Haley’s Comet

James Astill is the Lexington columnist of The Economist and a contributor to Open
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South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is set to be the first Indian American with cabinet rank in America

BEFORE DONALD TRUMP nominated Nikki Haley to be his ambassador to the United Nations on November 23rd, the governor of South Carolina was best known for two things: her bold attack on the Confederate flag, symbol of the old racist South, after a massacre of Black church-goers in her state last year, and her veiled criticism of Trump. Neither seemed likely to endear Haley, whose parents emigrated from Punjab in the mid-1960s, to America’s president- elect. He takes criticism from no one; and, for his part, he took pains during the election campaign not to offend the White racists whom Haley riled with her stand against the flag of the former slave states. Yet, for all that, Trump has just nominated her to be America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Assuming she is confirmed by the Senate, as is likely, she will be the first Indian American to hold a position of cabinet rank in the US.

The explanation for Haley’s rapid promotion must start with the fact that she is a rare sort of a Republican. She was born and raised a Sikh in the small South Carolinian town of Bamberg, where her parents, Ajit Singh Randhawa and Raj Kaur Randhawa, settled; before converting to Christianity, shortly before her marriage, Haley was known as Nimrata ‘Nikki’ Randhawa. A former lecturer in Botany at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, her father taught at a small private university, Voorhees College, where he would spend the rest of his career. As the only Asian American family in Bamberg, the Randhawas suffered numerous slights; famously, when Nikki was aged five, she and her sister Simran were forbidden to take part in a local beauty pageant. It had a contest for Blacks and a contest for Whites and no one could say where the sisters belonged in such a system. Simran recalled: “Just before the intermission, Nikki and I were called up on stage, thanked for participating, told we were being disqualified and given crayons and a colouring book as the music began to play.”

Whatever mark that slight left on Haley, it did not blunt her ambition or her flair. Five years into her tenure, she is still, at 44 and though a representative of a party dominated by middle-aged White men, America’s youngest governor (a mantle she inherited from another conservative Indian American, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana). The moral purpose she showed last year in demanding that the offending flag, a symbol of slavery and Southern White resentment, be taken down from its flagstaff above South Carolina’s statehouse helped broadcast her flair to America. “It should never have been there,” she said, speaking in a state that is roughly a third Black, but invariably elects Republicans, days after a White racist gunned down nine Black churchgoers in the old slave port of Charleston. “What I realised now more than ever is that people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”

The fact that Haley was asked to give the official Republican response to Barack Obama’s last state-of-the-union address, in January, was a recognition of her growing reputation. She used the opportunity to attack Trump, then the front-runner in the Republican primaries, for the cheap insults, bragging and divisiveness he was bringing to her party’s presidential contest. “It can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she warned: Americans “must resist”.

She proceeded to criticise Trump more explicitly after he failed to disavow the support of a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist called David Duke. Standing besides one of Trump’s Republican rivals, the Floridian senator Marco Rubio, whom she had endorsed instead, Haley swore she would “not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK.” Trump, naturally, was unimpressed. He sneered that in case she had any hope of being his vice-president, she was “not off to a good start” and that she was “very weak on illegal immigration”.

This is to Haley’s credit. Not many Republicans leaders made even her cautious efforts to decry the mockery Trump was making of their party. It has won her plaudits from many mainstream anti-Trump Republicans. And the fact that Trump wants to hire her—making Haley the first former critic he has thus tried to bring on-side—is plainly an effort to mollify some of those anxious critics. Trump’s other hires hitherto, including of Steve Bannon, a right-wing bomb-thrower, as his chief strategist, and Jeff Sessions, an alleged racist, to be his attorney general, have suggested he will be as incendiary and intolerant as president as he was as a candidate. Promoting Haley, a youngish, Asian American woman, known for her soothing words on racial tension, looks like an effort to mitigate that impression. There is even speculation that Trump may quietly fear Haley; by bringing her inside his circle, it is said, he may hope to minimise a threat of her standing against his possible re-election bid in 2020. And yet, none of that means Haley would necessarily make a good UN ambassador.

BEFORE HER STAND against the Confederate flag, she was known for her uplifting back-story as the daughter of hard-working immigrants; for some unproven allegations, aired at the time of her first run for governor, that she had been unfaithful to her husband, an officer in South Carolina’s National Guard; and for her tireless efforts to entice foreign investors to her state. She has never been known for her views on international affairs. It is not altogether clear that she has any, besides some strong pro-Israeli statements and carping about Obama’s record abroad, both of which are more or less obligatory for ambitious Republicans.

