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Bobby Jindal's identity crisis

July 02, 2015 19:30 IST

'Bobby Jindal will always be known as the first Indian-American Governor, the second Indian-American Congressman and the first Indian-American Presidential candidate, regardless of his claim to be just American.'

'Given the situation in the US, no one will be able to erase his identity in relation to his origin,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal

An Indian-American joke goes like this:

An Indian American is elected President of the United States, not too far fetched considering that two have become Governors, three have become Congressmen, one has become a US Circuit Judge, one has become the Surgeon General, not to speak of several key Presidential appointees, including the US Ambassador to India.

The new President is being sworn in at a solemn ceremony. Every Indian American is in attendance in a mood of great jubilation. Among the guests in the front row is his mother, clad in a Kanjeepuram saree, obviously elated and proud, but somewhat subdued.

A dignitary, who sits next to her, strikes up a conversation. 'You must be very happy,' he says, 'that your son has become the President of the United States.' 'Of course,' she replies, 'but this is nothing. His brother is a doctor!'

This mindset may still be there, but Indian Americans have also begun to dream of bigger things. To their great disappointment, the Indian American who has come closest to the White House (he has just announced his candidature) has disavowed his Indian origin.

'We are not Indian Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans, rich Americans or poor Americans. We are all Americans,' said Governor Bobby Jindal, who was born to Indian parents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as Piyush, adopted the nickname Bobby from the sitcom, Brady Bunch and converted to Catholicism.

A grave identity crisis seems to haunt him as he aspires to the highest office in the country.

But the height of irony is that Bobby Jindal will always be known as the first Indian-American Governor, the second Indian-American Congressman and the first Indian-American Presidential candidate, regardless of his claim to be just American. Given the situation in the US, no one will be able to erase his identity in relation to his origin.

Jindal enjoyed the attention and financial contributions of Indian Americans, who saw in him the fulfillment of their aspirations. He had the spontaneous support of Indian Americans, regardless of their party affiliations.

Indian Americans stood by him throughout his journey up the Republican Party hierarchy, his place in the Congress and Governorship of Louisiana. He would not have been where he is today without the whole-hearted support of Indian Americans.

At a time, which should have been a moment of pride for Indian Americans, when one among them offered his candidature to be the Republican candidate for the US Presidency, a leader of the Indian-American community, Rajen Anand posted the following on Facebook:

'Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal who does not want to be called as Indian American. Who belongs to, in his own word, the Stupid Republican Party. Who does not want to be identified as a person of Indian origin, now wants to be the President of the United States. I find absolutely nothing in common with him except that we both have parents who hail from the state of Punjab in India. I am very proud of my heritage and Bobby Jindal seems to be ashamed of it. With less than 1% in the polls, Jindal has very little chance to become the nominee of the Republican Party. He has abandoned his real name, changed the religion of his parents who are devout Hindus, and has adopted the extreme right wing agenda. He is against gay marriage, against multicultural society, and against Obamacare. I will not vote for him and I hope no sensible person of Indian origin does vote for him.'

Of course, no one thinks that Jindal will win the Republican Party nomination, not to speak of him becoming President. His disavowal of his Indian origin has only further decreased his chances.

Other communities will give him no credit for such a step. Whenever he was complimented on his exceptional qualities in the past, the point was made that he was a great example of an Indian, who chased the American dream successfully and then proceeded to occupy leadership positions in the United States.

He had himself basked in the glory of the adulation among Indian Americans, like when he won the India Abroad Person of the Year Award in 2006. Apart from Indian Americans, who spoke at the function, President Bush, in his message, stressed the Indian heritage that Jindal had enriched. 'For generations, Americans of Indian descent have contributed to the success and vitality of our nation. Today, these individuals are leaders in their professions in business, science, government, and many other fields,' Bush said.

Jindal himself made no effort to distance himself from his Indian origin at that time. In his acceptance, Jindal recalled the Indian-American dream and experience, and commended the community for being a role model for other immigrant groups.

The critical question is whether Jindal's posture of being a pure American will help him in his quest for the Republican nomination. In fact, his problems in the Republican Party did not relate to his origin.

John McCain had considered him as a running mate in 2008, partly to lighten the pure white image of the Republican Party, thus finding some utility in his skin colour.

McCain finally settled for Sarah Palin for her more conservative views. Jindal missed another opportunity when the Republican Party asked him to reply to President Obama's address to Congress in 2009. From all accounts, he disappointed his constituency in style as well as content.

Race and colour are vital issues in the US as the country is more a salad bowl than a melting pot. Special facilities are provided for various minorities and it is the people who manipulate minority status and colour who become successful politicians there.

It is often said that healthy Caucasian males are the only people without special privileges. Jindal's attempt to reach the status of Americans without privileges is likely to harm his political prospects, not enhance them.

A special identity is an asset, not a liability in American politics. Even after spending six years in the White House, President Barack Obama identifies himself with the African-American community by harking back to the days in Chicago and even to his father's Kenyan origin.

He seems to seek his legacy as an African American, who broke the glass ceiling, rather than as a mainstream American. If ever an Indian American becomes President of the United States, it will be someone who capitalises on the enormous contribution of Indian Americans to the country and climbs the political ladder by hard work and the unanimous support of the Indian-American community.

For Bobby Jindal's political aspirations, his identity crisis may well be the last straw.

Image: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has announced his Presidential bid, addresses a legislative luncheon held as part of the 'Road to Majority' conference in Washington, DC. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the IAEA; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

T P Sreenivasan