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A Dividing Line Springs Up From Jindal's Milestone
Ethnicity, Conservative Views Debated by Indian Americans

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ever since U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal was elected governor of Louisiana on Oct. 20, Indian Americans across the country have been debating whether to celebrate or turn up their noses.

Many feel downright giddy at the thought that for the first time, an Indian American will hold the top job in a state, particularly one in which less than two decades ago white supremacist David Duke won the votes of a majority of whites during his failed bid for governor.

But plenty of Indian Americans recoil at Jindal's socially conservative views, such as the Republican's support for banning abortion and teaching "intelligent design" in schools.

They are also gnawed by a sense that the Baton Rouge-born son of immigrants distanced himself from his heritage during the campaign. Noting that Jindal, 36, chose the nickname Bobby in place of his given name, Piyush, as a toddler and converted from Hinduism to Christianity in high school, some have accused him of being a "potato": brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Whatever their views, "absolutely everybody is talking about this," said Amardeep Singh, an English professor at Lehigh University and a contributor to Sepia Mutiny, one of several blogs serving South Asians that hosted discussions on the topic last week.

"It's a soul-searching moment because it raises all these questions about identity and the kind of public profile that Indian Americans have to cut in order to succeed in American life," Singh said.

As for himself, Singh, 33, who was born in New York and raised in Washington's Maryland suburbs, confessed to deep ambivalence. As someone who tried to fit in during college by taking the nickname Deep but who has since tried to resurrect his given first name, Singh is pained that the first Indian American to win a governorship did so using the name Bobby. But Singh is also certain that Louisiana voters were under no illusions about Jindal's ancestry.

Since waves of Indian immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late 1960s, the 2.5 million-strong Indian American community has emerged as one of the country's most educated, successful and assimilated ethnic groups. And to some extent, the conversation over Jindal has cleaved along generational lines, with those who immigrated to the United States as adults strongly supporting him and those who came as children or who were born in the United States feeling conflicted.

For instance, Suresh C. Gupta, a physician who immigrated to Potomac in 1968, is a staunch Democrat, yet he was one of several Indian Americans who organized fundraisers for Jindal during his unsuccessful bid for the governor's mansion in 2003.

"It doesn't matter that Bobby is a Republican," said Gupta, 65. "He is our child, and we need to support this next generation so that they can become leaders of this country and make us proud."

Gupta's ethnic solidarity, he added, was born of his struggle to establish himself in a land that was not always welcoming. If the second generation of Indian Americans is less elated by Jindal's success, Gupta said, it's only because "they had everything given to them. They have not known what it was like to come here and have to prove yourself every step of the way."

Gupta, who did not have a fundraiser for Jindal this time but remained in touch with the campaign, was dismissive of complaints that Jindal rarely mentioned his ancestry on the stump. Indeed, in contrast with other candidates who have foreign-born parents, such as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Jindal often seemed to eschew discussion of race, asserting during one debate that "the only colors that matter here are red, white and blue."

Nonetheless, Gupta insisted, "Bobby is one of us, and we will have access to him."

Maitri Venkat-Ramani, 32, a scientist with an oil company in New Orleans, has little patience for such views. "My mother and I have been arguing about this on a daily basis," Venkat-Ramani said with a laugh. "I keep telling her, just because [Jindal] looks like you doesn't mean he is you or that he is going to act like you. So I don't understand where all this pride is coming from."

Venkat-Ramani, who came to the United States with her parents at age 16, said she also worries that when Indian Americans cheer for a candidate with whom they otherwise disagree merely because he shares their ethnicity, they are reinforcing the very color consciousness they want the rest of American society to reject.

Her views were echoed by several Indian Americans who work for organizations seeking to encourage more civic engagement by the community.

"I think it's important that people have a more sophisticated analysis, that rather than just writing a check, they start to hold leaders accountable," said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow.

Some Indian Americans who are active in the Democratic Party said they also worry that Jindal might help the GOP make deeper inroads among Indian Americans, who, in contrast with some minority groups, are not tightly affiliated with a party.

But Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates who in 1990 became the first Indian American elected to a state legislature, says that Jindal's win will help Indian Americans of every political stripe because it will convince more prospective Indian American candidates that they can appeal to mainstream voters.

Part of the reason more Indian Americans are not in elected office, Barve said, is because they do not think it is worth trying to run. Jindal helped chip away at that notion in 2004, when he became the second Indian American elected to the U.S. House. Now that he has won statewide office, Barve said, "this will truly be a case of one boat lifting the tide for everyone."

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