Bobby Jindal is the most famous Indian-American politician. He is also the Indian-American politician most Indian-Americans dislike most. This last fact is astonishing, given that Jindal is a man of remarkable achievements, one of which is that he’s the first non-white person to be elected governor of an American state, and of Louisiana, no less, a place that is a byword for parochialism. And yet, poor Bobby doesn’t cut it with American desis.
I first met him at Oxford, when he was a Rhodes Scholar. It was a chance encounter, and I remember being struck not just by how earnest he was, but by how American. It was the early 1990s, and the idea that Indians could be American was still relatively novel — at least in the Britain of the time.
The key to Jindal is to grasp early, and clearly, that he’s not Indian. He’s said as much, avowing in public that he doesn’t wish to be regarded as “Indian-American”. Jindal has an aversion to declarations of the sort of hyphenated identity with which America is rife. This has riled Indian-Americans who, in spite of their Americanness, retain the famously thin skin of their Indian forebears. They see Jindal as a sort of ethnic traitor, a man embarrassed — they think — by his own Indianness.
I am reminded, in all of this, of a scene from My Beautiful Laundrette — the film made of the Hanif Kureishi novel — in which the character played by Saeed Jaffrey rebuffs a fellow-ethnic favour-seeker with the words, “I’m a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani.” Jindal is a professional politician, not a professional Indian-American.
The other reason American desis spurn Jindal is that he’s conservative. Let’s be clear: There are good reasons to dislike him at present, and these have to do with the way in which he’s mismanaged Louisiana in his second term as governor. There are those who believe (as does the feisty Shikha Dalmia, of the libertarian Reason Fundation) that he has “subordinated his duties as a governor to his presidential ambitions”. There’s no question that he’s turned Louisiana into a poorer place than it was when he was first elected governor in 2008.
But many desis hated him back then too, and right through his first term, which was widely regarded as one of near-exemplary governance. They hated him only because he was conservative, the reason for which they also despise Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, the first non-white woman to be elected to run a state in US history. Many Hindu-Americans (there’s another hyphenated identity!) also scorn Jindal for his conversion to Catholicism, pooh-poohing his schoolboy discovery of Christ as precocious political opportunism. (No desis pillory him for using ‘Bobby’ instead of his original ‘Piyush’. I suspect this is because a ‘Bobby Jindal’ would be a perfect part of the fauna in Lajpat Nagar or Ludhiana.)
Jindal will announce, shortly, that he’s running for president. This would be an act of great hubris, and he’d rise in my esteem if he were to change his ambitious mind. But I want to stay with the subject of his conservatism, and the Indian-American aversion to it. Many American desis, particularly the young, have swallowed the narrative that ethnic minorities — particularly those of “colour” — are, by definition, disadvantaged in America.
This is not true of Indians. Yes, there are instances of racial hostility, but in a country the size of the United States, the statistics are trivial. The discrimination that should rankle most is the one at Ivy League colleges, which limit the number of Indian students admitted (along with other high-achieving Asians, so as to give others a chance). Indian-Americans, a shade over 1 per cent of America, thrive in every field, and are wealthier, per household, than any other ethnicity.
And by the way, there are no Indian-American governors who are Democrats. In the party of ethnic inclusiveness, Indians must wait their turn, and pay their dues. The Republicans treated Jindal on his merits. Those merits have now dwindled, but his is still an American — not an Indian-American — story.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.