Nikki Haley’s historic appointment to a cabinet-rank post by Republican President-elect Donald Trump that caps the election of five Indian Americans to Congress this year has been welcomed by the community as a sign of its political emergence.
Shalabh Kumar, the founder of the Republican Hindu Coalition, described South Carolina governor’s appointment as United Nations Ambassador as the “Third Diwali” after the festival itself and Trump’s election. Echoing a broad sentiment among community leaders IANS spoke to, he said it was a “proud moment for Indian Americans”.
Shekhar Narasimhan, a Democratic Party activist and fundraiser, said her appointment “shows that we have made it” as a community. “We don’t have to agree on everything, on policy, but we can celebrate the fact that we now have a place at the most important table in Washington, the cabinet,” he said.
The job of U.S. Permanent Representative, or ambassador, to the U.N. is a cabinet-level position unlike in most countries and goes to political appointees because of its high visibility in the global arena.
Narasimhan said another sign of the community’s growing influence in US politics is the number of Indian American members of Congress going up from one to five in this year’s elections — all of them Democrats. Of them, Kamala Harris, is the first Indian-American elected to the senate.
A.D. Amar, President of ‘Indian Americans for Trump’, said Haley has achieved the status she deserves and it is good for India and the community.
One of the pioneers of non-partisan community activism, Thomas Abraham, said: “It is a historic moment for the Indian-American community that one of its own has been appointed to a top-level position.”
“As a deal-maker, she will do very well to negotiate terms with UN member-countries,” said Abraham, who is now the Chairman of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) International and has been working for about 40 years to get Indian Americans to become politically active.
Harpreet Sandhu, executive director of the Friends of the American Sikh Caucus, said he was especially excited because Haley is a daughter of Punjab.
Trump said he would be inclusive as President and her appointment shows he is living up to it, Sandhu said.
Deepak Kavadia, the founder of the New York-based Non-Resident Indians Federation, said, “Trump has said that he would support Indian Americans, and this is his first step in keeping his word.”
However, there has been an undercurrent of hostility among some Indian Americans to her because she is a Republican. A Democratic Party activist, Varun Nikore, brought this to the surface questioning her competence because of the lack of foreign policy experience. “It’s not about being an Indian American, but finding the best person for the job,” he said.
With her experience limited to governorship and the state legislature, “she would find it very difficult”, said Nikore, who is a Vice Chair of the AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Victory Fund that endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Kumar, who has emerged as an important personality in Indian-American Republican politics, said, “We believe we have made a crucial difference in US politics and mobilizing Indian Americans has given Trump an edge in the swing states that finally pushed him to victory.” He added, “And that is being recognized.”
Indian Americans have historically identified themselves with Democratic Party and Kumar has been trying to change this. He arranged for Trump to attend a rally organized in New Jersey by the Republican Hindu Coalition in the middle of a hectic campaign. This was the first time any presidential candidate had directly reached out to the community.
Trump has personally made an impact on the community, said Amar. “Many Indian Americans have told me they used to be Democrats but because of him they have become Republicans.”
Kumar, who is also the chair of the Indian American Advisory Council of the House Republican Conference, said, “Haley’s appointment will bring India and the United States closer together and it is quite possible India will get a push for a (permanent) seat on the Security Council because of her.”
Kumar noted that Haley attended Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Square Garden rally in 2014 and has visited India.
From the other side of the political divide, Narasihman said that both parties are recognizing the importance of Indian-Americans who have talent. Her elevation to a cabinet-level position is a natural evolution in US politics, Narasimhan said.
He said that 18 Indian Americans have worked in President Barack Obama’s White House in key posts, mostly away from the glare of publicity making their mark, and it was time someone from the community reached the cabinet level.
“I am biased and would have preferred that to happen in a Democratic administration, but I am very glad that with Nikki Haley we have made it,” he said.
Although he is a Democrat and the founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, Narasimhan said that for over 20 years he has been pushing Indian-Americans to join politics regardless of party affiliation. What is important is that those entering politics should not forget their roots, he said. “Haley has made an effort to connect to the community.”