Depending on your point of view and your political biases, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, either thrilled or outraged you with her recent Instagram post in which she showed what Santa Claus left under her Christmas tree: a Beretta PX4 Storm pistol that retails at $575.
The gun was actually a present from her husband, Michael, and is advertised by its manufacturer as “well suited for concealed carry yet perfectly at home in a duty holster,” with a design that “accommodates plainclothes operations, home defense, or a day at the range.”
Nikki Haley [born Nimrata Randhawa], the daughter of Sikh immigrants from the Punjab and the first Indian-American woman governor in U.S. history, has already publicized her love of firearms. Earlier this summer, she posted a video on YouTube showing her touring a gun manufacturing plant in South Carolina and even firing off a couple of shots on a test range.
“It was a good time, it was a good stress reliever. And I did it in heels,” she quipped in the video that also sparked much commentary (both positive and negative) on social media and other forums.
Haley, a darling of the Tea Party and a die-hard conservative, owns a concealed-weapons permit and boasts a lifetime “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. She plans to run again for the governorship of South Carolina next year and has been mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential (or even presidential) candidate in the near future. She is a rising star not only in the GOP but also in the broader sphere of American politics.
But she's not for everybody.
On the ABC News website, the following comments condemned Governor Haley for showing off her new gun. One sniped: “Many of us also hope one of this woman's children doesn't get a little mentally unbalanced and kill people with this Christmas gun,” in an obvious reference to the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut last year.
Another sneered: “Crass. The governor might have power but no class.” Yet another critic accused Haley – and fellow Indian-American Republican governor Piyush "Bobby" Jindal of Louisiana -- of "pandering" to their base, presumably white conservatives: “All these damn Republicans showing off their guns, guns, guns, [especially] nerdy Indian Republicans like Nimrata [Haley] and Piyush Jindal. Trying [way] too hard to fit in, and the pandering is pathetically obvious.” Another irate reader wished for her immediate political demise: “The best present the state of [South Carolina] could receive is for her [Haley] to lose in 2014.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, however, some readers praised Governor Haley: “That is awesome. Way to go, Guv!” Another snarked: “You liberals should give it [shooting a gun] a try sometime. You might even learn something in the process.” Yet another said, apparently without sarcasm: “Gov Nikki someone must really love you. Great firearm! I have one myself. A Christmas gift last year.” A happy South Carolinian declared: “Go for it Babe! I'm right behind you. South Carolinians are proud of you.”
Finally, another admirer praised Haley's looks and her support for mental health laws in place of gun control advocacy: “Congratulations to Governor Haley, the very accomplished and beautiful [Governor] of [South] Carolina, wife, mother and now gun enthusiast who is intelligent enough to know that mentally ill people murder with guns (and knives, machetes, poisons, baseball bats and other objects) and not sane, law abiding citizens. She continues to represent all of the objectivity, accomplishments and beauty that liberal Democrats love to hate.”
To put it mildly, Nikki Haley is a polarizing figure. Just like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Ronald Reagan and virtually every other national political figure, people either love her or hate her.
Within South Carolina, the local Democratic Party spares no energy in attacking the governor. Indeed, shortly after Haley's now-infamous Christmas gun message, Amanda Loveday, the state's Democratic Party director, tweeted: “Everything is about politics with her [Haley]. Everything.” But they may have to put up with her for at least four more years. Dr. Scott Buchanan, an associate professor of political science at The Citadel in South Carolina, said Haley is favored to win re-election in 2014. “The last few polls indicate that her job approval has improved among the state's voters,” Buchanan said in an interview. “She did have a relatively close election in 2010 over [Democratic challenger] Vincent Sheheen, but she has some accomplishments from her first term on which to run,” he added, citing among other things her ability to lure industry to the state, most prominently by seeking to expand the presence of Boeing (NYSE: BA) in the state.
But Dr. Mark Tompkins, associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, cautioned that Haley's re-election is not guaranteed at all. “She won her first state-wide race with less than 52 percent of the vote,” he said in an interview. “And while the state favors Republican candidates, the margin is generally relatively close.” Buchanan further noted that, should the Republicans regain the White House in 2016, Haley will likely obtain a plum job in the Cabinet.
