Washington: In the wake of the killing of nine African-Americans inside a church in Charleston by a white racist, two Indian-American leaders – both with presidential ambitions – were in the forefront dealing with issues of racism, the confederate flag, which symbolises slavery, and gun violence.
Both are from the Republican Party and both are seen as rising stars. Yet, one appeared wedded to the worst political instincts in American society while the other seemed willing to defy them, whether for bald political reasons or the rightness of the cause.
Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina where the attack took place, showed a near perfect blend of emotion, political acumen and boldness. As the state’s first woman governor, she chose the high path, quickly getting ahead of the curve by calling for the confederate flag to be taken down. She shamed other Republicans to follow suit, having read the tea leaves just right.
But Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana who is expected to announce his bid for the presidency this week, hedged. He said it was up to the state to decide whether to continue flying the flag even as other Republican presidential hopefuls were making their fastest about turn on the issue. He then chose to shill for the gun lobby, refusing to see any connection between the killings and easy availability of guns.
Both Jindal and Haley are mascots of “diversity” in the Republican Party and began their political climb in the early 2000s. But Jindal has steadily lost popularity within his state and within the party while Haley has gradually risen in esteem.
The Charleston killings, which fused America’s frequent tragedies involving mass shootings and racist violence into a single horrific incident, proved to be a test for all politicians but especially these two: Should one respond in the usual, banal manner reflecting the old party line or use it as an opportunity to stand apart and even lead?
The difference between Haley and Jindal was apparent after a photo of Dylann Roof, the man charged with the shootings, surfaced where he was shown holding the widely reviled red and blue banner. Also known as the Southern Cross, the flag evokes the most painful chapter of American history – slavery.
It represented the southern states or the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery during the American Civil War against the North, or the Union, which was against slavery. To this day, racist individuals and groups use the flag as a symbol of racial superiority and a call to “take back the country” — an expression also used by Roof.
African-Americans see it as a noxious reminder of an ugly past. As Sheila Jackson Lee, the firebrand black Congresswoman from Texas said the last time the confederate flag became a point of controversy, “Why would African Americans want to be reminded of a legalised system of involuntary servitude, dehumanisation, rape and mass murder?”
Yet there are significant numbers of Americans who insist the flag is a cultural icon representing history and honouring soldiers killed in the war. In South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, the flag perpetually flies full mast near the state assembly. Surrounded by an iron fence, it is padlocked to its pole. Even as the state and US flags were half-mast in memory of the victims, the confederate flag was not.
When Haley led the call to take the flag down, a move requiring support of two-thirds of the state assembly, she sensed a critical mass of both national and local opinion was coalescing in favor of the idea.
Interestingly, during her re-election campaign last year, she considered the flag issue an irritant at best. During a debate against her Democratic opponent, she said not a single CEO had ever raised the confederate flag as a problem in doing business during her first term as governor. In the days after the Charleston killings, did she get calls from executives of Boeing and others to resolve the flag problem? One may never know. What we do know is that her stand has taken her miles ahead in the popularity sweepstakes.
Jindal was the exact opposite. In addition to evading the flag issue, he chose to severely attack President Barack Obama for daring to raise the issue of gun control in his comments after the shootings.
Obama had made the connection – all too apparent to the rest of the world – between mass shootings and easy access to guns. “Someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” the President said. He expressed frustration and tacitly admitted defeat for failing to change country’s the gun laws. According to one count, Obama has had to address the nation in similar situations no less than 14 times since taking office.
But Jindal found Obama “completely shameful” for bringing up gun control and accused him of playing politics with the issue. According to the governor, it was time to grieve, not engage in a political debate on gun control.
Jindal came across as a handmaiden of the National Rifle Association, arguably the most powerful lobbying organisation in US politics and the primary reason why guns continue to be sold openly with few restrictions or background checks.
Jindal has close links with the NRA, having been a key speaker at its annual jamboree this year, where he compared religious freedom to the freedom to own guns. He owns two and gets an A+ rating by the NRA.
Ironically, Haley too enjoys an A+ rating by the NRA and is unlikely to call for gun control. But by pushing the envelope on at least one count, she has risen in public estimation.
Note: During the editing process, a quote from Sheila Jackson Lee was wrongly attributed to Royce West