Nikki Randhawa Haley became the Governor of South Carolina in November 2010, and is the first ever Indian-American woman to occupy the top job in a U.S. state. At 38 years of age, the rising star in the Republican Party firmament frequently grabs headlines with her no-nonsense defence of conservative principles, including her focus on business-led economic growth and strict immigration laws.
As the nation gears up for the November presidential elections, Governor Haley gave a rare interview via telephone to Narayan Lakshman. In it she touched upon issues of national significance, such as the role of government in the economy, and on what it means to be an Indian-American political leader in America today. Edited excerpts:
The Republican presidential nomination is settling in favour of Mr. Romney. Two questions on that: first, would you run for Vice-President with Mr. Romney if he asked? Second, what in your view should be the GOP’s answer to the Obama administration argument that it has steered America away from an economic depression and is creating jobs each month?
First of all, I would decline any request for a Vice-President or Cabinet position, because after you read the book you realise that after all the sacrifices that we made, the people of South Carolina took a chance on me. I think it is my job to fulfil that commitment and keep the promise that I made to the people of this state.
In reference to President Obama, I can tell you that South Carolina is doing well in spite of the chaos in Washington. We have unemployment down for the eighth month in a row, we have recruited over $5 billion in investment, over 24,000 new jobs and that has been in spite of everything that has happened in Washington. A perfect example of that is the National Labour Relations Board suing Boeing from actually creating a thousand jobs in South Carolina. So what I can tell you is that it is not about what Washington thinks of the economy. It is about how the everyday person feels about the economy. In South Carolina we have had to struggle and fight through it in spite of the fact that we have not been in friendly territory in Washington.
You recently had a meeting with the Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao. Can you talk a bit about your interaction with her and why the U.S.-India relationship matters to South Carolina?
Actually I told her that it was very important that we have a strong business relationship between South Carolina and India — that is very important to me. She is a woman of great strength and grace and brilliance, and I was so proud to be able to meet her.
But what we also agreed is that we are going to partner. We are going to partner on trying to make sure that we can bring business from India to South Carolina. We are going to make sure that we continue to be a good, friendly ally to India as we need to, and see how we can get the two to partner up.
The Republican nomination debates saw a lot of attention focused on the question of immigration, and it is also a subject that some of the U.S. courts are considering in the wake of immigration laws passed in Arizona and South Carolina. What is your view on immigration and has your family background shaped that view in any way?
I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who came here legally. They [took] the time and paid the price [to] come here the right way. What we are trying to do is remind everyone that the U.S. is a country of laws. When you give up being a country of laws, you give up everything that makes this country great.
While we believe that you have to follow the law to come into this country, I am also working with the federal delegation to see how we can expand the worker visa programme; how we can make sure that we have more opportunities for those areas that need to have immigrants come in to work.
This came up in the debates as well, but where does that leave persons who are already here and came here illegally, but are people who go to church, pay their taxes, have integrated into their communities and have been law-abiding?
I think we need to find a process to deal with that. Governor Romney has said that we should give everybody a certain amount of time [and] we should let them know that we have to follow the law.
Give them the paperwork to fill out and have them start with the paperwork. But we cannot give priorities to those people who came here illegally, and give them a pass — that’s not going to work because then you are being unfair to all of those who are fighting to come here the right way.
Touching upon your own example, could you explain how the role of Indian-Americans in U.S. politics changed since your parents’ generation? Might we ever see a member of this community occupy the Oval Office?
I think that this country has great respect for the Indian-American community because they have seen that [this community] has excelled in medicine, business, teaching, in everything they do. The work ethic of Indian-Americans is amazing.
The one thing we have not been very active in is government. So what I hope our generation realises is that our parents sacrificed a lot to get us to this point. Now it is up to us to step up to the next level and get involved in government, in giving back and in service.
[Regarding the prospect of a future Indian-American President] I think that in this country, anything is possible. I think that no one thought that we could have an Indian-American female for Governor in South Carolina.
24 May 2012