However, Haley, like many other Republicans, does not enjoy a strong relationship with African-Americans, who account for about 28 percent of South Carolina's population. Buchanan noted that with some 97 percent of South Carolina's black electorate Democrats, it's safe to say that Haley gained the governorship with virtually no black support whatsoever. Tompkins added that during her campaign, Haley did not make a strong bid for black votes either.
Nikki Haley has also been ensnared in a number of controversies during her relatively brief political career. Among other imbroglios, she has been accused of infidelity, having allegedly engaged in extramarital relations with Will Folks, the former press secretary for ex-Governor Mark Sanford; and with Larry Marchant, a consultant for Republican gubernatorial candidate Andre Bauer. (Haley has denied all such allegations.)
Other controversies surrounding Haley involve her ethnic identity. For example, the Indian woman who was raised a Sikh married a Methodist man and now identifies herself as a "Christian," although she attends both Protestant churches and Sikh gurdwaras. In addition, black civil rights leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson (a South Carolina native) and the NAACP condemned Haley for her support of voter ID laws, citing that as an ethnic minority herself she should oppose such racially biased rulings. "[Haley] couldn't vote before 1965, just as I couldn't," Jackson fumed, referring to the Voting Rights Act passed that year. Some blacks also resent her repeatedly virulent attacks on President Barack Obama.
Even more controversially, in 2011, Haley faced widespread excoriation for calling herself “white.” Specifically, on an old voter registration document from 2001, Haley listed her race as "W" for white. "She can't even tell the truth about her racial heritage," sneered former chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina Dick Harpootlian.
But she has also endured racial barbs. In the summer of 2010, Republican State Senator Jake Knotts referred to Haley as a “raghead” (a reference to the turbans that Sikh men wear). Knotts later apologized. Earlier this year, Harpootlian told Democratic Party members that Haley must be defeated in next year’s elections, imploring the Democrats to “send Nikki Haley back to wherever the hell she came from.” (Incidentally, Harpootlian is of Armenian descent.)
From a purely personal perspective, as an Indian-American myself who tends to favor Republicans over Democrats, Nikki Haley is the most compelling and exciting thing to ever happen politically for our community. I say this with the full knowledge that the majority of Indian-Americans support the Democrats, and are particularly enamored with both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
However, I think this phenomenon is slowly changing and that more Indian-Americans will gravitate toward the GOP in the years to come – especially if Haley or Jindal enters national politics. Consider that Indian-American culture is inherently conservative, with a powerful focus on family, faith, education, hard work and self-reliance (all of which dovetail perfectly with the Republican Party’s platform).
I think most Indian-Americans remain in the Democratic camp because they think Republicans are “hostile” to immigrants. But I believe this is a fallacy because most Republicans (as well as many Democrats, incidentally) oppose ILLEGAL immigration, which is entirely a separate discussion. I believe that Indian-Americans will follow the example of Italian-Americans who have gradually shifted away from Democrats to supporting Republicans in recent years.
Moreover, for every Republican who has slurred Indians – including the aforementioned Jake 'Raghead' Knotts and the infamous George 'Macaca' Allen – I can identify prominent Democrats who have spewed similar insults: see Hilary "Gas Station Gandhi" Clinton and Joseph "7-11/Dunkin Donuts" Biden.
In addition, consider that not only have Indians lived in large numbers in the U.S. for at least 40 years (as long as Nikki Haley has been alive), but they (we) are among the highest-earning and best-educated of all ethnic groups in the country. Thus, they (we) are hardly “oppressed, deprived” newcomer immigrants; on the contrary, Indians comprise a dynamic, highly accomplished and wealthy segment of the population that will soon demand greater political power – enter Haley and Jindal, and hopefully many others. As such, Haley's (and Jindal's) emergence as Republican standard-bearers makes perfect sense – that is, they view themselves as Americans first and fully embrace the GOP's clarion calls of patriotism and nationalism.
But I concede that many Indian-Americans dislike Haley and would never vote for her should she ever seek national office. Some of their criticisms are legitimate, but some reflect pettiness, jealousy and pure spite.
