Bobby Jindal: Most successful, yet most unwanted Indian-American

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Jun 28, 2015 13:29 IST

No Indian-American can speak of a political career so full of accomplishments as Bobby Jindal — two-term governor, two-time congressman and several senior political appointments.

And he is now running for president, marking a major milestone for a minority Indian-American community seeking to leverage its fabulous wealth for political power in recent years.

Anyone else might have found himself spoilt by a proud community. Not Jindal. His White House run announcement was greeted with a stream of derisive tweets and racial jokes instead.

Racially charged tweets hash-tagged #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite began trending within seconds of his speech and ran through the night, the next day and the day after the next day.

A community seemingly wounded by Jindal’s explicitly and repeatedly asserted desire to go beyond hyphenations, and not be identified as Indian-American, was exacting its revenge.

The rupture between him, the community’s most successful and now powerful politician yet, and the community seemed complete and final, in a Game-of-throne like flameout.

“I was stunned by the racial overtone of the reaction,” said a Republican operative who has known Jindal for a long time. He spoke on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely.

To be fair, Jindal, a Republican, never could count on the Indian American community, which is mostly Democratic, and gave up on it after early unhappy experiences.

His religion, catholic christian, may have played a role too.

Conspiracists in the Hindu-majority Indian-American fold believe Jindal gave up his birth religion that he inherited from his parents, Hinduism, to further his political career.

That’s a stretch, according to someone who had known him.

“His conversion process started in school when he was first introduced to Christianity and the Bible,” he said, “when politics couldn’t have been on the horizon for him.” Jindal has been on record about being first exposed to Christianity while in high school, and then, impressed, reading the bible in the closet so his parents couldn’t find out.

He converted while in college, way before he got into politics.

But the conversion charge has kind of stuck. Most Indian-Americans are, one, Hindus, and, two, believe it’s impossible for any of them to make it in US politics without converting.

Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley is of Indian descent — her parents are Sikhs from Punjab, and have retained their religion, but she is christian, and is married to one.

Democratic House or Representatives member Ami Berra is also of India descent — parents are Hindus from Gujarat, and remain so — but he converted to Unitarian Christianity.

Neither of them has been challenged as much about their religion as Jindal, mostly because, commentators and observers said, they have been wise about their ties to the community.

Berra is co-chairman of the India caucus of the House of Representatives, a body of lawmakers brought together by their Indian-American constituents and voters.

And Haley puts in regular appearances at events that are important to the community — such as the Madison Square Garden reception for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Jindal stayed away. And now reasons were sought or offered.

“Nikki and Ami have indeed been smarter about their outreach to the community,” said an Indian American observer, adding, “Bobby has not helped his own case, yes.”

But, as Shekar Narasimhan, a Democrat, said, Jindal probably does not need the community. He has not pitched any one on either side of the political. Not yet, at least.

And Indian-Americans who worked once for him on his earlier campaigns, said they gave up waiting to be asked a long time ago — since he opted for local advisors.

Jindal first ran for public office — governor of Louisiana — in 2003. A few Indian-Americans who had known him worked for him, despite party affiliations, and ideology.

“It was important for me to be able to prove to the country that an Indian American could administer ably and represent everyone,” said an operative who worked with Jindal.

Jindal was not just a Republican candidate. He was a flag bearer for a community which was yearning to be recognized for its political power, and not just the clout of its cheques.

Jindal chose to go with his own instincts, na local advisers.

And then, finally, it is just politics.

“Bobby is a right-wing conservative Republican, and most Indian Americans aren’t, so there are a lot of mixed feelings about him,” said Toby Chaudhuri, a political strategist.

Anyone else, he argued, may have fared better.

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