By Arul Louis
Nimrata Nikki Randhwa Haley, the 43-year-old governor of South Carolina, has emerged as an unlikely elder statesman of the Republican Party while the organisation’s leadership seek to pull it out of a vortex of virulent rhetoric. The speculation now is would that translate to a vice-presidential ticket?
As the contenders for presidential nomination prepared to debate last week in Cleveland, party leaders sought her out to headline a Republican National Committee (RNC) question and answer luncheon session seeking pointers to the the party future and, more immediately, the oratorical contest that evening.
It seemed as if they were auditioning her for vice president. But last Friday at another party gathering in Atlanta she said, “I am not ready to think about it.”
In the Cleveland session with RNC chairman Reince Priebus, Haley gave this advice to the debaters, “Let’s remind everybody not to get personal.”
But her words evaporated under the searing bombast of the front-runner, Donald Trump, whom she had hoped “was going to stay calm.”
The rise of Trump with his anti-women, anti-immigrant and anti-establishment rhetoric,thrown the party into a battle for its very soul. And who better for the troubled leadership to turn to than Haley.
She was fresh off a victory against extremists in her state on the issue of the Confederate flag, an enduring symbol of slavery and slavery, that brought her to national attention. And it was a defining moment for the United States when the flag finally came down from the South Carolina Statehouse last month.
“We need to listen more,” she told the party that has tended to turn inwards taking cues from its extreme right factions. “The lesson that I hope we as Republicans learn is that we are perceived as very hard and cold, and we know we’re not, but how are we showing that? The best way for us to show it is to listen.”
Though much reviled by liberals – and a sizable number of her own community – for being a Republican, Haley has shown how an Indian-American can be an agent of change, change for the better. And how she can seize the moment to push her party to the 21st Century.
The other Indian-American Republican Governor, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, in contrast, has sought refuge in the conservative wing of the party, conforming to its stereotypes that Haley is confronting. He is influenced as much by his personal beliefs as by sheer opportunism. But it hasn’t done him any good a he has such little support that he wasn’t allowed into the party’s main debate that featured only top ten in opinion polls. As he took his eyes off the state to work on his national campaign, his standing in the state has shrunk with a disapproval rating of 64.7 percent according to a poll by Southern Media & Opinion Research. Nationally his support hovers between one and two percent in his party.
The Republican Party, which has control of both chambers of Congress, runs the risk of losing a third presidential election if it can’t bring in white women and minority voters in a general election. The grown-ups in the party are aware of it and hence the appeal of Haley.
Long before the debate, she had criticised the anti-immigrant rants of Trump even though some in the extreme right turned on her.
She has a stereotype-shattering record in her party. She had already fought against the party’s entrenched establishment to get her party nomination for governor in 2010 and battled the lowest of low personal attacks accusing her of adultery in the election campaign on her way to become governor.
That was a remarkable victory: An Indian-American elected governor on a Republican ticket in a southern state considered the redoubt of racism, and the first woman to head the state.
She had followed this up with desegregating the US Senate. In 2013, when the Senate was without a single African American after President Barack Obama’s election, Haley appointed fellow Republican Tim Scott to a vacant seat using the governor’s prerogative. Not only was he the only African American at that time in the Democratic Party-dominated Senate, he was also the first African American in the Senate from the South since 1881. Later, he was elected to a full term with her backing.
While she has the mantle of a compassionate conservative, Haley is also hard-nosed when it comes down to business and that should appeal to the pragmatist wing of the party.
As governor, Haley’s prime focus has been on the economy. South Carolina is among the poorest states, ranking 47th in gross state (domestic) product and 42nd in per capita income and. She scored a big victory by getting Boeing to set up an ultramodern factory for its Dreamliners in the state against stiff opposition from President Barack Obama who sued unsuccessfully to stop it from opening.
At the heart of the conflict were state laws that limit the power of labour unions. Haley tries to capitalise on these so-called “right to work” laws to get companies to invest in the state and provokes the ire of the Democrats and the unions.
