What's behind Jindal's win?
Let us begin with a small quiz this week. Who comes to your mind if I described this person as a very well-educated alumni of a prestigious American university, where he was chosen as amongst the “Top 100” alumni, a Rhodes Scholar, of Indian parentage, articulate, one of the most promising politicians to emerge in the recent past, wielding enormous clout in the ruling party and to have been elected to public office at a very young age of 32?
As they would say in Delhi, “who else?! It must be apnaa saadda Rahul baba! Or is it that low-profile scion of the Scindia family with a tongue twister of a name?” Wrong, dear readers, on both counts; it’s our very own Bobby puttar that I am talking about, yaar woh Jallandhar wala?!
As far as the Indian news establishment is concerned, the only event that eclipsed Bush’s near-landslide victory in the Presidential race last week was the equally comfortable run of Bobby Jindal, a second generation Indian American, to the House of Representatives from the well-heeled bastion of ultra-right-wing faith-based conservatism, Louisiana.
While India sang paeans to his Indian connection, I tried my best to find at least one shred of that much flaunted past in anything that he could have done or said but, alas, my efforts came to total grief! And this was for the first time that I found myself in full agreement with a man whose otherwise fulltime passion is India-bashing: Dinesh D’Souza.
In a piece he wrote in the wake of Bobby’s victory at the polls, D’Souza, never short of contempt for anything Indian, thus described his Republican soulmate: “I don't recall a single time that Jindal has shown any particular interest in India. Not that he should, not that that's any kind of strike against him. What I'm saying is, the man is like every other American politician who aspires to American office, and that's also entirely as it should be. There's no need for him to speak about Indian issues. He doesn't. Simple.
Yet here in India we swoon over him. We hail his political rise -- his attempt to become governor itself -- as one more sign of a resurgent India. We tell ourselves that he "has put India firmly on the global map.
Hell-oo! What's going on here? I mean, I don't recall a single article about him in his own country that made much of his Indian roots, or pronounced that his election campaign had ‘put India firmly on the global map’. So, applauding his success as a barometer of India's success makes about as much sense as seeing Schwarzenegger’s victory as a triumph for India.”
For once, you can’t argue with D’Souza when he offers this explanation for the phenomena back home, “what's REALLY going on here is our age-old obsession with America and the West. In this case, how we yearn for approval from foreigners, and specially American foreigners! How we long for them to recognize us as equals! Therefore, how we grasp for anything at all that can be put in that light. Even if it is nothing more than a young American's Indian name.”
So who is this new kid on the block? Interestingly, even many settled here have wondered aloud how come a complete outsider, particularly the son of Hindu parents managed to win so convincingly in a state that wears its Christian faith on its sleeve. The answer perhaps lies in Jindal’s readiness to consciously take on all attributes of a native American (of course, barring the color of his skin) without which a career in politics in Louisiana would be nothing more than a pipe dream.
I would like you to read this small excerpt from the profile of Jindal put together by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard: “Jindal has an extraordinary life story. His given first name is Piyush, but at age 4 he decided to change it to Bobby. In high school, he abandoned his parents' Hindu faith and converted to Catholicism. (His father is an engineer, his mother an assistant secretary in the Louisiana state labor department.) By the time he graduated from Baton Rouge High School, Jindal was a Republican.”
While Jindal hogged headlines in India as well as the local ethnic media, a more laudable trend in American politics hardly found mention anywhere. Jindal was not alone in being of Indian descent and winning elections to state and local offices in America last week; several Indian Americans or people of South Asian stock shared the honor. Elected officials include Kumar Barve in Maryland; Satveer Choudhary in Minnesota; Upender Chuivukula in New Jersey; Saghir Tahir, of Pakistani origins, for a third consecutive term to the New Hampshire legislature.
In the state of Iowa, where the election proved to be the final clincher for Bush, Democrat Swati Dandekar won a keenly contested seat to the state legislature. Similarly in South Carolina, Republican Nikki Randhawa Haley’s victory must go down as unique. By the time Election Day arrived, all her opponents had thrown in the towel. She won uncontested with a massive 98.9 percent of the votes polled. Her victory was also notable for another reason; she managed to trounce the longest serving state-representative in South Carolina who has been in office since 1974, Larry Koon.
Finally, it is important to recognize that Jindal’s genius or, for that matter, of any successful ethnic politician lies in his or her clever manipulation of local political equations in which he or she deftly manages to make his/her Indian or ethnic connection a non-issue.
(Binay Kumar is a resident of California, in the US. His column appears every Thursday.)