How Indians See Nikki Haley

A politician who can straddle the cultures of South Carolina and the Subcontinent knows a thing or two about winning popular support. She may have even more in India than the U.S.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

That Indian-American Nikki Haley is the most popular member of the Trump administration in her own country has now been demonstrated by reliable polling. That she is also the most popular Trump official in the country of her parents is only conjecture, for now—take a hint, Indian pollsters!—but the anecdotal evidence is substantial, and growing.

Haley gets more ink and screen time on Indian media than her predecessors as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and more than any other current Indian-American politician. And I can attest from personal experience that her name comes up more often in Indian political salons than that of any American not named Trump.

This is not a small achievement, since the field of Indian-American politicians is now crowded with prominent figures. The Trump administration has more Indians in senior positions than any that has gone before, including Ajit Pai, Raj Shah, and Seema Verma. And among the cohort of Indian-Americans in the Democratic Party are rising stars like Kamala Harris, Preet Bharara, Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Raja Krishnamoorthi.

That Haley stands above them all is down to her personal charisma, her self-identification as an Indian-American, and most of all, to her political success.

In 2008, Bobby Jindal became the first Indian-American to become governor of an American state, Louisiana, to the delight of Indians who embraced his success as the ultimate example of “Our boy done good,” more remarkable even than the rise of several Indians to the top jobs in corporate America. But Indians’ ardor for Jindal quickly cooled as reports circulated of his studied rejection of his Indianness.

Commentators like Shashi Tharoor, now a member of India’s parliament, pointed out that “he never supported a single Indian issue; he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a congressman at Capitol Hill, and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader. It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.”

Haley has embraced her Indian roots, and speaks often and publicly about her heritage as the daughter of Sikhs from the state of Punjab.

In contrast, Haley has embraced her Indian roots, and speaks often and publicly about her heritage as the daughter of Sikhs from the state of Punjab. She traveled to India when she was governor of South Carolina, meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other political figures, dressing Indian-style, and even throwing occasional words and phrases in the language of her parents.

This was more than mere optics. After a 2014 visit to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in the Punjabi city of Amritsar, she was visibly moved to tears, describing it as an “emotional and very special moment.” She also demonstrated an awareness of local issues, deeper than that of most visiting foreigners, telling a gaggle of journalists that the growing problem of drug abuse in Punjab was similar to that of South Carolina. (Ever the Republican, her prescription for the problem was economic: “When people have jobs, they feel productive, and start living a better life.”)

Haley’s familiarity with issues Indians care about predated her governorship. In 2010, speaking to an Indian-American group in Chicago, she announced herself in favor of India’s bid for a permanent spot on the UNSC. Back then, such a position could have brought her no political capital; indeed, it attracted some criticism. Rather than back down, she issued a statement defending her stance. “All Nikki said was that India should be a permanent part of the UNSC, and that the U.S. and India are natural allies, and we should work to strengthen that relationship,” her spokesperson said.

You’d think that, as U.S. ambassador to the UN, Haley would now have the opportunity to do something about it. Indian expectations were raised last summer, when, shortly after Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C., the State Department announced that Haley would raise the issue of India’s permanent membership at the United Nations. (The Trump administration has also agreed to argue India’s case to join the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.)

In truth, nobody in the Indian diplomatic corps believed Haley would succeed: It is widely acknowledged that veto-wielding China, India’s economic and geopolitical rival, would put the kibosh on any such proposal.

To try and manage Indian expectations, Haley has suggested that any slender prospect of expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council would depend on allowing current members to retain their veto rights while denying them to new members. In effect, that would amount to a caste system, and would not appeal to India—which, let’s face it, knows about caste systems. But this is unlikely to affect Haley’s standing among Indians, who take pride in her growing stature in American politics, now confirmed by the Quinnipiac poll.

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Many Indian chests will have swollen that much more when the results were published. We can never know if Bobby Jindal’s other failings would have been forgiven had he enjoyed Haley’s continued success. But we might yet be able to test to what degree success accounts for her esteem in India. Like their counterparts in the U.S., the Indian media has begun to smack its lips at the prospect of a Haley run for president in 2020. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that there will be an Indian-American on the Democratic ticket, as well. Nikki Haley v. Kamala Harris? Indian chests may not have room for that much pride.