Whatever critics may say about Nikki (Namrata) Haley, the Indian American governor of South Carolina, they can’t deny that she is a good politician with a rare feel for striking while the iron is hot.

No surprise that president-elect Donald Trump spotted Haley’s talents and named her as his ambassador to the United Nations. It would be the highest position any Indian American has occupied in any administration.

But Haley has already chalked many firsts – she is the first woman, a member of an ethnic minority and the youngest to become governor of South Carolina, a southern state with deep history of slavery and racism. Only a person with exceptional skills could have overcome all the barriers.

From a career at the state level as a member of the state House of Representative to becoming governor – akin to a chief minister – Haley’s star within the Republican Party has been rising for some time. Her ambition to go national isn’t a secret.

Now Trump has given her precisely the chance to enter the world stage as it were as ambassador to the United Nations. From dealing with somewhat parochial concerns, the shift to multilateral diplomacy would be a drastic change.

There is already a sense of dread at the United Nations about what a Trump presidency might mean for the organisation, which has never been a favourite of the Republicans. George W Bush, the last Republican president, drastically slashed UN funding, crippling key functions of the organisation.

Haley will face hard-boiled Russian negotiators in New York as she is thrust into the midst of the ongoing cold war between Russia and the United States over Ukraine and Syria. Obama took a hardline on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and relations have deteriorated to an extent that ambassadors of the two countries avoid each other.

But that might change if Trump develops an understanding with Russia. Haley would have the task of repairing the breach on the ground, as she is buffeted by competing forces, especially countries that want to continue to isolate Russia.

The ritualised world of the United Nations will no doubt test Haley. Her success would depend on how quickly she masters the arcane workings of the sprawling organisation and how receptive her audience is.

Pragmatic politics

Last year she showed remarkable political instinct when following the massacre of nine African American church goers by a white supremacist she led the call to get rid of the “confederate flag” – a symbol of bigotry – from the building of the state legislature. Haley used the moment of national mourning to outmanoeuvre white politicians who still hold the flag dear to undo a wrong.

Trump noted her reputation as a “deal-maker” and her “proven record for bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation” for the good of the country.

But at this juncture he may need her more than perhaps she needs him – Haley adds diversity to a team thus far dominated by old white men. The Indian American community is pleased – Republicans and Democrats alike.

By naming Haley, Trump has sent a signal to his “alt-right” flank that he is not beholden to extreme elements. They fuelled his campaign but their choices may not be his. Admittedly, picking Haley is but one gesture amid a frenzy of hate crimes and anti-minority tirades but it does hint at his pragmatism, something that President Barack Obama talked about after meeting him.

Trump’s ultra right supporters are appalled at his choice. They have been actively denouncing Haley ever since her name first surfaced last week amid speculation that she was being considered for secretary of state.

They mocked her Indian and Sikh heritage although she identifies herself as a Christian now. It is not clear when she converted but she married Michael Haley, an army national guard, in 1996 with both Sikh and Methodist ceremonies.

The venom against Haley has been especially potent because she did not back Trump as a candidate and supported Senator Marco Rubio, who later dropped out. She was vocal against Trump throughout, castigating him for not disassociating from supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. “That is not a part of our party. That is not who we are,” she had said flatly, angering Trump’s band of followers.

After Rubio dropped out, Haley supported Ted Cruz who also fell by the wayside. She said she would vote for Trump in October but added she “was not a fan”. There was talk of her being in the pool of possible vice presidential candidates but Trump chose Mike Pence, governor of Indiana.

Haley, originally Namrata Randhawa, came of age in a middle class Sikh immigrant household in South Carolina when race was very much a fact of life. She didn’t fit in the small but deeply divided town called Bamberg where people were either black or white.

In her memoir, Can’t Is Not An Option, she recounts how she and her sister were disqualified from a beauty pageant because they were neither white nor black. Her father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, who was a professor at the Punjab Agricultural University, migrated with his wife Raj from Amritsar to Canada and later to the United States. He taught at Voorhees College in South Carolina where Nikki and her three siblings grew up. Her mother started a clothing business and Haley kept the books from the age of 12.