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.)
Still, there's an insatiable appetite for heroes and role models in India, where two-thirds of the population is under 35. Any achiever whose name sounds remotely Indian is eagerly appropriated as an opportunity to bask in reflected glory.
Williams, the NASA astronaut, is the daughter of an Indian father and a Slovenian mother and was born and raised in the United States. Even though Williams was not the first Indian American NASA astronaut to join a space mission -- that title was claimed by Kalpana Chawla in 1997 -- she was mobbed by fans when she visited India last month. She met the prime minister and president, attended political events and visited schools, TV studios and the home of Mohandas Gandhi.
Thousands of Indians had prayed, lit candles and fasted to ensure Williams's safe return to Earth after her mission last year.
"The story of an Indian playing the American dream and succeeding allows us to dream as well," said Shiv Visvanathan, a social scientist with the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. "It is a statement of possibility, even if they have a tenuous link to India. Indians feel that it could have been me. In fact, it is me."
Visvanathan said Williams looked like a bewildered tourist during her carnival-like visit to India and reacted naively to the public adoration. "The dialogue never went beyond the predictable cliches because she was a mere symbol," he said.
Critics allege that Indians are interested in claiming only rich and successful compatriots who live in the West, even those who hardly ever invest in their homeland. Rarely celebrated, for example, are the quiet contributions of thousands of Indian workers abroad, mostly in the Persian Gulf, who sent almost $23 billion back to India in 2004, compared with a mere $3.5 billion in foreign investment.
"The overseas Indian is our brand ambassador. Every success story abroad creates curiosity about India, and in a globalized world, the benefits are always mutual," said Ajay Khanna, chief executive of India Brand Equity Foundation, a marketing group.
Back in Khanpur, Jindal's relatives tried to call him with congratulations but got an answering machine instead. Even though they haven't heard from him, extended family members bicker over who is closest to Jindal's father and who has received more letters from him. At a Sikh shrine, some villagers held a three-day prayer ceremony for the Republican governor-elect, who is now a Roman Catholic.
"My children ask, 'Why does Uncle Bobby never visit us?' " said Asha Jindal, who has never spoken to Bobby Jindal although she is married to his cousin. "He is a famous American now, but this is his real home."