The Nikki Haley Story

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Gov. Nikki Haley official portrait. Photos by Renee Ittner-McManus/rimphotography.com

Nikki Haley – Photos by Renee Ittner-McManus/rimphotography.com

Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, has just been tapped by the Trump Administration to be UN Ambassador, a cabinet level post. She is the first woman and Indian-American to be selected for the new administration. 

I had done the following story when Nikki Haley had been elected Governor of South Carolina. 

The Nikki Haley Story 

Dec. 30, 2010

Nikki Haley is the first woman and first Indian-American to be elected Governor of South Carolina

Nikki Haley is the first woman and first Indian-American to be elected Governor of South Carolina

Nikki Haley elected Governor of South Carolina

 

“We were the first Sikh family in Bamberg. It was a small town in South Carolina, a closed community at that time,” recalls Ajit Randhawa of the 70’s.  “Our daughters Simmi and Nikki entered the Little Miss Bamberg contest but the school selected only a White Queen and a Black Queen. So Nikki and Simmi were not eligible as contestants. Nikki was five years old at that time and sang, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to New York Island’ and received a resounding applause.”

Fast forward to 2010 and Nikki Haley (nee Randhawa) is not only a contestant  in the most powerful contest there is – US politics – but has won big time. Forget black and white, she has shown that an Indian-American can be a game changer where race and gender is concerned in the Deep South.

Meet Nikki Haley, the new rock star of American politics. Indeed, the U.S., India and the Diaspora are abuzz with her astonishing victory in South Carolina’s gubernatorial election. She is the first woman – of any color – to win the Governor’s Mansion, and like her fellow Southerner, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, is a Conservative Republican, with a clear-eyed agenda for America.

Dino Teppara, Chairman of the Indian American Conservative Council, told me before the elections.   “We’ve known Nikki’s character and values for years and are confident that she will be an excellent Governor, working to reform government, reduce spending and take our conservative revolution forward.”

After the resounding victory, he said: “This is a historic moment for the conservative movement, as it shows no limits or boundaries to who it will accept as its leaders.  Nikki Haley is now a rising star and leader for us all, taking her commonsense approach to government affairs and heralding in a new generation of fiscal conservatism across the state of South Carolina and our great nation.”

Indeed, Nikki Haley is one of the strongest fiscal conservatives in state government, was first elected to represent the 87th District in Lexington County in 2004, when, as a virtual unknown she beat Larry Coon, the longest serving state legislator in a Republican primary. In 2008 she was sent back to the statehouse with 83 percent of the vote.

Republicans have embraced Nikki Haley as their own, with no less a Conservative icon than Sarah Palin publicly anointing her. As Newsweek wrote recently, “Now she’s the hottest thing in South Carolina politics. And if she wins in November, becoming the state’s first female and first nonwhite governor, she’ll likely rocket to national prominence and secure a spot in the GOP firmament.”

Indian-Americans have had a mixed reaction, depending on their political persuasion but all have been drawn in by the excitement of such a big Indian win, and by the many controversies swirling around her, including her faith and name change.

Nikki Haley, An Indian-American Story

This uniquely American story starts in Amritsar in Punjab, India. Ajit Randhawa, an assistant professor at Punjab Agricultural University, set out for Canada to study at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He graduated in 1969 with a PhD degree.  His wife Raj, who had studied law at Delhi University in India, joined him in Canada, and so began their immigration saga.

When Randhawa was offered an associate professorship at Voorhees College in South Carolina, the family immigrated to America, to the town of Bamberg, SC. Meanwhile, Raj had earned an M.Ed degree and taught social studies in the public school system for 7 years. She then launched the Exotica International Gift Shop in 1976, which the family grew into a multimillion dollar business in Columbia, SC in 2000.

The Randhawas continued to live in Bamberg, SC until his retirement as Chairman of Division of Natural Sciences, Math and Computer Science. He had taught for 29 years in America, and was recognized as Governor’s Distinguished Professor in 1989.

Nikki Haley’s outgoing personality and charisma go back to childhood. Her father remembers her as a cheerful, happy child who made friends easily, was on the Tennis Team, and modeled clothes for the Exotica fashion shows which helped to raised funds for community projects. A go-getter, she had joined the family business at the age of 13, handling the books of the company.

She graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina with a degree in accounting and finance, and worked with FCR Corporation as Accounts Manager for its seven subsidiaries. Haley met her husband Michael while at Clemson and the couple has two children. She later joined the family business as CFO, before turning to politics full-time.

L-R: Nikki Haley's mother Raj Randhawa, father Dr. Ajit Randhawa, Nikki Haley, Gita Teppara, Dilip Teppara, Dino Teppara

L-R: Nikki Haley’s mother Raj Randhawa, father Dr. Ajit Randhawa, Nikki Haley, Gita Teppara, Dilip Teppara, Dino Teppara

With so much emphasis on education and entrepreneurship, it is not surprising that all four children excelled in whatever they undertook:  Mitti joined the US Army in Chemical Corps, and served as Company Commander on the frontline in the campaign “Desert Storm” during Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He retired as major from the National Guard Reserve, and is now National Institutional Accounts Director, handling major contracts with University Hospitals nationwide.

Simi, a graduate of Fashion Institute of Technology, is a life coach who has established the Believe Center, publishes the journal ‘Believe’ and also hosts a radio talk show; Gogi graduated with degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering and has a thriving web design company. He is also part of a band ‘Dear Enemy’ which tours the U.S., and has released a CD recently.

“We have allowed each child to develop their potential in the field of their passion,” says Randhawa. “Nikki was a perfect fit for political service. She is a positive person, believes in close family ties, strong work ethics, and a drive for public service with an eye on the next generation. A State Representative announced retirement and Nikki asked us if she could run for that seat at the State House.”

Nikki Haley: ‘Tenacity, Grace, Focus’

Indeed, Nikki’s strongest endorsement comes from her father. “Nikki has the tenacity and grace to stay focused on the important issues,” he says. “She strongly believes that she works for the people who elected her to serve and watches for their interest. She has a keen sense and urgency to reform government, making it transparent and accountable to people. She introduced bills in the legislature and fought for them to be passed to become law.”

What was Haley’s life like, growing up in the Randhawa household, what values did she inculcate? “During my graduate work I admired the culture of working hard and playing hard,” he says. “My wife had never worked before coming here – in India servants did everything. Raj worked hard,  doing baby sitting, typing student papers, working at a department store and at the Post Office during Christmas while she was pregnant with Simmi in Vancouver and this became a part of life.”

He adds, “This was different from the culture we had experienced in India. However, in this culture it takes an effort to maintain the closeness of family, to be there when needed, and to always have a reverence for God who is responsible for everything we have. All our children have that base and believe in it.”

And that brings us to the 800 1b gorilla in the room – Haley’s change of faith and why she embraced Christianity. Is that important or inconsequential in the larger picture?

Randhawa, who is the author of ‘Evolution of Faith and Religion- An Exploration’, says: “The book emphasizes that spirituality is the common thread in religions, all anchored in faith. So long as children believe in God and have an abiding faith in God, the virtues become a part of your psyche.

Moreover, our children have grown watching their parents imbibe the positive values, work ethic, and the drive to do one’s best in doing the right thing. They grew up in a disciplined and driven atmosphere that paved the way for their successful careers and personal lives.”

One gets the sense that Ajit and Raj Randhawa believe strongly that all roads lead to the same truth, and are solidly behind Nikki Haley on her great American journey. “We allowed our children to follow their dreams in whatever profession they set their mind to,” he says. “We only encouraged them to do their very best and have faith in God, and they grew up watching us working hard in our chosen passions.”

So, folks – stay tuned. In January 2011 Haley will be inaugurated as the first woman governor of South Carolina. The Great Nikki Haley Show has just begun!

Related Article: The Unsinkable Nikki Haley

The Guardian -“Donald Trump has chosen the South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, as US ambassador to the United Nations, the first woman tapped for a top-level administration post during his White House transition so far.”

http://bit.ly/2glZavp

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

2 Comments

  1. Only just chanced upon this. Nice & informative article!

    Just have one question which I’d also asked Bobby Jindal via Twitter (he never did reply!😊)

    Would it be possible for an Indian American who CHOSE to remain a Sikh or a Hindu to achieve what both Haley & Jindal have achieved?

    It does seem a bit too much of a coincidence that the only two Indian Americans (so far) to have reached the Governor’s office in their respective states “chose” to change their religious faiths.

    I’m sure there are others who would like to know what the answer might be!

    Thank you for your time.

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