Once her appointment is confirmed, Haley will take over her job from a Democratic incumbent, Samantha Power, globally acknowledged as an expert on human rights and, in particular, preventing genocide. Haley, by contrast, will be arguably the least qualified UN ambassador America has ever fielded. If that suggests Trump is not too fussed about the UN, it is an impression he is happy to give. During an interview at his office in Trump Tower, in Manhattan, he told me he would consider withdrawing America’s UN membership—a remarkable claim, aired as casually as if he was mulling quitting a private member’s club, not the world’s premier forum. Haley has a record of standing up to Trump; it is hard to think what international issue she might choose to fight him over, or that he would care very much if she did.

Perhaps there is another reason for Trump’s enthusiasm for Haley: her Indian heritage. He is clearly well-disposed towards India. While fulminating against Chinese deal-making and currency-fixing on the trail, he often had warm words for India. “There won’t be any relationship more important to us,” he told a crowd of Indian Americans at a rally in New Jersey.

Perhaps there is another reason for Trump’s enthusiasm for Haley: her Indian heritage. He is clearly well-disposed towards India. While fulminating against Chinese deal-making and currency fixing on the trail, he often had warm words for India

He would not be the first US president to see India as a counterweight to China; George W Bush didn’t get far with that. But Trump’s stated affection for India has, for good or ill, more to it than grand strategy. He has an instinctive regard for strong leaders and nationalists, which extends to Narendra Modi, whom Trump extols as a “great man”. He also has Indian business interests; according to an analysis by the Washington Post, 16 of the 111 foreign business deals he declared in his pre-election financial disclosures were in India—more than in any other country.

This was highlighted when Trump met property developers Sagar and Atul Chordia, along with another Indian real estate associate, Kalpesh Mehta, at Trump Tower in Manhattan—not the Trump Tower the Chordias have built in Pune— barely a week after his election. It is hard to know what the melange of business ties, instinct and a vague apprehension of strategy that seems to inform Trump’s view of India might mean for US-India relations. Probably, the president-elect doesn’t himself know; he appears to have few consistent thoughts on foreign policy. Yet it would be ironic if his apparent predilection for India, however uninformed or trifling, or otherwise, it may turn out to be, has led him to Haley. Because during her ascent through right-wing America politics, she has as often given an impression of disregarding her Indianness as of embracing it.

That is a charge easily made of ambitious immigrants, of course. Damned if they cling to their family culture, damned if they ditch it, they are assured criticism from one side or both. And Haley has had plenty of such carping. After she won the Republican ticket for her first gubernatorial race—a virtual guarantee of victory in South Carolina—she and Jindal, an Evangelical Christian, were accused by some Indian Americans of having abandoned their culture to get on. “Religious conversion,” said the aggrieved boss of the Hindu American Foundation, Aseem Shukla, “should be a personal sojourn, but Jindal’s and Haley’s capitulation on public religiosity and rejection of their ancestral faiths are galling to many.”

Haley has responded to such criticisms by pointing out that she still feels comfortable visiting gurdwaras, as she did on a visit to Amritsar in 2012. Her conversion, she has suggested, was motivated by a feeling of spirituality, inculcated by Sikhism, yet imperfectly channelled by it given her shaky grasp of Punjabi. Maybe so; but it is hard not to recoil with Shukla from the expressions of public piety expected of modern Republican politicians, which Jindal, a science-denying creationist, and Haley both dish up to order. Listen hard to Haley’s expressions of pride in her ancestral culture, moreover, and they are always posited in terms of her greater allegiance to America. “Yes, my husband and I are Christians,” she once said, “but we’re not going to say anything negative about the way my parents raised me, because they reminded us every day how blessed we were to live in this country.” But, to follow Haley’s implausible logic, what if they hadn’t? Would she have felt free to denounce Sikhism then? Would she have wanted to?

The point is not that the incoming US ambassador to the United Nations is your typical ABCD (‘American-Born-Confused-Desi’). It is that she is an opportunist, more obviously skilled at navigating America’s chauvinistic politics than she is interested in healing them. Her more explicit comments on race, of which, in the wake of the massacre in Charleston, there have been many, also support this view of her. For Haley, the racist crime was an anomaly, which served to highlight how racially harmonious her state otherwise is. “I would not have been elected governor of South Carolina if our state was a racially intolerant place,” she said. “And I would not have won the Republican primary if we were a racially intolerant party.”

It is a narrative of progress that non- White American politicians customarily offer up, thus to acknowledge their skin colour, and the history of racism it recalls, without scaring away White voters. Haley does this uncommonly well. Yet after an election in which Trump, running a dog-whistle racist campaign, won her state primary by ten points and then the presidency, it is hard to see much of the progress she describes. And it is hard to know how seriously she means what she says.

All said, Haley still looks like a good pick for Trump, given the likely alternatives. She is appealingly optimistic and seems genuinely moderate in her social—if not her hawkish fiscal— views. But she has not done anything to warrant great optimism about her prospects of thriving under Trump. Nor should her appointment elicit undue enthusiasm from India, a country she hardly seems to recognise. Haley’s has been an impressive rise. But, right now, it mainly shows what a low bar for hope in his administration Trump has set.