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Is Nikki Haley the generational change Republicans are looking for?

In a recently released teaser video, Nikki Haley—or more fully Nimrata Nikki Haley nee Randhawa—comes across as a forthright fighter. She says she wears heels and “it is not for a fashion statement, it is because if I see something wrong, we are going to kick ‘em every single time.”

The one thing that Haley has kicked off, by the time this goes to press, is her bid for the 2024 Republican nomination—becoming the first to officially challenge former boss Donald Trump. Many others are hovering in the wings, playing a wait-and-see game, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Trump without the chaos) who has taken culture wars to a post-Trumpian state. Florida, he says, is “where woke goes to die”. His policies are right wing candy: anti-woke educational reforms, anti-transgender measures, permit-free firearms and deportation of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard! Other potential challengers include former Trump loyalists Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo; their hesitation stems at least in part from not wanting to become targets of Trump’s vitriol.

Trump is clearly vulnerable, damaged by January 6 events and the underwhelming performance of his preferred candidates in the mid-terms. His toxic politics is losing its sheen, the Republican National Committee is hesitant to support him and his fund-raising so far has been thin: around 200,000 dollars a day. But he is also not one to ride into the sunset and his strong loyal base is still holding strong. If the Republican field is too crowded and fractured, his 25-30 per cent support could carry him across the finishing line, even as an independent candidate.

But this is about Haley. Only a handful of Republican women have ever made this leap and the going will not be easy. For now, Trump, happy to get a target, has been gently patronising of her intentions, (“I told her to follow her heart, not her honour”) though he couldn’t help calling her “overly ambitious”. If she begins to look strong, a damning nickname will no doubt follow; he will also mock her flip-flops—from saying that she will never run against Trump to being the first to challenge him, from criticising him after January 6 to saying the party needed him. Fellow South Carolinian Senator Tim Scott could also be a troublesome challenger if he runs as he will tend to share her pie of funds and friends. There remain too the perennial questions: Is America ready for a woman president, and that, too, a woman of colour? Already, some observers are characterising her bid as essentially vice presidential.

But for the present, high heels and all, she is very much there, a feisty all-American daughter of hard-working Indian immigrant parents. Her record is impressive: a gubernatorial win in South Carolina in 2010 against a sitting Congressman, a lieutenant governor and an attorney general. A clear success as US ambassador to the UN despite her lack of foreign policy experience. Well-liked, flexible and savvy, she will project herself as the generational change the Republicans are looking for. And as she says: “I’ve never lost an election and I’m not going to start now.”

As for us, it is too early to call in the bhangra dancers. If she gathers steam, no doubt we Punjabis will begin a chorus of “Saaddi Nikki” and breathless TV correspondents will search out Randhawa aunties and uncles. I too am happy to admit that I feel more enthusiasm for her than I could ever muster up for Kamala Harris or Rishi Sunak. For when it mattered, I have seen Haley kick things around for India.


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