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Our pride or not?
BOOK EXCERPT

Should Indians really be proud of Bobby Jindal?

By Shashi Tharoor

The election of Bobby Jindal as Governor of the US state of Louisiana was greeted exultantly by Indians and Indian-Americans around the world, and now his possible candidacy for the White House has us all agog. There’s no question that this is an extraordinary accomplishment: a young Indian-American, just 36 years old, not merely winning an election but doing so on the first ballot by receiving more votes than his eleven rivals combined, and that too in a state not noticeably friendly to minorities.

Bobby Jindal became the first Indian-American governor in US history (paving the way for Nikki Haley, born Namrata Randhawa, in South Carolina a few years later), and the youngest currently serving chief executive of an American state. A credible run for the presidency will set the seal on his stunning political career. These are distinctions of which he can legitimately be proud, and it is not surprising that Indians too feel a vicarious sense of shared pride in his remarkable ascent.

But is our pride misplaced?

Who is Bobby Jindal and what does he really stand for?

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Indian migrants in America: though no sociologist, I’ll call them the atavists and the assimilationists. The atavists hold on to their original identities as much as possible, especially outside the workplace; in speech, dress, food habits, cultural preferences, they are still much more Indian than American.

The assimilationists, on the other hand, seek assiduously to merge into the American mainstream; they acquire a new accent along with their visa, and adopt the ways, clothes, diet and recreational preferences of the Americans they see around them. (Of course there are the in-betweens, but we’ll leave them aside for now.) Class has something to do with which of the two major categories an Indian immigrant falls into; so does age, since the newer generation of Indians, especially those born in America, inevitably tend to gravitate to the latter category.

Bobby Jindal is an assimilationist’s dream.

Born to relatively affluent professionals in Louisiana, he rejected his Indian name (Piyush) as a very young child, insisting that he be called Bobby, after a (white) character on the popular TV show The Brady Bunch. His desire to fit into the majority-white society he saw around him soon manifested itself in another act of rejection: Bobby spurned the Hinduism into which he was born and, as a teenager, converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith of most white Louisianans.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of this, and it is a measure of his precocity that his parents did not balk at his wishes despite his extreme youth. The boy was clearly gifted, and he soon had a Rhodes Scholarship to prove it. But he was also ambivalent about his identity: he wanted to be seen as a Louisianan, but his mirror told him he was also an Indian.

The two of us jointly won something called an Excelsior Award once from the Network of Indian Professionals in the US, and his acceptance speech on the occasion was striking: obligatory references to the Indian values of his parents, but a speech so American in tone and intonation that he mangled the Indian name of his own brother. There was no doubt which half of the hyphen this Indian-American leaned towards.

But there are many ways to be American

Many Indians born in America have tended to sympathise with other people of colour, identifying their lot with other immigrants, the poor, the underclass. Vanita Gupta, in Tulia, Texas, another largely white state, won her reputation as a crusading lawyer by taking up the case of undocumented workers exploited by a factory owner (her story was depicted by Hollywood, with Halle Berry playing the Indian heroine). Bhairavi Desai leads a taxi drivers’ union; Preeta Bansal, who grew up as the only non-white child in her school in Nebraska, became New York’s Solicitor General and has served on the Commission for Religious Freedom, as well as in the Obama Justice Department.

None of this for Bobby. Louisiana’s most famous city, New Orleans, was a majority black town, at least until Hurricane Katrina destroyed so many black lives and homes, but there is no record of Bobby identifying himself with the needs or issues of his state’s black people. Instead, he sought, in a state with fewer than 10,000 Indians, not to draw attention to his race by supporting racial causes.

Indeed he went well beyond trying to be non-racial (in a state that harboured notorious racists like the Ku Klux Klansman David Duke); he cultivated the most conservative elements of white Louisiana society. With his widely-advertised piety (he asked his Indian wife, Supriya, to convert as well, and the two are regular churchgoers), Bobby Jindal adopted positions on hot-button issues that place him on the most conservative fringe of the Republican Party.

Most Indian-Americans are in favour of gun control, support a woman’s right to choose abortion, advocate immigrants’ rights, and oppose school prayer (for fear that it will marginalise non-Christians). On every one of these issues, Bobby Jindal is on the opposite side. He’s not just conservative; on these questions, he is well to the right of his own party.

That hasn’t stopped him, however, from seeking the support of Indian- Americans.

Bobby Jindal has raised a small fortune from them, and both when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2003, and successfully in 2007 and 2011, an army of Indian-American volunteers from outside the state turned up to campaign for him. Many seemed unaware of his political views; it was enough for them that he was Indian.

At his Indian-American fundraising events, Bobby is careful to downplay his extreme positions and play up his heritage, a heritage that plays little part in his appeal to the Louisiana electorate. Indian-Americans, by and large, accept this as the price of political success in white America: it’s just good to have “someone like us” in such high office, whatever views he professes to get himself there.

But Bobby has never supported a single Indian issue; he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a Congressman at Capitol Hill, and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader. It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.

So the Times of India emblazons his triumph on the front page, and Indians beam proudly at another Indian-American success story to go along with Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams, Hargobind Khorana and Subramaniam Chandrasekhar, Kal Penn and Jhumpa Lahiri. But none of these Indian- Americans expressed attitudes and beliefs so much at variance with the prevailing values of their community. Let us be proud that a brown-skinned man with an Indian name has achieved what Bobby Jindal has. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we should be proud of how he behaves, or what he stands for.

Excerpted with permission from India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in our Time, Shashi Tharoor, The Aleph Book Company. This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.