On the night of the State of the Union address last week, when many in America were prepared to swoon over Barack Obama — only to be turned off by a speech that was self-aggrandising — a woman of Indian origin, her tone measured, her teeth as white as a Trump rally, stole the show from the Democratic president.
Nikki Haley, born Nimrata Kaur Randhawa, is the Republican governor of South Carolina, and to her fell the chore of delivering the response to the President, an American tradition in which a hapless opposition politician is picked by his party’s establishment to speak for a handful of minutes after the Big Cheese has finished.
The task is cursed: the nation has had just about enough of politics after the presidential peacock-dance. So it treats what follows either as an opportunity to turn off the TV, or to titter at the short (and usually impotent) speech. The worst in recent memory was the response by Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, to Obama’s first State of the Union in 2009. With the nation on an Obama high, Jindal’s squeaky voice and pedantry made him an object of derision. His decline as a national politician began that very night.
Haley’s response, by contrast, was the finest I’ve heard, and the excited talk after she spoke was all about how she’d make a perfect Republican vice-presidential candidate.
And yet her words didn’t please everyone: Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit who has made a handsome living by being the shrillest woman in America, tweeted that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.” This was a response to Haley’s measured words on immigration, in which she’d invoked her own immigrant background while lauding America’s tradition of legal immigration. Haley was suitably tough on the subject of illegal entrants to America, but things have come to such a pass on the Republican right wing that support for immigration of any kind is seen as un-American.
The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal came to Haley’s defence, out of a shared belief in the economic and cultural value of immigration. There
was little defence, however, from Indians on Twitter. And their rejection of Haley was, if anything, more ugly than Coulter’s nativist tantrum.
Desis have a “Bobby and Nikki problem”, and it goes beyond the peculiar Indian-American rejection of conservatism. Their hatred of Jindal stems largely from his public statements that he is “American”, not “Indian-American”. Thin-skinned Indians misinterpret this as a rejection by Jindal of his Indian-ness, as opposed to seeing it as a pitch for an America that’s free of ethnic pigeonholes.
Although Haley has never been dogmatic about her self-definition, the desi Haley-hatred comes from many of the same bigots who despise Jindal, accusing her (and Jindal) of converting to Christianity for political gain. This crude objection to conversion is very Indian, born of a general Indian inability to accept that religion can be a matter of personal election.
The idea that one is forever of the faith of one’s ancestors is so embedded in the Indian psyche that many can’t imagine that a person’s conversion could have occurred for a reason (or by a process) that isn’t venal. The hysteria that overwhelms the debate on conversion in India is proof of this.
But let’s remember that Nikki Haley is American and lives in America, and has the right to convert to any faith she fancies. It is no one else’s business but hers. Those who argue otherwise are primitive bigots who need to get a life.
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