is only the second Indian American ever elected governor — the first was Bobby Jindal — and a rising star, who has often been spoken of as a vice-presidential candidate, with a shot, at some stage, at the top job no less.
Choosing her to deliver the traditional opposition party rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address in 2016 — Barack Obama’s last — House Speaker Paul Ryan said of her, “If you want to hear an inclusive leader who’s visionary, who’s got a path for the future, who’s brought people together, who’s unified, it’s Nikki Haley.”
As governor of a state with a long history of tense race relations, Haley caught the nation’s attention in 2015 when she led the call for removing a Confederate era flag from the premises of the state’s seat of government and legislature after the horrific massacre of nine African Americans praying at a historic black church in Charleston by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist.
Haley is a trained accountant who started off in politics in 2004 when she ran for the state legislature of South Carolina.
“When I started going around telling people I was running for the state house, I got a lot of responses,” Haley wrote in her 2012 autobiography ‘Can’t is not an option: My American story’.
“Some people looked at me like they felt sorry for me. Others suggested, yet again, that I not set my sights so high. Perhaps I would be more comfortable running for my school board?”
Only her parents and husband, Michael Haley, stood by her. But that’s was just the start of the battle.
A political consultant she wanted to hire for her campaign told her, aiming to be direct, “You are attractive, but you are Indian woman. You are only 31-years-old and your dad wears a headdress (a turban, as a Sikh). Lexington County (which she was running to represent) just won’t support that.”
She proved him and many others wrong as she went from winning one to two more. And then she ran for governor in 2010 and won, riding the wave of Tea Party insurgency in the Republican Party, with the endorsement of Sarah Palin.
Through all this, Haley maintained close ties with the Indian American community — some among whom insist on calling her by her birth name Nimrata — unlike Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American to be elected governor, who sought to distance himself from the community.