Vinay Lal

24 October 2007

Bobby Jindal, as ambitious a figure as any in the contemporary landscape of American politics, has triumphed. His decisive electoral victory in the gubernatorial race in Louisiana is being described with accolades as setting new benchmarks both in American politics and certainly in the political fortunes of the Indian American community: Jindal will be the first non-white governor of Louisiana since the end of the Civil War, the youngest governor in the US, and the first Indian American to serve as the governor of any state. Four years ago, Jindal let the governorship slip through his fingers: holding a wide lead over his opponents until some days before the election, Jindal reportedly squandered his chances by ignoring the race factor and the attacks on his policies. Where someone else in his place might have retreated into a shell, Jindal lost no time in putting the political machinery he had created into service for a successful campaign to procure a seat in the US House of Representatives.

When Jindal steps into the Governor’s office this coming January, he will have completed four years, or two terms, as a Congressman. He is only the second Indian American, after Dalip Singh Saund, to serve in the US Congress. Both Saund and Jindal are of Punjabi ancestry, but there the similarities perhaps end. As the holder of a doctorate in mathematics, Saund still found himself without employment prospects. The Luce-Cellar (Immigration) Act of 1946 had conferred on Indians the right to naturalization, but the population of Indian Americans was in the few thousands when he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1956. Jindal, by contrast, has succeeded amidst an immense boom in the Indian American population, and one does not hear of any great obstacles in his path. In 1991, when he was but twenty years old, Jindal went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; four years later, he was appointed Louisiana’s Secretary of Health. In his mid-20s, he might have been mistaken for a graduate student on one of the campuses of the University of Louisiana, but in fact he was then Chancellor of the university system.

By the ordinary canons of what counts for ‘success’, Jindal has been eminently successful, and at least one jubilant relative, an aunt in the Punjab, has expressly declared that Bobby is poised to become the first non-white President of the United States. Some Indian Americans have, nevertheless, been profoundly ambivalent about Jindal’s achievements. In his early teens, Piyush effected two transformations to create a different persona for himself: he took on the name of Bobby, not, I might say, in emulation of Bobby Kennedy, but from an attachment to a character in the popular ‘Brady Bunch’ show. He also converted to Roman Catholicism. Some Indian Americans object to Jindal’s alleged opportunism: he is described as having abandoned Hinduism, even ‘Indian values’ (whatever these might be), as having acknowledged white Christian American society as his master, and as having unfortunately suggested that the path to political success in the US lies through Jesus. (Did not Bush describe Jesus as his favorite philosopher?) Though the US declares itself a secular state, everyone recognizes that the Christian credentials of candidates are not unimportant; moreover, this is one country where photographs and news items about a sitting President’s visit to a Church are not uncommon. Nonetheless, some of these objections to Jindal can only be described as churlish. While conversion is not without its politics, it is an immensely personal affair. Whatever the social dimensions of religion, faith is ultimately a matter between the believer and God (or some Supreme Being), and speculations about Jindal’s reasons for conversion must be recognized as just that. Interestingly enough, Jindal’s parents continue to be devout Hindus, even prominent as pillars of their community in Baton Rouge.

There are much stronger objections to be made to Jindal from the left. He is described by his opponents as having been indifferent to the plight of the poor and minorities while he was Louisiana’s Secretary of Health. His position on political, social and religious issues – his determined opposition to gun control, women’s right to abortion, immigrant rights, gay marriages, and affirmative action, to name some of the more pressing ones — is often rightly described as being at odds with the political preferences of most Indians, though these critics do not pause to consider that the same opponents, while embracing American multiculturalism, are sometimes proponents of Hindu nationalism. Jindal has also been described by his opponents as being so conservative as to be to the right of his own party, though the proposition that there is anything to choose between Republicans, very few of whom have displayed anything that can be remotely viewed as a moral intelligence, is not one that can be described as sound.

Republicans will chafe at this criticism and suggest that the political achievement of minorities is enabled by Republicans rather than Democrats. In truth, both Republicans and Democrats are a pathetic and unpalatable lot, and one can only deplore the fact that electoral politics now takes up most of the space of politics. Immigrants rights’ rallies across the nation last year promised a renewal of political space, but one of their consequences was a relentless assault on immigrants. Indian Americans, who have longed for greater political visibility, will surely feel excited by Jindal’s election — even if they find themselves in opposition to his views. Americans will then pat themselves on the back, proclaiming that the America dream is alive and well. Bobby Jindal’s own wholly unimpressive victory speech began with the pronouncement that his parents had come to the US to live the American dream, and in his electoral win the dream has achieved its apotheosis. One can only say that America and Jindal uniquely deserve each other.