Let me address some of the slings and arrows tossed her way:
*'Anglicizing' Her Name:
It is one of the cold, hard realities of American political life that "Nikki Haley" is more "acceptable" and "electable" than 'Nimrata Randhawa.' 'Haley' is of course her married name, the same as Sarah Heath adopted her husband's surname, Palin.
However, 'anglicizing' one's name is a long-honored tradition among immigrants in the U.S. – consider the untold thousands of Jews, Italians and others who have changed their names in politics, business, sports and especially the arts in order to appeal more to the 'mainstream' (Bernard Schwartz became 'Tony Curtis,' Issur Danielovitch Demsky metamorphosed into 'Kirk Douglas,' and Carmine Orrico eventually answered to 'John Saxon'). So, is 'Nikki Haley' really such a radical transformation of her given name?
In addition, I'm not certain when she adopted the nickname 'Nikki' (I assume it came from her childhood long before she even embarked upon a political career). In most Indian and South Asian families, children are bestowed with a 'formal' first name (for school records, etc.) and a nickname for their families to use. For example, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was called 'Pinky' by her friends and relatives. Among my own relatives are females nicknamed 'Dolly,' 'Baby' and 'Annie' (and various other 'English-sounding' names).
*Nikki As A 'Christian'
This is a very touchy subject for most Indian Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, but South Carolina is one of the most conservative states in the union, deeply imbued with Bible Belt ethos. Thus, it would probably be virtually impossible for a non-Christian to win statewide office. Indians account for less than 1 percent of the state's population, meaning they carry almost no political weight or influence.
But if you want to criticize Nikki for converting to Christianity, go ahead, but you should understand political realities. And while you're at it, condemn the millions of other Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and others who have also converted to Christianity for a multitude of reasons.
*Nikki's Alleged Sexual Affairs
First of all, there exists no hard, compelling evidence that Nikki cheated on her husband, but even if she did, so what? After all, aren't sexual peccadilloes a virtual pre-requisite for powerful politicians, even among conservative Republicans who otherwise espouse "family values"? American history is littered with politicians who like to fool around, including Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Lyndon B. Johnson, John Edwards and that epic serial cheater (and beloved icon) named John F. Kennedy.
I am in no way 'defending' adultery, but it seems that Nikki, as a woman, receives undue criticism due to the ever-present double-standard. Female lawmakers who engage in affairs are pilloried, while men are merely snickered at.
*Nikki As 'White’
This is yet another extremely touchy subject, and very hard to defend, but I shall make an attempt anyway. According to reports, in 2001, South Carolina's voter registration and driver's license application forms asked people to choose from one of five different racial classifications: 'White,' 'Black,' 'Hispanic', 'Asian' or 'Indian.' But 'Indian' generally applies to American-Indians (or Native Americans), not 'Indians' from India. Although, Nikki could've marked ‘Asian,’ in the United States, unlike the United Kingdom, ‘Asian’ typically describes people from the Far East, i.e., China, Japan or Korea, not India. And since Nikki is obviously neither black nor Hispanic, the only remaining category was ‘White.’
Also, most ethnologists and anthropologists contend that the 'Caucasian' race stretches from Iceland to northern India (Nikki's ancestral homeland) – and, in fact, the majority of Indians are scientifically classified as 'Caucasian.' So, scoff if you like, but Nikki labeling herself 'white' isn't as absurd as it sounded. Yes, some Indians also likely resent Nikki for marrying a white man (and many Sikhs object to her for not wedding a Sikh). But such unions are inevitable in a democratic, multi-ethnic society.
Finally, as an Indian person myself, I would definitely like to see Nikki talk more about her Sikh background; I would love to see her wear a sari or shalwar-chemise at public functions; and I'd be thrilled to watch her deliver a speech in Hindi or Punjabi. But, if immigration is intimately connected to concepts like assimilation and progress, then what's so wrong with her asserting her 'American' characteristics (which, in South Carolina, includes church and guns, much to some people's dismay)? Isn't that what America and being an 'American' is supposed to be about?
Nikki Haley is a stupendous success story already – a historic figure, just as much as Obama. She embodies every quality a woman should aspire to and possesses traits to admire and envy: intelligence, toughness, ambition, drive and (let's not kid ourselves) extraordinary beauty.
Indeed, she has single-handedly established a brand new paradigm for Indian-American women and I am grateful for her success and arrival.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.