The Importance of Being Bobby

Both too radical and too conservative, Jindal is the awkward embodiment of deeply lived NRI contradictions and anxieties, perhaps giving us a sense of why he fled from that identity.

Bobby Jindal. Photo by by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Bobby Jindal. Photo by by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0

This last week, most Americans would have found themselves discussing the landmark rulings by the US Supreme Court upholding Obamacare and recognizing gay marriage as a legal right. The American NRI imagination, however, found itself seized by a somewhat less significant event on the national and international stage: the decision of Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, to throw his hat into the US presidential race.

Jindal, born and raised a Hindu but a convert to evangelical Catholicism, and an arch-conservative gun-rights endorsing Republican, has long been reviled among NRIs, especially Hindus. Conservative and liberal Hindus in the US have both found much to dislike in Jindal’s perceived betrayal of his Indian and Hindu heritage, symbolized in his gesture of abandoning his birth name Piyush for the more American-sounding Bobby. For the former, Bobby’s shame lies in the act of abandoning the Hindu and Indian culture into which he was born. For the liberals, it is Jindal’s desire to assimilate into White American society by ignoring questions of racial inequity and immigrant struggles that draws derision. In doing so, the argument goes, Jindal has disavowed a fundamental part of his own self and history. It is these themes that manifested themselves in the Twitter trend #BobbyJindalisSoWhite that seems to have amused Indians across the globe in the last few days.

Confounding conservatives and liberals

Yet the diasporic Indian reaction to Jindal perhaps says more about diasporic Indian anxieties than about Jindal himself. For one lot of NRIs, Jindal’s crime is not so much that he is conservative but that he is conservative in the wrong kind of way. The irony is that if Bobby Jindal had displayed the same purported extremism or trenchant commitment to his faith as a Hindu rather than as Christian, he would likely have been embraced warmly by the very communities that now label him a turncoat. If Jindal had insisted on the primacy of Vedic Civilization instead of creationism, or if he had disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage in the name of Hinduism rather than Christianity, the vitriol against him would have been significantly more tempered.

The choice of religion to which Jindal has converted also explains, to an extent, the intensity of the dislike he has drawn. It is worth stating the well-known fact here that the Indian-American diaspora has historically been a strong source of support for the ideological project of Hindu nationalism—from providing financial support for building a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid to targeting scholars accused of ‘anti-Hindu’ research. In the Hindu nationalist scheme, Christianity with Islam is one of the two alien faiths that compromises the essential Hindu cultural unity of India. A Hindu converting to Buddhism, a so-called ‘Indic’ faith in the vocabulary of the Hindu Right, is not seen as a betrayal akin to that of a Hindu converting to any denomination of Christianity.

Equally, Jindal’s decisions deeply complicate cherished assumptions about identity, immigrant heritage, and belonging held by diasporic Indian-Americans of broadly liberal persuasion. On the one hand, the classic liberal narrative stresses the right of the individual to remake himself or herself to find his or her authentic identity. In the American context, this axiom dovetails quite neatly with the mythologies of the American Dream and America as the land of opportunity. On the other hand, however, liberal identity politics also places an obligation on the minority and/or immigrant achiever to necessarily speak for the burdens and struggles of the community and immigrants at large. In the figure of Bobby Jindal, these principles find themselves in a kind of permanent tension. Liberals who would arguably fight for the right of an Indian Dalit to convert to Christianity to escape oppression from Hinduism see Jindal’s act of wanting to transcend his Hindu and Indian background into a generic Americanness as a kind of craven turning away from a necessary political engagement.

Neither Mindy nor Sanjay

For second-generation Indian-Americans or American Born Confused Desis as they are affectionately called, Jindal is the anti-Mindy Kaling, the well-known actress and comedian, and one of the stars of the popular TV show, The Office. For their parents, Jindal is the evil twin of Dr. Sanjay Gupta, routine NRI overachiever, CNN’s amiable neurosurgeon-on-hand, and dream son-in-law of all NRI Hindu aunties. It is true that Sanjay Gupta was voted one of the sexiest people in the world by People magazine in 2003, a poll Bobby Jindal is unlikely to ever do well on. However, he has much in common with both these heroes of the diasporic Indian-American community.

Like both Gupta and Kaling, Jindal attended a highly prestigious university in the US, topping off his undergraduate degree at Brown with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. Like both of them, he has known exceptional success at a fairly young age. Like Sanjay Gupta, he has gone beyond a conventional career in medicine in developing a public persona to engage more widely with American society. Like Mindy Kaling, originally named Vera Mindy Chokalingam, Jindal has changed his name, ostensibly to make it easier on the American tongue.

Unlike Sanjay Gupta, however, Jindal has not stayed within the conventional ambit of the NRI achiever fold, straying, if you will, into the flock of another shepherd, much to the chagrin of the conservative diasporic Indian. And, unlike Mindy Kaling, his decision to wander off the beaten path has not been for trendy second-generation ABCD- NRI-approved reasons, like a career in comedy, molecular gastronomy, or ice hockey. Both too radical and too conservative, Jindal is the awkward embodiment of deeply lived NRI contradictions and anxieties, perhaps giving us a sense of why he fled from that identity.

Had Mindy Kaling done what she did without finishing an undergraduate degree at Dartmouth or had Sanjay Gupta chosen to be a medical journalist rather than neurosurgeon-cum-chief medical correspondent for CNN, their stories would have, in some way, been closer to that of Jindal.

But then, neither Kaling or Gupta would have been heroes of diasporic Indian-Americans either.

Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor at Santa Clara University. He runs the popular Twitter account @RushdieExplains