Two-term Governor of Louisiana, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, the first Indian-American to be elected governor of a US state, is one of the 17 candidates vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Gov. Jindal shuns the label “Indian American” (he calls himself “an American”), and resents referral by his birth first name, “Piyush,” (he likes “Bobby”). Gov. Jindal's perplexing disavowal of his heritage is symptomatic of what is wrong with his candidacy, and why he will never be elected president.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of immigrant Indian parents, Jindal is very smart. A brilliant student throughout, Jindal attended Brown University and won a Rhodes Scholarship. Piyush Jindal had a religious epiphany in high school, and over the objection of his Hindu parents, converted to Catholicism. Although his official name remains Piyush Jindal, he uses “Bobby Jindal” as his name, even while taking the oath of office.
Gov. Jindal's detractors wonder if his conversion to Catholicism was politically motivated, with the calculation that a Hindu could not win high office in America. That innuendo is unfair. There is no reason to impugn his motive for conversion, or to suspect that it was anything other than genuine.
The switch to “Bobby” is harder to comprehend, because Bobby has little resonance with Piyush. If it was to invoke the memory of the most beloved political “Bobby” in America – Senator Bobby Kennedy – the exercise is disingenuous. Bobby Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, and although personally rich, was an advocate for the poor. Bobby Jindal is a right-wing conservative Republican, and although personally not-so-rich, is an avid advocate for the rich! “Jindal” is not a typical Indian name. Detractors contend that if Jindal's last name was Singh or Patel, he would have Americanised those to “Singer” or “Patrick!”
Gov. Jindal has stated recently that he is “done being hyphenated (Indian) American. If my parents wanted us to be 'Indians,' they would have stayed in India.” The Jindals consume only “American food,” whatever that means; they do not eat “Indian food.” Jindal is virulently anti-immigrant; especially anti-Muslim immigrants.
During his campaign for governor in 2007, Jindal emphatically declared that he was not a Muslim. The crusade against “radical Islamic terrorism” constitutes a substantial plank of his platform. Last January, on a visit to London, Jindal claimed that there were Sharia-zones in the UK closed to non-Muslims. Challenged by reporters to name such an enclave, Jindal avoided answering the question, and instead lashed out at “the left-wing media,” for presumably doubting him.
All this pandering is so unnecessary! It is a pity that Bobby Jindal learned nothing from Barack Obama, 10 years his senior. Jindal has fundamentally misconstrued America.
When the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, gave an unknown Illinois state senator the opportunity to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, Barack Obama hit it out of the park with catchy phrases like, “We are not Republican America or Democratic America, black America or white America; we are the United States of America!”
When the Republican Party gave Bobby Jindal the opportunity to respond to President Obama's first State of the Union address in 2009, Jindal bombed! Trying too hard, he over-enunciated words, and came across as phony. Americans like authenticity. They reward politicians who remain true to who they actually are.
When Barack Hussein Obama was running for office post-9/11, his handlers were adamant in their advice: “Change your name!” Obama did not, and the rest is history.
Obama never denied his Muslim roots either. In his famous speech in Cairo in June, 2009 Obama reiterated that many of his relatives are Muslims. Even today, over 20percent of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim; yet, Americans elected him president twice. President Obama never shied away from his African-American, especially Kenyan-American, roots. As was evident on his visit to Kenya in July, Obama celebrates his African heritage.
Unlike Obama's trip to Africa, it is inconceivable that Gov. Jindal would visit India to fortify his Indian roots. Consequently, Indian Americans, too, are lukewarm towards him. They complain that Gov. Jindal is “Indian” only when he needs to raise funds from the Indian American community. When Jindal disrespected his community by saying, “I am done being Indian-American,” Indian Americans initiated a “ridicule-Jindal” Twitter campaign with the hash tag; “BobbyJindalIsSoWhite…” (Jindal's official gubernatorial portrait shows his skin colour several shades lighter than his dark complexion.)
Unlike Muslim Americans, there is no stigma attached to being Hindu Americans, who excel in every field, especially in academia, medicine, politics and the corporate world. Gov. Jindal did not have to hide his Hindu Indian origin, or slavishly mimic “whiteness” to gain acceptance. He is selling his ethno-religious origin short, and is underestimating America's eagerness to embrace diversity. If Gov. Jindal had cast himself as a Hindu Indian-American, many more Americans would have flocked to his corner.
Louisianans have come to realise that Jindal is using the governorship to propel himself towards the presidency. Jindal signed Grover Norquist's “no tax increase” pledge, and did some legislative somersaults to keep that pledge, while Louisiana's economy tanked. Jindal's gun advocacy backfired in July when a gunman shot two women dead in a movie theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana. Gov. Jindal is so unpopular in the staunchly Republican Louisiana that even Democrats not named Hillary Clinton will now beat him there.
Bobby Jindal is seeking the nomination from a party (Republican) that is not the home of his natural constituency, Indian Americans, who are predominantly Democrats. A big mistake! Looking at what Jindal says and does, it is sometimes hard to figure out whether he is running for the office of the commander-in-chief or the panderer-in-chief!
Based on latest national polls, only 10 of the 17 candidates will make the cut for the second nationally televised Republican presidential debate on September 16. With 0 percent support nationwide among Republicans (he was at 1 percent before the first debate on August 6), Gov. Jindal will not be invited to participate in the primetime debate, essentially sinking his candidacy.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.