IT IS INTERESTING to see the manner in which Nikki Haley and the last big Indian-American name in American politics, Bobby Jindal, are viewed in India. Both are Republicans and former governors. Piyush became Bobby and converted to Christianity. Nimrata became Nikki and converted to Christianity. And while Jindal’s reception in India was at best lukewarm, Haley’s has been another matter. On her current trip to India, where despite US-India relations not being at their best, her reception has been very good.
In a way, it comes down to the manner in which they have dealt with their race. Jindal has been seen as someone who has distanced himself from his Indian roots. Haley, in comparison, is different. In interviews and even speeches, she often recalls her Indian origin and Sikh parents. She often talks about the time she was disqualified at a beauty pageant, with the judge apparently telling her mother that they had to have a Black queen or a White queen, and they didn’t know where to put her. “They gave me a beach ball and sent me on my way. But my mom said, ‘Well, at least let her do her talent.’ So I sang, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land’ to everyone before I got disqualified.” Now on her current India trip, you see her with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but you also see her at a shelter home, and at temples and gurdwaras, a dupatta pulled over her head. Her origin is essential to Haley’s story.
She has struck a fine balance with her un- embarrassed embrace of roots while also setting forth as a confident American citizen, something which Jindal couldn’t manage (at least in popular perception). This is arguably what has made Haley so successful in US politics in such a short time. She has sort of projected herself as a new type of Republican leader, someone who ticks all the things that the party base cares for, but who also has a cosmopolitan background—perfect to pursue a nuanced policy on immigration.
So even though she works for Trump, and she has been a vocal supporter of many of his policies, she is somehow not seen as someone whose reputation has been tarnished by Trump’s whimsical approach. Often, she has appeared as the most reasonable person in the administration.
And this probably has to do with how she has projected herself. She has taken care to not run afoul of her boss, defending many of his actions, but has also ensured that she is seen as her own person. She has publicly disagreed with Trump over the Charlottesville march and Russia. She even upheld the right to a fair hearing of women who have accused Trump of sexual misdemeanours.
Haley is now the Trump administration’s international face, eclipsing even Rex Tillerson when he was secretary of state. Although there has been talk that she has fallen out of the president’s favour, given her absence at the Trump-Kim meet in Singapore and the US embassy’s opening in Jerusalem, she seems to have not only survived but thrived where others have failed.
When Haley arrived in Delhi, it appeared that India was no longer a Washington priority. The US abruptly scrapped the much-talked about 2+2 dialogue between the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers a day into the visit, and has reiterated its warning against India’s purchase of crude oil from Iran. But Haley was all over the town, adding a soft touch to Trump’s toughspeak, hugging Sushma Swaraj in one picture and rolling chapattis and stirring a langar cauldron at a gurdwara the next.
All this has fuelled speculation that she is angling for something bigger than her current designation. Will she settle for secretary of state two years on, or will she run for the 2020 presidency?