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Renouncing roots: Here's why Bobby Jindal is not popular among the Indian-American community in US

If there were any doubts about how far Jindal is from his roots, he dispelled them spectacularly this week when he launched his presidential campaign.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 28, 2015, 12.26 PM IST
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Bobby Jindal
Bobby Jindal
Bobby Jindal is so white, he refers to Indian food as “ethnic cuisine.” American stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu, on Twitter.

It’s not just the US that isn’t quite sitting up to notice Bobby Jindal throwing his hat into the 2016 presidential ring — the 44-year-old governor of Louisiana is after all among 26 Republican candidates (at last count) running for office. Even the desi community appears distinctly unmoved, which is surprising if you consider that Jindal is the first Indian-American to be running for America’s top job.

There’s of course a reason for that dispassion (along with digs like “Bobby Jindal is so white, he beat himself up after 9/11,” another Kondabolu tweet). “Jindal’s announcement that he is running for president could have been the turning point for the entire community, but he does not enjoy support of the Indian-Americans either at the grassroots level or from top fundraisers because of his controversial comments about not wanting to be seen as a hyphenated American,” a prominent Indian-American Republican fundraiser who didn’t want to be identified said.

If there were any doubts about how close — or rather how far —Jindal is from his local roots, he dispelled them in a spectacular style earlier this week when he launched his presidential campaign. “We are not Indian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans. We are all Americans,” thundered the first Indian-American to be elected a governor in the US.

It didn’t take long for an eruption back home in India on social media, and the hashtag #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite duly went to become one of the top trending topics on Twitter on Thursday, a day after Jindal, who grew up as a Hindu before converting to Christianity when in his teens, made the statement.

Renouncing Roots

Niraj J Antani, 24, a Republican who was last year elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, believes that the Indian-American community will only support Jindal if he embraces his heritage. One of the youngest state lawmakers in the US, Antani even believes that the governor can become president if he embraces the reality of being an Indian-American.

“The American people want authenticity in their elected officials and governor Jindal can show that by embracing his heritage,” Antani told ET Magazine. He adds that Jindal has made some remarks that are of particular concern to the Indian-American community. “I am myself proud to be the second Indian-American elected in Ohio’s history. I hope that Jindal will also be proud of being an Indian-American. Only then will he get the support of the community,” Antani added. If not, he feels, the campaign will be a highly disappointing one.

A section of Indian-Americans, however doesn’t foresee the governor attempting to mend fences with the community.

“The basic issue for the support from the Indian-Americans would be the image of Jindal in the community. He has not developed a positive relationship and has not even identified himself as an Indian-American,” says Piyush Agrawal, a Florida-based community activist, who was a close associate of former president George W Bush and is seen as the mover a n d shaker behind starting the tradition of Diwali being celebrated at the White House for the first time in 2003.

Vinod Gupta, a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who in the past has been considered among the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party, too doesn’t see much of support for Jindal from Indian-Americans. “Jindal was born and raised in the US and hasn’t been part of the Indian immigrant experience and doesn’t identify with it,” Gupta said.

When announcing his presidential bid, Jindal did mention his parents who immigrated from India, but that may not be enough to please the desi community.

“Jindal is, to most Indian-Americans exactly what they do not want their children to become — a person orphaned from traditions, heritage and religion that nurtured him, who openly and publicly disavows his community.

His failure as a leader in Louisiana, and his embrace of a far-right evangelical ideology, leaves him with nothing in common with most Indian Americans,” says Aseem Shukla, a member of the Hindu American Foundation board of directors and associate professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He adds that Jindal had ample opportunities to represent Indian-Americans — from supporting the Congressional Diwali resolution when he was in Congress, to speaking up for religious liberty issues — but he never reached out.

Fractured Support

Jindal, who became the second Indian-American to be elected to the US Congress in 2004, was re-elected in 2006; according to Shukla, his journey is inspiring for young Indian-Americans and it proves that it is possible to overcome racial barriers in politics. “But his experience also proves that the racial ceiling was broken over the back of religious identity where an Indian rejected his heritage and religious traditions,” Shukla said.

Jindal’s achievements in the political arena are not lost on the Indian community despite his efforts to distance himself.

“What he has achieved in public life at such a young age is incredible and he is definitely admired for that,” says Sanjay Puri, chairman of the Washington DC based US Indian Political Action Committee.

However, he thinks that the Indian-American support for Republican candidates was likely to get fractured and divided because of the large number in the running. “Jeb Bush has strong ties with Indian-American Republicans in Florida while governor Chris Christie is from New Jersey which has a large Indian-American population. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton too has long standing ties with the Indian-American community,” Puri added.
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