Pride and Joy in India Over La.'s Bobby Jindal

At left, villagers and relatives gather in Khanpur, the ancestral home of Louisiana Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal (R), above.
At left, villagers and relatives gather in Khanpur, the ancestral home of Louisiana Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal (R), above. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

KHANPUR, India -- U.S. politics aren't usually the subject of gossip in the homes of this sleepy rice- and wheat-growing village in northern India. But when Bobby Jindal, an American of Indian descent, was elected governor of Louisiana this month, the residents of his ancestral village erupted in joy, distributing sweets and lighting firecrackers.

Along rural roads lined with heaps of cow dung, they danced the traditional bhangra to the beat of drums.

It was quite the celebration considering the village's relatively flimsy ties to its native son. Jindal's father packed up more than three decades ago to chase the American dream, leaving behind a large extended family. One relative vaguely recalls seeing a then-4-year-old Bobby visit many years ago, but others are not so sure. And when Jindal visited India in 2006 as part of a congressional delegation, he didn't bother to visit Khanpur.

To the villagers here, none of that seems to matter. They have drawn up a wish list of public works projects they would like Jindal to fund, including a hospital, a women's college and a sports stadium.

"Bobby's success is our success," said a turbaned Ujagar Singh, 68, who bicycled to school on the village's bumpy dirt tracks with Jindal's father. "His story begins here. The quality of the fruit depends on the roots."

That kind of thinking extends far beyond this village in Punjab state to scores of cities and villages across India where people tend to view the successes of Indian Americans as their own.

Jindal, 36, follows in the footsteps of Sunita Williams, a NASA astronaut; Indra K. Nooyi, the head of PepsiCo; Sabeer Bhatia, the creator of Hotmail; singer Norah Jones, whose father is the Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar; and Neera Tanden, a policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.

The names of such people are routinely splashed across newspaper pages here, their images broadcast on television. To many Indians, they are role models, testifying to India's emergence as a world powerhouse.

Just two decades ago, before this country shed its socialist past and opened up its economy, so-called nonresident Indians were mocked as "non-reliable Indians" or "not-required Indians." They were chastised for having abandoned their impoverished motherland to live in wealthy nations. But in the lexicon of modern India, "brain drain" is slowly being replaced by "brain gain," as Indians begin to embrace the success of their countrymen abroad.

That's not to say that Indian Americans are universally celebrated. Madhu Goud Yaskhi, a member of the Indian Parliament who holds a U.S. green card and practices law in New York, says only those who contribute to India's development should be hailed as Indian heroes.

"It is meaningless to celebrate the successes of Indians who have no ties with the motherland and are Indian only in name," he said. "It shows a sense of inferiority complex among us."

Some Indians find it ironic that their American compatriots are being worshiped at a time when so many Indians are succeeding at home. The country has a burgeoning consumption-driven middle class and a booming economy that is growing at 9 percent annually. Indian industrialist Mukesh Ambani, with a net worth estimated at $63.2 billion, is among the richest individuals in the world. (On Monday, the Press Trust of India reported that his worth topped that of even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, after a rise in the Indian stock market.)

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