NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Nikki Haley may have been born in the United States but her extended family back in India is thrilled that the South Carolina governor has been named by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley’s parents hail from rural Punjab, in northwestern India. They moved to Amritsar - home to the Golden Temple that is the most holy place of the Sikh religion - before emigrating to North America in the early 1960s.
Haley, 44, was born Nimrata Randhawa in Bamberg, South Carolina - she was called “Nikki” as a child and took the family name of husband Michael when they married in Sikh and Methodist ceremonies in 1996.
Kanwaljit Singh Randhawa, a 70-year-old cousin, told Reuters family and friends were delighted by Haley’s appointment and said it could help improve relations between the United States and India.
“It is a great achievement for Punjab and India. We are proud of the fact that (Nikki) has achieved this success,” Randhawa told Reuters by telephone.
Randhawa, a retired lecturer, said he was in regular touch with Nikki’s father, Ajit Singh Randhawa, who grew up in the village of Pandori Ran Singh, south of Amritsar.
India’s foreign ministry said it was happy to hear news of Haley’s appointment, describing her as a supporter of closer U.S.-India ties who had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Washington in June.
“We know Governor Haley very well,” said spokesman Vikas Swarup. India’s foreign secretary visited the United States earlier this month and interacted with “very senior levels” of the Trump transition team, he also said.
Haley came only once to India as a four-year-old child, doesn’t speak Punjabi and has converted to Christianity.
But she has visited India more recently in an official capacity, going to Amritsar in November 2014 on what she called “an emotional and very personal day”.
“I always yearned to see Punjab - my motherland - and now I am so proud to be here after almost 40 years,” she told TV reporters at the time, her voice choking with emotion as she steadied herself with nips from a water bottle.
Her biography is similar to that of Richard Verma, the first U.S. ambassador to New Delhi of Indian origin. He was born in the United States into a Punjabi family but visited often as a child. Verma was mobbed by relatives and locals when he visited his ancestral home in early 2015.
Haley has little foreign policy experience, while Trump has expressed favorable views toward India, where he has real estate interests. The tycoon-turned-TV reality star told one cultural event put on by diaspora Republicans during the presidential campaign that he loved the country and its people.
Trump’s stated intention of banning immigration by Muslims from countries that are a source of Islamist militancy has played well with many in India, a majority Hindu nation that has long been at odds with Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Much of the diplomacy over the rivalry between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed powers, plays out in the corridors of UN headquarters in New York and Haley’s appointment is likely to be seen positively in New Delhi in that light.
India, the world’s largest democracy, is also lobbying to be made a permanent member of an expanded UN Security Council, although it’s doubtful this would be a priority for Trump.
Back in Punjab, relatives and old family friends are planning a major celebration to mark the elevation of Haley to the top diplomatic post.
“We are going to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to pray for her success,” said Randhawa. “And we will speak to our friends and villagers to have a function in the next few days.”
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Nick Macfie
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