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Brown Girl Governor

In her recent autobiography, Nikki Haley talks of the racism she experienced on her way to the top job. Yashwant Raj reports.

world Updated: Apr 08, 2012 01:53 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times

It was to be an important meeting. Nikki Haley was looking forward to it. She needed money for her campaign and support. And the man she was about to meet could give her both.

But what followed next left her stunned speechless. The Big Man agreed to help, provided she could fulfill some of his conditions. He wanted her and husband Michael Haley’s tax records and phone records of several years. He then wanted them to undergo a full federal security check? Why, Haley asked.

It would be very embarrassing, he said, if after her inauguration, it turned out she was related to some terrorists. Haley fled the man’s horse farm as fast as she could.

He was a South Carolina attorney who frequently donated to the Republican Party. And Haley was an Indian-origin Republican party member of the South Carolina state House who was running to be the party’s nominee for the post of governor.

As an Indian-origin American in South Carolina, a deeply conservative state in the deeply conservative south, Haley had grown up acutely conscious of being different.

Her first experience of it came very early in a small town where she was born, Bamberg, to Sikh couple who had immigrated from Punjab, Raj and Ajit Randhawa. Haley was in third grade, she recalls in her autobiography Can’t Was Not An Option. The class was playing kickball during recess and Haley found the children in two groups.

The group of black girls had the ball. When Haley asked if they were going to play. They said sure. But she would have to pick who to play with — blacks or whites.

‘“I’m neither!’ I yelled. ‘I’m brown!’ Before I knew it, we were all playing kickball on the playground.” The issue was resolved, one more time, she added. But not the last.

It came rushing back when she unexpectedly jumped into politics and set herself up to fight with the sitting Republican House representative from her county, Lexington.

To run a decent race, you need a political consultant. Haley went looking for one. Here is the first interview with a consultant. “What’s your background?” he asked.

I told him I was Indian.

“There’s not many Indians in Lexington County. Are you pro-choice [a term to denote support for abortion] ? Do your parents attend that Indian church?” “That Indian church”? What did that mean?

And that’s when I got my reality check.

“I’m going to be straight with you,” he said. “You’re attractive, but you’re an Indian woman. You’re only thirty-one years old. Your dad wears a headdress. Lexington County is just not going to support that.”

A later consultant seemed more patient and considerate. But he refused to take up her race, apparently because she didn’t stand a chance against her rival, a veteran of 30 years, a man called Larry Koon.

Koon was an establishment darling steeped in South Carolina’s opaque political culture that fed on cronyism. Half the county were his relatives. And, used to winning, he was not used to a contest. Things got ugly in the primaries as expected. One day while Haley and her husand were driving around stuffing mailers into mail boxes, they found a rival’s staffer up ahead doing the same.

She picked one of theirs. It had Koon and Haley in a face-off with pictures. Koon was identified as “White Male”, and Haley as “Indian female”. His religion was mentioned “Christianity”, while hers was “Buddhist”. She was, in fact, Christian, and had been one since her marriage to Michael. But that’s another story.

As the contest grew closer, Haley was struck one day by a half-page ad that claimed Koon was the real Republican while Nimrata N Randhawa was not, having once voted for a Democrat.

The intent of the ad was simply this, as Haley says in her book: she is not one of use. The N in Nimrata N Randhawa was Nikki. She was Randhawa before marriage and she was now Haley. But the ad was not about explaining Haley, it was about condemning her. But she won the election. And turned out to be a hell-raiser in the House quickly condemning herself to the life of an outsider in a party content with the way things were.

Faced with a party establishment bent upon shutting her out, Haley said at a book promotion in Washington this week she was left with no option but to seek a higher challenge.

And that was the post of governor.

By now, Haley had figured her Indian origin would be an issue and the only way for her to tackle it was to be upfront about it, and the way she felt about it. “For the governor’s race I decided to state upfront I was of Indian origin,” she told Hindustan Times, adding, “and that I was proud of it.” Did it work for her? Largely, yes.

But there was a big one coming her way.

A state senator said: “We’ve got a raghead in Washington. We don’t need a raghead in the statehouse.” A raghead is someone who wears a turban. Haley took it with admirable equanimity: “At a time when I wanted people to feel good about our state, he [the state senator ] was an example of why we’ve been regarded as a bunch of uneducated, backwoods racists.”

It was the Republican party establishment that played these games with her. But not the more rebellious Tea Party movement, often accused of ethnic bias. It embraced her fully, in defiance of the old guard.

Sarah Palin, the original Tea Party goddess, endorsed Haley without so much as a question about her origin. Palin also came to her defence at a most difficult time.

And her support was unwavering.

Haley won the governorship becoming South Carolina’s first woman governor, its youngest governor at 38 and also its first Indian-American governor.

First Published: Apr 07, 2012 23:55 IST