Bobby Jindal’s announcement that he will be competing for the 2016 GOP presidential ticket is being met with mixed emotions by the Indian community. Jindal has already secured the distinction of being the first person of Indian heritage to serve as governor of a US state – for two terms, no less. This is a position he gained by winning a very large margin over his opponents – no small achievement in the southern state of Louisiana that has a long history of racial tension. No matter the outcome of his run for presidency, Jindal is the first of his kind to have accomplished what he has so far.
However, any pride that the Indian community may feel that a person of Indian origin has come so far in America’s political echelons is misplaced, and should be tempered with the reality that Bobby Jindal is not the typical Indian immigrant. As Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary of the United Nations has noted in his latest book, India Shastra: Tharoor asks “How proud should we be of Bobby Jindal?” and answers “Let us be proud that a brown-skinned man with an Indian name has achieved what Bobby Jindal has. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we should be proud of how he behaves, or what he stands for.”
Jindal was born Piyush Jindal, but at the age of four, he asked to be called Bobby, after the youngest character in the television show The Brady Bunch. Apart from rejecting the name given to him by his parents (although legally he still is Piyush), Jindal has openly dissociated himself from his Indian heritage. In his teens, he converted from the religion of his birth, Hinduism, to Christianity. He dislikes being called “Indian-American” and prefers the term “American.” As Tharoor clarifies in India Shastra: “…Bobby has never supported a single Indian issue; he refused to join the India Caucus when he was a Congressman at Capitol Hill, and is conspicuously absent from any event with a visiting Indian leader. It is as if he wants to forget he is Indian, and would like voters to forget it too.”
If Jindal wishes voters to forget that detail about his origin, Indians on the Twitter-sphere have not. Following Jindal’s announcement to run for president, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu began the flurry of tweets mocking Jindal with the hashtag #bobbyjindalissowhite:
#bobbyjindalissowhite that he mispronounces his own name.— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) June 25, 2015
While the comment above was tweeted in jest, Kondabolu may have accidently hit upon a truth: Tharoor states, on a serious note, in India Shastra (about Jindal) that “The two of us jointly won something called an Excelsior Award once from the Network of Indian Professionals in the US, and his acceptance speech on the occasion was striking – obligatory references to the Indian values of his parents, but a speech so American in tone and intonation that he mangled the Indian name of his own brother.”
Another tweet from Kondabolu reads:
The Indian equivalent to "Uncle Tom" will now be "Uncle Bobby." #bobbyjindalissowhite— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) June 25, 2015
And another, on a half-serious note:
INDIAN KIDS: If your parents want to donate to Bobby Jindal, threaten to not take care of them when they get older. WE'RE NOT PLAYING AROUND— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) June 25, 2015
Adding to Kondabolu’s hashtag, The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi created the hashtag #Jindian as the Indian version of “redneck,” and tweeted the following:
U might be a #Jindian if u r the son of immigrants who is anti-immigrant. #bobbyjindalissowhite @harikondabolu @ShaifaliP— aasif mandvi (@aasif) June 24, 2015
You might be a #Jindian when you say; "if we hide who we are we will lose" unless of course it's your name & ur religion. @harikondabolu— aasif mandvi (@aasif) June 25, 2015
This last tweet is in reference to the controversy regarding Jindal’s unofficial portrait done by Louisiana painter Tommy Yow Jr. from a photograph of Jindal, where the skin tone on the portrait is several tones lighter than the skin of the real Jindal. This portrait has been hanging in the Louisiana Capitol office since 2008, but people took notice only in February of this year when a blogger tweeted a picture of the portrait causing an onslaught of comments and jokes.
While the jokes about Jindal’s choices of personal identity are entertaining, what is not so amusing is Jindal’s stance on political issues. It is Jindal’s option to associate with or dissociate from whomever he pleases. However, if the Indian community were better aware of Bobby Jindal’s political opinions, the majority would rather he not be associated with the Indian diaspora.
According to 2012 statistics from The Pew Research Center, 65% of Indian Americans are Democrats or left-leaning; 18% are Republican. As a conservative Republican, Jindal stands severely opposed to the prevailing values of the Indian community. As Tharoor notes:
“Most Indian-Americans are in favour of gun control, support a woman’s right to choose abortion, advocate immigrants’ rights, and oppose school prayer (for fear it will marginalize non-Christians). On every one of these issues, Bobby Jindal is on the opposite side. He’s not just conservative; on these questions, he is well to the right of his own party.”