Fiscal conservatism, the other pillar of her economic agenda, presents a dilemma for her. Cut taxes and it may boost employment and investment and, perhaps, in the long run bring in more taxes. But in the short run it limits social spending in vital areas like education, which in turn could hold back the transition to a 21st century economy. Higher taxes, on the other hand, could discourage investment and employment. She has opted for fiscal conservatism.
A Republican Party nomination for vice president in next year’s election seems tailor-made for her: An economic and fiscal conservative, pro-business leader, a strong woman – especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee – and member of a minority community. She could be the face of a new, more inclusive and diverse Republican Party.
At the Red State Gathering, a party meeting last Friday in Atlanta, she was asked about becoming the vice presidential nominee. She recalled the massacre of African Americans at a church by a white supremacist and said talk of a vice presidency is “too painful to think about. I say that because nine people died.”
“I’m not ready to think about that. I’m not ready to look into that. Because I’ve got a state to heal,” she added.
She has not endorsed any of the candidates for GOP presidential nomination. Her state is the first southern state to hold primaries and her backing could in theory matter. In 2012, she endorsed Mitt Romney, who lost the North Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich but nevertheless won the party nomination.
She has several hurdles to overcome to get on the GOP ticket.
Firstly, she has to gain acceptance from her party’s right whose fringe brought up her being the daughter of immigrants when she dared to criticise Trump.
The Christian fundamentalists, who are a powerful segment within the Republican Party, have an uneasy relationship with Haley. Even after her conversion to her husband’s non-fundamentalist Methodist Christian sect, she has continued to visit gurdwaras. That is intolerable for the Evangelicals. To compund it, last year she paid an emotional visit to the Golden Temple with her husband.
To mend fences with the fundamentalists, she has attended their prayer rallies. In June, she was the among the main speakers at one such major gathering in her state, “The Response: A Call to Prayer for Our Nation.” Civil rights orgnisations accused her of overstepping boundaries of separation of state and church in promoting it. Jindal also attended the rally.
The serious, enlightened segment of the Republican Party will need to be convinced of Haley’s ability to navigate international and national security issues. The party was burned by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who ran for vice president in 2008 and showed a poor grasp of these matters. Haley has led trade delegations from her state to France, Germany and India, but she is pretty much untested on foreign and national affairs.
In Haley’s personal life an issue that is likely to crop up is her voter registration racial identification as white. This has upset Democratic Party leaders in her state as well as some Indian-Americans, and they in turn are capable of riling up the racist right. A possible explanation is her identification with her white husband. Worth noting also is that anthropologically Indians are classified Caucasian and in 1923 a Sikh immigrant, Bhaghat Singh Thind, appealed – though unsuccessfully – on this basis to the Supreme Court to be allowed to immigrate to the US when non-whites were barred.
Another contrast between Haley and Jindal is that she proudly — even defiantly — displays her Indian heritage, while Jindal submerges it in an all-American identity, eschewing identity politics of any kind, a key plank of his ideology. At the Atlanta meeting, Haley has spoken of the the racial profiling her father, Ajit, a turbaned biology professor with a Ph.D. faced when he went to buy vegetables and the store summoned police to watch him.
In foreign policy terms, Jindal is a hawk, ideologically uneasy with both a soft Europe and an assertive Islamic world, and sees a confrontation with China for supremacy. He looks to India as one of the pillars of grand design. While this may fit in with many aspects of the Indian post-Congress panorama, his style will rankle Indians. In one of the rare mentions of India, he told a TV interviewer that India is “desperate and hungry for American leadership.”
Haley has a blank slate, except for turning to India and Europe for trade and investment in her state. She may not have much of an impact on shaping foreign policy and would conform to a party line that would after a few lurches be forced to a pragmatic outlook by realpolitik.
Whether she surmounts these obstacles to get a vice presidential ticket or not, her impact will be domestic. She may yet emerge as one of those who nudged the Republican Party towards the ideals of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln was indeed a Republican.
*Arul Louis, a New York-based journalist and international affairs analyst, is a senior fellow of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]