The story of Piyush "Bobby" Jindal reads like an assimilation fairytale: A son of immigrants rises through the ranks to become the first Indian-American governor at 36, overcoming racial boundaries in his home state of Louisiana.
As Hurricane Gustav threatened his state, Jindal took center stage to preside over what was shaping up to be a national catastrophe. He canceled his speech at the Republican National Convention, which was scheduled for tonight, to avoid a repeat of the government failures that plagued Katrina. Heavily mentioned as one of John McCain's choices for vice president, Jindal's story is meant to be representative of the American Dream and the inclusiveness of the GOP.
Whether or not his duties as governor prevent him from actually making it to the Twin Cities, his place on the national radar is assured.
But the more press Jindal gets, the more he becomes the subject of fierce debate among Indian Americans questioning if he's "Indian enough." Politics aside, the dialogue sounds an awful lot like the growing pains the black community struggled with for generations and still struggles with in many ways. In Indian communities around the country, the pressing questions bubble quickly to the surface. Is it enough to have "one of our own" in a position of power? Does it really achieve anything for our community in a larger, more permanent sense, simply to have this young Republican ascend?
There are many things about Jindal's record that spark conflict. He supported making the Patriot Act permanent—an act that has directly and sometimes aggressively restricted the civil liberties of Indians. The identity politics swirling around Jindal are an indication of the degree to which Indians are still struggling to find their place along the political spectrum. Indian Americans dramatically favored Kerry over Bush in the 2004 election. And many have a real affinity for the Clintons (some say Bill was the first Indian American president, too). But Jindal is not an anomaly. There are a significant number of Indian Republicans shaking things up, as well.
This wrestling with cultural credibility is old-hat for most African Americans. There are go-to columnists and spokespeople for this kind of thing. But Indian Americans have only begun to grapple with this, being relatively new to the national stage. Jesse Jackson might be increasingly irrelevant to post civil rights-generation blacks, but we are still waiting for our Jesse, let alone our Barack.
Maybe that's why Jindal—love him or hate him—means so much to us. Dinner parties erupt into conflict at the mention of his name. There are numerous groups on Facebook both for and against him. Supporters and detractors alike are known to mutter, "Well, at least he has an Indian wife." Ten years ago, we were happy seeing an Indian-American actor play another taxi driver on TV. Most Indian communities were not prepared for the first Indian-American governor or for a strong contender for the vice presidential nomination.
For any Indians still in doubt, the Republican Convention confirms that Jindal is a real player in the American political arena. But many argue that while "a seat at the table" is encouraging, it isn't enough. There is a nagging sense among many Indians that while Bobby is "one of our own," he isn't really representing us.
As we learned from the discussions around whether Obama is "black enough," defining "one of our own" can be a tricky task, and community can be a fluid term. Jindal's detractors point to any number of slights to his heritage. He changed his name from Piyush to Bobby as a child, converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a teenager and is now a conservative Republican.
But is that such a unique offense? Growing up as a Hindu with a name like Piyush (which remains his official name) couldn't have been easy in Louisiana, where two Indian doctoral students were murdered at LSU just last year. And there are certainly many Christians and people named Bobby (including a very handsome Bollywood star) living in India. In fact, India is still struggling to define being "Indian enough" for itself, with 24 official languages and an economically and religiously diverse population stemming from different roots and routes. It's a "community" scattered across the globe, with large numbers of NRIs (non-resident Indians) in Africa, the U.K., Australia and America.
And that's where things get tricky. Like many of the young Indian-American progressives who question his credibility, Bobby Jindal is American, born to Indian immigrants and was brought up in this country. Young Indian professionals in the United States have energetically embraced the multicultural American society. Should Jindal be held to a different standard?
Perhaps there's some resentment that the face of Indian Americans in U.S. politics doesn't actually represent so much of the community. How can a biology major from Brown University support teaching intelligent design in schools and oppose all stem cell research? There have been not-so-subtle accusations that Jindal only supports certain positions to advance himself in the Republican Party. But politics is a dirty game. The reality is, Jindal was elected by a wide margin to represent the people of Louisiana, and despite his wavering approval ratings, that's what he's doing.
As Jindal steps out to represent the future of the Republican Party, he also represents a generation of Indian Americans who have a range of views and ambitions. Fellow Indians may cheer Jindal's moment in the spotlight. But they are also showing overwhelming support for Obama, and groups like South Asians for Obama are hosting fundraisers featuring big names like Mira Nair and Kal Penn.
As Indians wait to see if "a skinny guy with a funny name" really can become president, we're watching with a keenness rooted in our own aspirations.
Read the discussion on Bobby Jindal.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American cultural trends and community issues.