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being opposed to the majority viewpoint, or changing your name, or choosing a religion different from that of your birth, what is disconcerting about Jindal is the sum of his parts.
Jindal’s choices of identity, while an affront to some, are more perplexing than offensive. By his own account, Jindal maintains that the Indian values he grew up with were very much in consonance with the values of the larger community, and he had no trouble fitting in. In his 2010 book, Leadership and Crisis, Jindal states:
“But the values I learned from my Hindu parents ran deep: honesty, respect for elders, hard work, modesty, reverence, the importance of family--traditional Hindu values that meshed quite well with Louisiana's traditional Bible Belt beliefs. I never felt culturally different from your typical Baton Rouge kid.”
If cultural assimilation was not the goal of Jindal’s shift in religion, and subsequent associations and dissociations, then what was? Some believe it is a calculated move to further his political ambitions.
Bobby Jindal has an impressive education that few can equal. He graduated from Brown University, double-majoring in Biology and Public Policy. He was accepted at Harvard Medical School, and Yale Law School, but chose a third option instead: He went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and studied Political Science with a focus on Health Policy.
Jindal’s work history is equally remarkable: His first public-service job was as secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Later, he became the executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, in Washington D.C. He then moved from healthcare to education, when he became president of the University of Louisiana. Finally, before he became governor of Louisiana, he was also the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration.
Despite a wealth of education and work experience, Jindal launches his rhetoric from the vantage point of his religion: He is vehemently against gay marriage, responding to this week’s supreme court ruling legalizing gay marriage with:
“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.”
He is against abortion and stem cell research, and supports the teaching of creationism/Intelligent Design in schools. In 2008, as Governor, he passed Senate Bill 561 (SB561), which paves the way for creationism to be taught in Louisiana’s public schools. Efforts from the scientific community to repeal the bill have been unsuccessful so far. One such effort, spearheaded by then high school student Zack Kopplin included having 78 Nobel laureates as well as Jindal’s genetics professor from Brown University urge him to repeal it, but to no avail.
Jindal also views gun legislation from the lens of religious freedom. He is a poster child for the National Rifle Association (NRA). He has an A+ rating from the NRA for his long-standing work on proliferating gun-ownership and curtailing gun safety legislation in America. In Jindal’s own words:
“I was proud to pass Louisiana’s own second amendment to our state constitution, giving us the strongest pro-gun laws in America... I am honored to earn the NRA’s highest national award for legislative achievement.”
In April this year, as in previous years, Jindal addressed the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum, where he likened efforts to curtail gun-ownership with infringements on religious freedoms. He told the adoring NRA soldiery that the NRA is “the most effective civil rights organization” in America. He criticized New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for “pressuring grocery stores and restaurants to ban guns,” and warned that “next, he (Bloomberg) will bully sporting goods stores to quit selling guns and ammo.”
He reminded the audience about the NRA’s recent victory in quashing Obama’s proposal to ban civilian use of “green-tip” ammunition that has armor-piercing capabilities: “We rose up and we stopped him…” he said, to a cheering crowd.
In his efforts to neutralize the disadvantage of being an ethnic minority, and his desire to minimize the “elitist” stigma sometimes associated with being an educated intellectual, Bobby Jindal has foolishly espoused the cause of the far-right conservatives of the Republican party. Now he’s stuck with it, or perhaps it’s grown on him, and he really believes the toxic jabberwocky he spews.
It is difficult to grant people the quality of being genuine if they themselves reject who they are. Furthermore, if your choices for change in identity are motivated by reasons other than survival, or ease of living, or assimilation, but rather, are calculated steps taken to further political agenda, you risk being seen as inauthentic.
Bobby Jindal is a contradiction in his own self-chosen identity. Despite his very impressive education, when he speaks, he sounds like an unsure novice with a mantra of a few politically charged words that he keeps recycling: gun rights… second amendment… religious freedom… liberty…. America is the greatest country in the history of the world……
It is hard to parse out what Bobby Jindal really believes in, and what characteristics he has carefully chosen to hold him in good stead in the political arena. He appears to be a calculated shell of a person, with not much authenticity within.
In the words of Lewis Carroll: Beware the Jabberwock, my son!