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Can a GOP leader with Tea Party leanings be honored as a role model of Indian-American life?

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
August 2011
Can a GOP leader with Tea Party leanings be honored as a role model of Indian-American life? This is a climate of highly polarized politics. Even with the threat of a financial collapse looming upon us, our lawmakers seem more interested in being seen as loyal to their political party than in considering the future of the country. In an era of such exaggerated party politics, demographic groups—whether they are mill workers, teachers, or an ethnic community—naturally find themselves aligned with one side of the fence or another.

And while there are all kinds of Democrats and Republicans ranging from the far-left to the far-right, certainly those labels do mean a certain alignment—however broad—to the ideologies and policies they represent. A political leader of the liberal bent, for instance, is unlikely to interfere with the science syllabus of public schools, as many right-wingers have. Similarly, a leader of today’s Grand Old Party, and especially one aligned with the Tea Party wing of it, may try to feign friendship with minorities, but that would be equally disingenuous from the standpoint of a broad political platform.

That is precisely the case with Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina. She may be authentically proud of her Indian-American roots, and yet she can no more be a champion of minority issues—such as, for example, immigration—than can Speaker Nancy Pelosi project herself as a champion of tax cuts.

Sure, Republicans try to make a case for minority outreach whichever way they can—politics being the slick game that it is. Indian-American GOP leaders and fundraisers have tried to sell their party as a party of family values, considering how important family is to Indian-Americans. But what is lost upon them is that the family values that the GOP lays a claim to are of the kind defined by orthodox Christianity, and so, have more to do with fighting same-sex marriage than what Indian-Americans generally think of when they refer to the term.

In almost all areas of social engagement—gender, race, economic class, immigration status and more—today’s GOP, in its rightward leanings (if not in sound conservative ideology), is the very mascot of exclusivity rather than the inclusivity that is important to minority communities.

Whichever way one tries to spin it, if you believe that the politics of the far-right of the GOP are not stacked against minority groups such as Indian-Americans, then I have a beautiful ocean-front property to sell you in Buckhead, Atlanta.

No matter what her personal outlook is regarding her Indian-American roots, the fact is that Nikki Haley is a rising national star of the GOP. Her strong Tea Party credentials were vouched for when Sarah Palin endorsed her. She has been lauded by champions of faux patriotism (marked by anti-minority sentiments) such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. She supports anti-immigration legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070 and Georgia’s HB 87, which, along with Hispanics, greatly impacts Indian-Americans too. She is staunchly in the camp of the National Rifle Association, which robotically opposes even the sanest of gun regulation—a position not exactly in lock and step with most immigrant communities including Indian-Americans, who don’t subscribe to the glorified gun culture responsible for the NRA’s formidable strength.

There have been references in the media about how even some Republicans worry that Haley may be “too inflexibly ideological.” And the ideology they refer to is as opposed to Indian-American interests as day is to night.

It is from that standpoint that India Abroad’s recent selection of Haley as its Person of the Year was an unfortunate decision. It is a case of the community shooting itself in the foot. This is an award of high honor in the Indian-American community, and its presentation, one of the most high-profile of Indian-American events. How then can the honoree of such a distinguished award be one whose very job description, symbolically speaking, is stacked against the Indian-American community?

Sure, the election of Haley, as that of Bobby Jindal before her, is no small event in the annals of Indian-American history. But both Haley and Jindal (who was also recognized by India Abroad as its Person of the Year in 2005) are convincing examples of how their American success has come precisely because of their distancing from—not embracing—their heritage, and precisely because of their willingness to go against the community interests politically.

I feel the need to make it clear that this is not a rant against Haley. She is tasked to serve her constituents in South Carolina, not to appease or serve the Indian-American community. I also have nothing but appreciation and awe of her success as an individual. I have had the opportunity of interviewing her during her run for the governor’s position, and despite what I may feel about her politics, she comes across as personable. She has demonstrated a strong work ethic, and her success in beating the good old boys of South Carolina politics is not lost upon me. I think she is a great role model of political success…but not of Indian-American life.

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