May 8, 2008

Whose Bobby Is He Anyway?

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on May 8, 2008.

A US election that from the outset was likely to produce either the first female or the first African-American nominee for president from a major political party may, if rumour is to believed, witness another first. Speculation is rife that Indian-American Piyush ‘Bobby’ Jindal could be John McCain’s choice for the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Columnist William Kristol raised this possibility this week in his column in The New York Times, adding to speculation by a chorus of conservative pundits. According to Kristol, at least four McCain staff members mentioned Jindal, the 36-year-old governor of Louisiana, as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Jindal’s appearances on several high-profile television talk shows in recent weeks appeared to substantiate the rumours, despite his repeated assertions that he was not interested in the vice-president’s job.

In many ways, Jindal embodies the perfect cocktail of characteristics and experience to balance McCain on the Republican ticket: youth, social conservatism, executive experience, racial diversity and Southernness.

Jindal is almost half McCain’s age, is staunchly conservative on social issues, and has some executive experience, having spent just over three months as governor in addition to a stint as an assistant secretary of health and human services. He brings racial diversity to a party that is often criticised for not being inclusive of minorities, and brings geographic balance to a campaign that will badly need Southern votes in November.

Given this fortunate combination of attributes, in addition to his meteoric rise and visible charisma, it is no surprise that many Republicans are hailing Jindal as the future of the party. Influential conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh repeatedly described Jindal as ‘the next Ronald Reagan’ in a February broadcast.

One could scarcely have charted a more unlikely rise in American politics by an Indian-American. His emergence as a poster boy for the Republican Party is surprising enough. According to a 2006 study, 70 per cent of Indian-Americans are registered as Democrats, while only seven per cent are registered as Republicans. Jindal’s success in Louisiana, of all states, is even more stupefying. It is a state where race plays a significant, and divisive role in politics. Also, only 1.4 per cent of the population is ethnic Asian, and only a fraction of that is Indian.

Given his successes, it would be surprising if Jindal does not already harbour ambitions of occupying the US’s highest office. The question for him would be whether this year’s election presents itself as a prime opportunity to get his name on a presidential ballot. It would certainly be tempting. Even a failure to win the election would enhance his profile nationally, and he is certainly young enough to run again.

Indian-Americans, and Indians, have been swift in celebrating Jindal. Among other accolades, he was named India Abroad Person of the Year in 2005. But some would say that he is the object of undeserved adulation from these quarters.

His conversion to Catholicism in early adulthood, for example, may be inoffensive, but it is his zeal for his newfound faith that is sometimes shocking. Not only has Jindal espoused the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in schools as an alternate theory to evolution and made evident his desire to ban abortions (even in many cases of rape), but he reportedly wishes to repeal hate crime laws which are dear to many Indian-Americans. When he does speak publicly of his land of origin, he uses it to reflect the hurdles his parents had to overcome to achieve the American dream. Jindal’s personal development, while no doubt a vital factor in ensuring his appeal among Louisiana voters, also smacks terribly of desi apostasy.

A slightly more bizarre episode from his student days may also come back to haunt him. In 1994, Jindal published an article in a Catholic periodical in which he described a friend’s possession by malevolent supernatural forces. He speculated that this was caused by ‘pagan influences’ and because the friend’s mother had, in his words, “worshipped and offered a sacrifice at a pagan altar in the Far East.”

Politically, Jindal has distanced himself from any vestige of an Indian or Indian-American agenda. He voted in favour of the Hyde Act in 2006, along with 83 per cent of the House of Representatives. But more tellingly, he seems not to have joined 176 of his colleagues in the mostly-symbolic Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans. Over two years after he first entered Congress, Jindal was not listed among its members.

Regardless of McCain’s decision, Jindal will likely be a contender for US president in the future, and his achievements will be closely followed in India. But as he takes larger strides in the American political sphere, perhaps Indian opinion of him will be coloured as much by what he stands for as by his skin tone.