Look out for Haley’s comet

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya
  • Updated: Jun 27, 2015 08:54 IST

Once upon a time, Bobby Jindal was a wizkid. He whizzed through the George W Bush Administration into Congress and finally, occupied the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Indian-Americans started kidding themselves that their community had coughed up a potential president.

After all, the conservative opinion-maker and radio host Rush Limbaugh had compared him to Ronald Reagan and John McCain had him on a vice-presidential shortlist. When I travelled to Baton Rouge to cover Jindal’s election as governor in late 2007, it was astonishing how Indian-Americans crossed party lines to plump for the man born Piyush.

In fact, Jindal’s campaigns, first an unsuccessful quest for the gubernatorial office, then to the House of Representatives, and then back to locking down the keys to the governor’s mansion, had a substantial Indian-American contribution, mainly in dollar denominations. Jindal also appeared at Indian-American events, was chosen as India Abroad’s Person of the Year once, and did everything but hold a rally at the local Patel Brothers.

As he announced his intent to run for President of the US on Wednesday, however, he may have roused as much enthusiasm in the community as a Pakistan Day Parade.

Why Jindal went from being blue-eyed to blackballed isn’t difficult to perceive. Partly, the community figured out he had pulled up his roots and branched out into being a flag-waving arch-conservative. Partly also, there’s his unpopularity in his home state, where he is probably less popular than even President Barack Obama, and that takes some doing. That track record doesn’t make for much traction.

As he enters the presidential arena and visits Iowa and New Hampshire, his ratings are roughly equal to that of the Confederate flag in African-American localities.

Jindal is only 44, and he will complete his final term as governor next year, so this was an obvious move. But at this time, the reality is that it will be an achievement even if he makes it to the top tier of televised Republican debates or spends his time arguing with Donald Trump’s comb-over.

Meanwhile, as Jindal turns into a flamboyant flameout, another Indian-American Governor of a southern state may have caught fire, but in a positive manner. Seven months younger than Jindal, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley is also into her second term but it’s been a tenure focused inland rather than on outlandish fantasies of national recognition.

As the mass murder by Dylann Storm Roof gave a ghastly new twist to doing the Charleston, Haley followed her mentor Mitt Romney’s words by calling on her state legislature to remove the Confederate flag – seen as a symbol of the South’s racist past – from the Capitol grounds by America’s Independence Day, the 4th of July. That was heavy with symbolism, as was her being flanked by a Republican African-American Senator and an elder statesman Democrat Congressman.

Haley’s comment streaked through the Twitterverse, and attracted some criticism, of the variety of vitriol that only the social media supplies. But she’s still come out ahead because she looked beyond narrow partisan plays.

Haley, in a sense, is the anti-Jindal, even if she stopped being Nimrata. Her journey has also been meteoric — she was elected to the state assembly before she trekked difficult terrain to win election as governor in 2010. But she hasn’t been quite as hyper about the hyphen. She visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar last year. Jindal, meanwhile, skipped a Diwali celebration in the White House when he was a Congressman. Haley may also be a Christian convert in a conservative state but that hasn’t prevented her from speaking at a local temple.

In another year, Jindal will simply be an ex-Governor. Haley, though, may already be a contender for running mate in the 2016 Presidential election, especially if the Democrats do the obvious and nominate Hillary Clinton. She has, at the very least, positioned herself to be part of that conversation.

(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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