South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, of the Republican Party, is in the thick of her re-election battle against Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen, the same opponent she narrowly defeated in their race in 2010. That victory made Haley – who was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa –  the second Indian-American governor in the US, after Louisiana's Bobby Jindal. Pollsters give Haley a slight edge in the November election, though third party candidates may siphon off enough votes from the Republican ticket to give Sheheen the governorship.

Haley’s approval rating stands at a mediocre 48%, an indication of an improving economy punctuated by various scandals associated with her administration. The most damaging of these has been the 2012 hacking and theft of South Carolinians’ tax returns under her watch, resulting in the illegal seizure by hackers of over 3.6 million social security numbers that are assigned to US residents to track their tax filings and government benefits.

A more recent flare-up this summer has involved allegations of abuse and negligence within South Carolina's Department of Social Services, resulting in child endangerment and deaths. The Department was, until recently, directed by a Haley ally and appointee. Whether Haley is re-elected may therefore depend less on her personal appeal than on the conservative electorate’s disdain for a Democratic alternative.

Peculiar Confluence

Haley’s politics represent a peculiar confluence of her Indian familial and rural Southern backgrounds, gaining her endorsements from the likes of former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and fellow “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin. Originally hailed by Tea Party groups for her arch-conservative principles, Haley invokes her family’s archetypal hardworking immigrant story in explaining her commitment to lower taxes, less state regulation, and the bare minimum of federal oversight. She claims that working for her mother’s clothing business as a young adult taught her “how hard it was to make a dollar, and how easily government took it away”.

That her parents emigrated from a country known for bloated bureaucracies and ineffective central planning may have also played a role in her convictions. Haley’s criticisms of the Obama administration have grown increasingly shrill as she has railed against national healthcare reform, decried the growing numbers of undocumented immigrants, and refused federal money for her state’s public education system. Regarding the latter, Haley loves to boast of the statistic that Indian-Americans are the demographic least likely to receive any kind of economic assistance from the government. The diaspora has in turn been quick to recognise Haley’s symbolic importance; India Abroad named her its Person of the Year in 2010.

Social Conservative

Haley’s conservatism, however, goes beyond economic matters and well into the social arena, reflecting prevailing attitudes around hot button issues in her state. Having voted multiple times for pro-life legislation as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives before her latest political ascension, Haley is against legalised abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. On the subject of gun rights, she takes an uncompromising stance on the absoluteness of the American Constitution’s Second Amendment, calling for more relaxed background checks during gun purchases and for allowing those carrying guns to have greater freedom in entering public establishments. This past Christmas, as families across South Carolina opened presents together, Haley was compelled to share on social media that her favourite gift was a Beretta pistol given to her by her husband.

Finally, Haley has framed herself as a defender of traditional marriage, and has now been challenged in a lawsuit by a same-sex South Carolina couple seeking to end the state’s ban on marriage equality. Haley has chosen to defend the ban in spite of a federal appeals court’s ruling last month that such bans are unconstitutional, even as neighbouring North Carolina opted to cease defending its own ban in light of this same ruling. If Haley is aware of the irony of defending such a marriage restriction even when, just decades earlier, her own marriage to (Caucasian) husband Michael Haley would have been deemed illegal by her state, she does not show it.

Perhaps what is most curious about Haley’s rise during the past four years is the similarity it shares with the United States’ first Indian-American governor, Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Louisiana, and how at odds it is with general voting patterns of the diaspora in America. Since the mid-1990s, particularly in the case of the Indian diaspora, Asian Americans have reliably voted Democrat. Though typical indicators – high income bracket, high level of education, socially conservative origin countries – suggest a shoo-in Republican constituency, their Democratic preference is likely explained by the widespread perception in American politics that the Republican Party has become pro-Christian fundamentalism and anti-minority. The reasons behind this association are manifold and stretch back decades, but Republicans have recently begun touting politicians like Haley and Jindal as examples of their new openness to minority voters.  Given that Indian Americans – estimated at 2.8 million – voted overwhelmingly for Obama, at around 84% during both 2008 and 2012, the Haley/Jindal duo has yet to entice them.

Amritsar roots

Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa in Bamberg, South Carolina, to Sikh immigrants from Amritsar, Haley’s own relationship with her racial heritage seems to be complicated. According to her family’s accounts, the Randhawas were the first Indian family to live in the rural Bamberg area, and from the start were painfully aware of the US South’s thorny historical mix of hospitality and racial discrimination.

During Haley’s 2010 run for governor, reporters discovered that she had originally identified as “white” on her voter registration form. Chromatically, she is not entirely off the mark, as her skin tone blends in with the predominant colour of skin in South Carolina’s government. Indeed, taken in tandem with her choice of “Nikki” over “Nimrata”, her conversion from Sikhism to Christianity upon her marriage, and her clearly audible Southern accent, it is difficult to know if South Carolina voters realised much about her heritage during the 2010 campaign. In her current re-election campaign Haley often still begins with her parents’ immigration story in public speeches, but one does wonder if the colour of her skin and the name and faith she espouses will substantially help voters digest the message.

Regardless of the outcome in November, Haley is reportedly leading a trade mission to India in the fall to woo foreign investment to South Carolina. It is somewhat ironic that her own rhetoric of social conservatism, less government, and more business operates parallel to that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even their catchphrases dovetail: Compare Modi’s “Achche din aa gaye” to Haley’s “It’s a great day in South Carolina."

Ultimately, a Haley re-election would mean little change for South Carolina’s conservative trajectory, but perhaps could offer a second shot for Republicans to burnish their minority credentials. For where Bobby Jindal has been criticised on the national stage for coming across as awkward and forced, Haley can be mesmerising to watch.

Her politics are clearly out of keeping with those of the majority of Indian Americans, but her message is consistent and her verbal sharpness is arguably her most underrated asset. She will be a much more persuasive sell for conservatives than Jindal ever was. Talk around the water cooler has again begun of Haley as a potential 2016 vice presidential nominee for the Republican ticket. For now, however, Haley will have to continue focusing on decidedly more local issues. As her first tenure draws to a close, she will again have to convince the voters of Bamberg and elsewhere that she is, in fact, one of them.