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The Sikh Republican battling for the American South

Rising star Nikki Haley hopes to become the first Indian American female governor of South Carolina.

Nikki Haley, her husband Michael and daughter Rena wait for the results of the run-off election against Gresham Barrett for the party's nomination at the Columbia Sheraton on Tuesday.
Nikki Haley, her husband Michael and daughter Rena wait for the results of the run-off election against Gresham Barrett for the party's nomination at the Columbia Sheraton on Tuesday.

NEW YORK // A mother of two, whose Sikh parents emigrated from Amritsar to the American south and its legacy of racism, was being hailed yesterday as one of the rising stars of the Republican party. Nikki Haley is now a step closer to becoming the first Indian American, and female, governor of staunchly conservative South Carolina after winning the Republican nomination.

She is part of a growing number of American politicians whose families came from the subcontinent, including Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana. Mrs Haley, 38, won a run-off election primary against Gresham Barrett, a US congressman, and she will battle her Democratic opponent, Vincent Sheheen, for the governorship in November. She overcame a bruising election campaign, which saw allegations of marital infidelity, questions about her faith and ethnic slurs.

In the most offensive insult, the Republican state senator Jake Knotts used racist remarks during a radio interview to compare her to the US president, Barack Obama, saying: "We've already got one raghead in the White House. We don't need another in the governor's mansion." Ironically, the controversy that erupted after his comment was the first time that many South Carolina voters realised that the light-skinned Mrs Haley was originally Sikh. She was born to Indian Sikh parents who immigrated to the United States but married a Methodist and had two weddings, one Christian and one Sikh.

She has become the second Indian American to achieve prominence in the region after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the country's first Indian-American governor, who was born to Indian Hindu parents but became a Catholic and few know his given first name, Piyush. Mrs Haley's full name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley T Sher Singh, the editor of sikhchic.com, an online magazine for the diaspora Sikh community, criticised Mrs Haley for dropping her Sikh background.

"I know her, I've met her, I've met her family, I've been to the Carolinas and I know the area. She used to call herself a Sikh and until recently she went to Sikh events," he said by telephone from Canada. "But the South is like the Middle East in that there is also fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness there. She was weak in this regard and jumped the fence for expediency." He still saw her rise as a boost to the Sikh community. "It's a boost just as much as the election of Barack Obama was in terms of opening the door and educating Americans," he said.

Mrs Haley and Mr Jindal stand out compared with other Indian-American politicians and candidates because they are Republican. The Indian-American community, thought to number between 2.5 million and three million, mostly supports the Democratic party. Few young Indian Americans would agree with Mrs Haley's stance against taking federal stimulus money under Mr Obama's plan to boost the economy last year or her pro-life, social values. Young Americans of all ethnicities voted overwhelmingly for Mr Obama in 2008. Mrs Haley, meanwhile, saw her star rise after she won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate who has become a beacon to right-wing conservatives.

When Mr Jindal became Louisiana governor in 2007, he had to give up his seat in the House of Representatives, leaving Congress without any Indian Americans. He was only the second Indian American to be elected to Congress after Dalip Singh Saund in 1956. At least six Indian Americans hope to enter Congress this year. They are: Ami Bera in California, Raj Goyle in Kansas, Ravi Sangisetty in Louisiana, Reshma Saujani in New York, Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania, and Surya Yalamanchili in Ohio. Kamala Harris, who is half-Indian and half-black, is favoured to become California's attorney general. Religion has not been a factor in these races so far.

Vandana Kumar, the publisher of India Currents magazine in California, said the rising political prominence of Indian Americans was partly to do with the second-generation coming of age. Indian Americans were already well represented at the local and state level while national office was the next stage, she said. "Indian Americans first came here in large numbers only in the 1960s and they were busy making a living and culture here," said Ms Kumar, who emigrated from India 25 years ago. "It's the coming generations that find themselves freely wanting to participate in the process."

She did not want to condemn Mrs Haley or Mr Jindal for their seemingly complete assimilation, saying she did not know the South and the particular constraints they faced. "There are examples of people who held on to their religion and their office but we're living in the land of opportunity and people do whatever they need to do to achieve what they want." Over the next few years, there would be a flood of Indian Americans seeking office nationwide, said Sanjay Pari, the chairman of the US-India Political Action Committee, a bipartisan, non-profit group that provides financial and volunteer support to Indian-American candidates.

"The number of young people in politics is just going to explode over the next 10 years or so. We deal with young people because we go to campuses and give talks. "Before, Indian Americans would either become a doctor or an engineer but people are now realising it's our duty to give back to the nation," he said.
sdevi@thenational.ae