By Seanna Adcox
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For months, 3-year-old Nelli Sundara has been mimicking a politician, using a stepstool to turn a table into her podium. And on the day after the election, 9-year-old Lavanya Joshi looked up at a reporter with wide eyes and asked, "Did she win?"
For South Carolina's relatively minuscule Indian-American population, the idea of Nikki Haley becoming the state's next governor - coinciding with a major Hindi holiday, the Diwali festival of light - has some chests puffing with pride. No matter that the state's first female and first minority governor-elect publicly eschewed the significance of her ethnicity.
"So many people are expressing happiness and enthusiasm," said Nelli's father, Dr. Sundar Balasubramanian, a medical researcher who also owns an Indian grocery store in Charleston named for his daughter. "It's a sense of achievement for everyone in the community."
The 39-year-old native of India, who moved to South Carolina in 1999, said he points to Haley as evidence to his children that "you can become anything in this country. It's a land of opportunity."
While Haley has shied away from addressing her candidacy in terms of race or gender, the 38-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants said she understands the pride and recognizes her role-model status, particularly to girls. South Carolina has long ranked last nationwide in the percentage of women in the Legislature, and has elected only three other women to statewide office - two of them to lead public schools.
"The part that I love that has been neat is all of the little girls. That is one that just gets to me - everywhere I go, the little girls that circle around," Haley said Thursday.
Regarding community pride, she said, "They've worked very hard to get to this country. They've worked very hard to give back when they got here. And to know that there was this acceptance in South Carolina is a sense of pride for them. ... What I've told them is now I've got to prove to the people of the state they've made a good decision - and that's when we can really celebrate."
Arunima Sinha, of Columbia, said she's incredibly proud of not only Haley, but of the voters in her adopted home as well. When Sinha came to South Carolina in 1974, attitudes were much different, she said, though she blames that largely on a lack of knowledge of and exposure to other cultures.
Haley has recalled that while growing up in rural Bamberg County at age 5, she and her sister were disqualified from the segregated Little Miss Bamberg Pageant because organizers couldn't figure out whether they should compete in the white or black contest.
Decades later, Asian Indians still account for just 0.3 percent of the state's population, or fewer than 14,000 people, and 0.8 percent of the population nationwide, according to the Census.
"It's a big deal," Sinha, an author, speaker and activist in interfaith harmony, said of the election. "I really hope and pray that things keep on moving in the right direction. ... South Carolina is moving forward."
A sociology professor said Haley's election was about her conservative policies, not racial progress. The three-term Republican legislator espoused tea party ideals in a GOP-controlled state in a year Republicans shellacked Democrats across the nation.
"While I'm sure people who are of Indian descent are very proud ... that doesn't translate to the interests of minorities in general," said College of Charleston professor Von Bakanic.
Still, Haley's win shows "people are looking at the person, not where one comes from," said Viren Patel, 39, owner of Indian Grocery in Columbia, who moved from India six years ago.
Grocery shopper Rhaneet Cheema, a 23-year-old full-time student, said Haley's win will expose people to other cultures and show that people who come from different countries can "be as one."
On election night, white Haley supporters joined in an impromptu Indian dance and drum celebration.
"There's a sense of pride that a person from that origin - because she was born and brought up here - could rise to this level at such a young age," said Madhu Shrivastava, CEO of Carolina Convenience Corp. of Lexington, who attended the election festivities. It's a pride akin to "when your children grow up and do good."
Haley becomes only the second Indian-American governor in the nation, behind Louisiana's Bobby Jindal.
Sanjay Puri, who leads a bipartisan political action committee that seeks to elect Indian-Americans, says Haley's win represents a "tremendous coming-of-age of Indian-Americans, especially in the political arena."
The chairman of U.S. INPAC noted both are Republicans in the South.
"It says people just want good candidates who can deliver results, whether in the north, south, east or west," Puri said. "Our country's at an important crossroads. People are looking for solutions, not a category people fit in."
Grocery shopper Upasana Singh said Haley's win is part of an inevitable progression as immigrants like herself continue to come to the United States.
"It's bound to happen, slowly," said the 32-year-old mother of a toddler whom, she noted, will grow up here and, like Haley, be more American than Indian.