Nikki Haley | Treading a tricky path

The Indian origin GOP leader will have to strike a balance between the Trumpian base of the party and its mainstream wing as she is running for the White House

Updated - February 21, 2023 12:19 pm IST

Published - February 19, 2023 01:23 am IST

Nikki Haley, daughter of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, former Republican Governor of South Carolina, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. has announced that she will be joining the race for the U.S. Presidency culminating in the 2024 election. Ms. Haley, who was born in 1972 in Bamberg, South Carolina, as Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, has thus become former President Donald Trump’s first declared challenger in the Republican primary race, which promises to be a sharp contest this time. Launching her campaign through a video published online, Ms. Haley said she was “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants”. “As a brown girl, growing up in a black-and-white world, I saw the promise of America unfold before me.”

Indeed, growing up in mostly conservative U.S. south could not have been easy for the daughter of Indian migrants, who worked as teachers and ran a clothing business after moving to the U.S. in the 1960s. Ms. Haley, who was brought up Sikh and converted to Christianity after marrying Michael Haley, an officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, in 1996, graduated from Clemson University in 1994 with a degree in accounting. While she helped expand her parents’ clothing business and became active in local chambers of commerce for a time, Ms. Haley then ran for office and got elected to the state legislature of South Carolina in 2004.

While Ms. Haley has periodically recognised and publicly embraced her race, she has equally been tough on immigration questions during her time as Governor. When she entered that public office in 2010, as the first woman Governor of South Carolina and only the second person of Indian descent in that role, she wasted little time in signing a Bill that cracked down on illegal immigration by establishing a new police unit for this purpose and requiring officers to verify the immigration status of persons whom they stopped based on the suspicion that they might not have the right legal documents for immigration.

Nevertheless, Ms. Haley has equally shown sensitivity — or at least political shrewdness — toward race issues in a different context, when, after the murder of African American church attendees at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, she signed a Bill to remove from the South Carolina House the Confederate battle flag, a military symbol of those who fought in the U.S. Civil War to preserve slavery. However, her critics have pointed out that she had attempted to play both sides on the issue, not only reacting five days late post the shooting and after intense political backlash, but also arguing that many equated the Confederate flag with “service, sacrifice and heritage.”

Nuances of race

As much it might have been a challenge for Ms. Haley to navigate the nuances of race, she has also on occasion been called to explain her position on gender rights, no more so than for close association with Mr. Trump, her former boss, and the disparaging remarks that he made toward women periodically. Notably, she was a strong critic of Mr. Trump during the primaries for the 2016 presidential election, saying to audiences at a campaign rally at the time, “Donald Trump is everything I taught my children not to do in kindergarten,” and that she disapproved of his failure to disavow the Ku Klux Klan.

However, when Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidential election, and then asked Ms. Haley to serve as his administration’s U.S. Ambassador to the UN, she appeared to drop her criticism and take on the role, notwithstanding her lack of foreign policy experience. In that capacity, Ms. Haley became known as a firm ally of Israel and as antagonistic toward the diplomatic efforts of Iran and North Korea.

Yet, it is quite likely that the January 6, 2021 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol buildings by alleged supporters of Mr. Trump led to a change of heart for Ms. Haley once again. Responding to a media question on whether she still considered Mr. Trump a friend, she replied, “Friend is a loose term,” adding later, “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him… And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Haley’s potential path to the White House will be tricky to navigate — to succeed in her campaign she will have to do her utmost to appear to be a moderate, and thus hold some appeal for ‘mainstream’ Republicans and independents; yet neither can she afford to entirely eschew her more conservative roots in the deep south. A second challenge will be for her to distinguish her political positions from those of Mr. Trump, while yet not alienating the vast number of voters who still very much appear to be galvanised by certain elements of his political outlook across issues.

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