The problem with writing an autobiography when you’re 40 is that you can exaggerate your achievements, gloss over the compromises you’ve made to get where you are and get impatient with those who point this out.
To be sure, if you ignore the underlying smugness and the “I’m-so-smart-everyone-says-so” note, the life story of Nikki Haley, born Nimrita Nikki Randhawa, Governor of South Carolina, is quite interesting. Haley was born in 1972 to Indian immigrants in the small town of Bamberg, South Carolina, a place where things were, pretty much, black and white — including the people who lived there. Her parents, a Sikh biologist Ajit Randhawa and his wife Raj, a lawyer, migrated to the US in 1969 to a state where racial feelings are still strong and family connections still matter in politics. Raj started a small business in which her daughter Nikki helped, learning business administration and politics on the job. At 12, Haley tells us, she was making bank deposits, creating sales reports, dealing with accounts receivable, doing the taxes and maintaining the general ledger in her spare time. As most family-run businesses in India will tell us, that’s about when children in families begin to get a similar orientation. And learn how to cut overheads, and what a nuisance government can be (“I learnt how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for government to take it away”).
Haley touchingly recalls that she didn't know whether she was Republican or Democrat until she was working and a colleague asked her. Haley said she didn't know. But she did know what she believed in: “protecting the rights and freedom of people, the amazing survival skills of small businesses, a belief that people must live within their means and government mustn't be exempt from that”.
“Oh, you’re definitely a Republican,” diagnosed Eleanor, her colleague.
Of course, being a Republican also means endorsing unilateral American action in Iraq on the flimsiest evidence that it was developing weapons of mass destruction; and taking responsibility for killing thousands of civilians. But Haley doesn’t talk of all that. Instead, she describes the racial slurs she had to hear and the fact that even in the evolved American business ethos, it was she who was expected to get coffee for the CEO (unaware of the irony, she reports that when faced with this she rebelled. She asked her secretary — also a woman — to get it. )
To become governor in 2010 (the first in South Carolina to be both a woman and Indian American), Haley defeated three Republicans and a Democrat. Like all other women in politics, she faced ethnic slurs and unproven allegations of adultery. Somewhere down the line, she also became a Christian and despite her parents' opposition, married a white American. She does not delve on the change of her religion in detail. But her book is filled with Church, Loving, Caring, Faith and Family.
All this is somewhat at odds with what the American press reported: the steamy emails shared between her and one of her co-workers, not one but two. Haley’s position is that it never happened.
There is also some confusion on the issue of loyalty by which Haley rightly sets so much store. Her mentor of sorts, Governor Sanford, decided he’d had enough of family life and acquired an Argentinian girlfriend. When it came out in the papers that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Haley took him down from her website as an inspirational figure. She notes somewhat disingenuously that the press reported she had “scrubbed him out”, but that was not the case: she was hurt and confused by what he had done. Later, he surfaces again in her book when she needs him in her campaign.
The high point in Haley’s life was to conduct and win a campaign to end pork-barrelling in the legislature. Votes were passed by voice vote. She insisted this be changed because the taxpayers’ dollar was involved in every vote. Republicans and Democrats alike resisted this, but Haley persisted and got the legislation through.
Haley is now engaged in giving Barack Obama hell for his healthcare initiative. She believes the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the federal healthcare law represents a huge tax increase on the American people that will kill jobs. She also believes states should have more autonomy when it comes to decisions that affect them: “Everything we keep doing, they keep saying, ‘No you can’t do it’ after we have passed it. For a bill to become law, it truly has to be the will of the people, and for a president to stop the will of the people … is not the role of Washington,” she said recently in an interview.
CAN’T IS NOT AN OPTION: MY AMERICAN STORY
256 pages; Rs 599