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Politics Indian-Americans Shine In American Politics


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
WASHINGTON: South Carolina Republican governor candidate Nikki Haley is on the cover of the July 12 Newsweek for an article detailing her transformation this election season from "obscure state representative" to a Palin- and Tea Party-approved candidate who "proceeded to dispatch a US congressman, the lieutenant governor, and the attorney general in the Republican primary and runoff."

The new Indian American star on the US political scene, Haley has seen her rising status at the national level. Identified as "The Face of the New South," on the cover page, the article predicts that if Haley secures her place as the state's first female governor, she will "rocket to national prominence and secure a spot in the GOP firmament."

She stands a good chance of winning in the fall and becoming the second Indian-American governor, after Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Proud of her Indian heritage, Haley is quoted as saying by the magazine: "the fact that I happen to be an Indian female, of course that brings a new dynamic. But what I hope it does is cause a conversation in this state where we no longer live by labels, but we live by philosophies."

Her parents, Ajit and Raj Randhawa, traveled to South Carolina in the late 1960s and ended up settling in the tiny town of Bamberg (population: 2,500). They were the only Sikh family around. "We knew we were different," Haley told Newsweek. "There certainly were times where it was very apparent."

Whatever discrimination the family experienced, however, it certainly didn't hold them back. Haley's parents launched a clothing business out of their living room and eventually built it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Little Nikki started keeping the books when she was 13.

With a knack for numbers, she later got an accounting degree at Clemson University, where she met her future husband, Michael Haley. Haley's religious background surfaced as an issue during the primary, forcing her to clarify that she's raising her two kids Methodist, that the family regularly attends a Methodist church, and that she only occasionally visits a Sikh temple, when invited by her parents.

Now, while much of America celebrates Jindal and Haley as emblems of tolerance, as brown-skinned children of immigrants triumphing in the former southern Confederacy; a number of Indian-Americans find fault with them as role models because they both converted from a traditional Indian religion to a form of Christianity. Although both Jindal and Haley changed their religion as young adults, there remains discomfort and even disdain with Jindal among some Indian-Americans for having renounced his Hindu faith to adopt Catholicism and with Haley for leaving the Sikh religion to become a Protestant. In addition, both candidates changed their names - Piyush Jindal taking on Bobby from the "Brady Bunch" character; and Nimrata became Nikki, and her last name, Randhawa, was dropped when she took her husband's surname

India Abroad, a weekly newspaper with several hundred thousand readers in North America, proudly praised Haley after she won the Republican nomination for governor. The newspaper devoted its entire front page to a photo of her with the headline "The Future Is Here."

But such adulation came under fire when it was followed by the newspaper publishing an op-ed column lamenting Haley's conversion. A letter to the editor came from a reader disparaging her as a "female Uncle Tom" who would be "willing to sell Indian-American interests down the river in a heartbeat."

"Indian-Americans don't want them to wear their ethnicity on their sleeve, but they also don't want them to be apologetic," the newspaper's editor, Aziz Haniffa, said.

Some Indian-American politicians have succeeded without altering their identity. Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh, in 1957 became the first Indian-American elected to Congress.

Several Indian-Americans are running for office around the US: Surya Yalamanchili, in Ohio, and Manan Trivedi, in Pennsylvania, have received the Democratic nomination for their congressional districts. Four other Indian candidates - all Democrats - still have to go through the primary process, where they will have tough competition: Raj Goyle in Kansas, Ami Bera in California, Ravi Sangisetty in Louisiana, and Reshma Saujani in New York.

Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran who recently won a Democratic primary for Congress in eastern Pennsylvania, said he did not view his ethnicity as a handicap: "The American electorate is smarter than that." He called criticism of Haley's name and religion unfounded. "Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal are on the wrong side (Republicans), but they worked their butts off... and I think it had so much more to do with their work ethic than the fact that they may have changed their names and adopted a different ?"

Surveys have shown that Southeast Asians, which include Indians, politically align more with the left than the right, according to Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College in New York. Indians started becoming politically active in the 1990s. Prior to that, most Indians were first-generation immigrants, who were more focused on establishing themselves in foreign country. But now, second-generation immigrants have the ability to spend time and money needed to run for office

The Indian-American community is more affluent than some other immigrant groups. In 2007, the US Census Bureau found the median income of Indian-American families was $69,470 - well above the median income of all American families.

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