Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, the favourite to occupy that post in South Carolina come November, have plenty in common.
They are both Republicans — in fact, hardcore conservatives — in America’s Deep South. They are both yet to turn 40. They both go by names they weren’t born with — Piyush became Bobby Jindal, while Nimrata Randhawa is now Nikki Haley. They both converted to Christianity — Jindal became a Catholic in school; Haley, born a Sikh, sits on the board of a Methodist Church.
They have also faced racism in their political career — Jindal lost his first bid for governorship in 2003 because Republicans loyal to the extreme right-wing politician David Duke from Northern Louisiana voted for his white Democratic rival. Haley was recently described by a Republican as a “raghead”.
But what’s really important for the Indian-American community as it matures politically is that both Jindal and Haley have quickly entered the national conversation, as analysts see larger roles for them in the future outside their home states.
Jindal, the more experienced, was in the reckoning to be John McCain running mate for the 2008 presidential election before the latter chose then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. But those who know him well say that Jindal wants to complete two successful terms in governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge before focusing on the White House.
Haley could figure in the US Senate some day in the future or get even more ambitious on the national scene. But such speculation is in place even before she has won the run-off election to capture the Republican Party’s nomination to contest for the post of governor in November. She had to clarify that point to Politico in an interview: “Yes, we’ll serve our full term, I’m not a normal elected official that this is like, the next stepping stone.”
Jindal keeps burnishing his credentials as he supervises Louisiana’s efforts to deal with BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico while keeping the rhetoric high against US President Barack Obama and his administration.
One of the leading experts on Southern politics, Merle Black, said: “What has helped Jindal is his performance in the face of the oil spill crisis. He has personified what people in Louisiana see as a hands-on governor. He has a national future in the party.”
What may have also helped Jindal and Haley in gaining a higher profile within their party is that the Republicans are casting a wider net. “Republicans have wanted to attract minorities. Jindal and Haley are both entrepreneurial types. They feel much more at home in the Republican Party,” said Black, a professor of Political Science at Emory University in Atlanta.
African-Americans and Hispanics have remained largely loyal to the Democratic Party and even the majority of Indian-Americans, by a ratio of two to one, vote for the Democrats.
But it may prove somewhat easier to attract this demographic to the Republican side.
“The Republicans want to court minorities and the easiest minority they can court is Indian-Americans. My feeling is that the Democratics take us for granted while we are welcomed by the Republican Party,” says Sampath Shivangi, one of the original Indian-American Republicans from the South.
Based in Jackson, Mississippi, Shivangi was a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 2004 and 2008. He says issues like family values, entrepreneurship, relative affluence, opposition to government interference, are values that Indian-Americans and Republicans share. He believes Indian-Americans are natural conservatives.
Kishan Putta, who led the group Indian-Americans for McCain in 2008, said ethnicity mattered but both of them had managed to overcome that barrier: “It’s not easy to be a minority politician in the South but she shows, just as Governor Jindal shows, if you address people’s core American values, they will see you for who you are.”
Haley has not only connected with the regular Republican primary voter, but also with the party’s leadership. She has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, a favourite of the Tea Party movement, as well as Mitt Romney, another presidential aspirant.
But while the emergence of Jindal and Haley has been celebrated by groups like the Indian American Conservative Council, there doesn’t appear to be any great depth in terms of new faces coming up within the fold. Race and religion remain barriers many cannot overcome.
The Democrats have thrown up at least two serious party nominees for seats in the US House of Representatives for elections this November. These are Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania and Ami Bera in California.
The trendsetter was possibly Ashwin Madia, who came close to winning a seat in the House in 2008 from Minnesota but lost narrowly. In addition, there are several dozens of Indian-Americans in the Obama Administration and hundreds who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008.