The Root: On Gov. Bobby Jindal

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Shiwani Srivastava
Contributor to The Root
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

Writing for The Root about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, journalist Shiwani Srivastava says: "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?"

Shiwani Srivastava was online Wednesday, September 3 to discuss From Piyush to Bobby, her article for The Root on Gov. Jindal and how he is seen by the Indian American community.

A transcript follows.

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Shiwani Srivastava: Hi, this is Shiwani Srivastava - author of the piece "From Piyush to Bobby" on The Root. I'm a freelance writer specializing in South Asian American cultural trends and community issues, but I especially enjoy getting a chance to interact with readers. I look forward to your questions!

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Glasgow, Scotland: Is it not true that Hindu Indians are not able to identify with Gov. Jindal because of the simple fact he converted to Catholicism? Is this akin to racism?

Shiwani Srivastava: I think you raise a good point. I should start off by saying that India itself has a rather large Christian population (the largest religious group after Hindus and Muslims). You'll also hear Anglicized/Christian names, both as a result of Christianity's presence in India and as a leftover marker of colonialism. So, if Hindus are unable to identify with Jindal just because of his religion, that doesn't seem consistent with the religion's history in India. I suspect the real issue for the community is more the way in which Christianity has become the unofficial religion of the Republican party, in what should be a secular nation.

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Brooklyn, NY: Within the African American community, particularly in the youth, there is a strong, inverse association between education and "blackness". Basely put, intelligence equals whiteness, and is despised. Do you find that education is a factor in maintaining one's "Indian-ness"?

Shiwani Srivastava: Great question. I think "Indian-ness" actually relates more to a connection to the homeland (even though we're talking about a generation that was born in America). This translates to some pretty abstract measures - knowledge of one's culture, marriage choices, number of trips back to India, etc. But certainly, I think there are people in the community who do feed into the model minority stereotype and have the expectation that to be an Indian in this country means to get an education and strive for the 'American Dream.'

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San Francisco: Hey Shiwani - I was wondering if you noticed an age-based bias among Indians towards/against Bobby Jindal?

Shiwani Srivastava: I have seen different responses to Jindal from different age groups, although I can't generalize. I think the generation of Indians who were the pioneers, migrating to the US in the 1960s and 70s, are more likely to embrace him because he represents a changed America from the racism they endured when they arrived. But there's a flip side - that generation of Indians also tends to love the Clintons because of Bill's real focus on India when he was President.

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New York, NY: In your article, you discuss the parallels between Bobby Jindal and the Indian Community and Obama and the Black Community. What impact, if any, do you think the election of Obama will have on the Indian Community?

Shiwani Srivastava: I've followed the Indian American media's coverage of both Obama and Jindal pretty closely, and they are both impacting the Indian American community in different but important ways. In the case of Obama, the most obvious answer is that most Indian Americans who vote are registered as Democrats, so he represents their concerns. But beyond that, I think we'll see a different treatment of terrorism (for example, it has very different implications to hold someone under suspicion of terrorism just for being brown and having a funny name - something that has directly affected South Asians living in this country). Beyond that, I suspect that we might start to see more Indian Americans aiming high in American politics, if Americans are willing to elect someone with a "funny name."

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As an Indian: I think your answer to Glasgow frames my skepticism for Jindal.

As a South Asian I can see how the growing wealthy class of American South Asians would align themselves with him as they are a growing number of them moving into the Republican party for that very purpose.

For those, like me, who are still very much left of center I can acknowledge he's a positive force in some respects for Louisiana but still can't identify with his policies. Not voting for him or supporting him because he is Indian is the same as switching support to McCain b/c Palin is female, or making the argument that blacks should vote for Obama because of his race not because of substance.

That being said, I know that if he were to hit the national stage he would have support from the Indian-American population primarily because of the color of his skin.

Shiwani Srivastava: I hear you, but I think we can draw a parallel to Hillary here. It's unfair to expect that former Hillary supporters will vote for Palin just because she's a woman - and I suspect the implication would insult many of them. Given that the majority of Indian Americans are registered as Democrats (and that they've shown tremendous support for both the Clintons in the past and Obama in the present), I'm not convinced that Jindal would have unanimous support of the Indian American community based on his ethnicity.

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New York, NY: Do you sense a backlash against the Indian-American community because of tech industry outsourcing, or do you think I.T. issues don't matter in an us-versus-them situation, and it all comes down to deeply-rooted racism?

Shiwani Srivastava: I don't think the backlash against Indian Americans is palpable on a day-to-day basis, but there is an implicit us-versus-them going on in the discussion around outsourcing (the debate quickly seems to devolve to that without a larger discussion of macroeconomics and what's really going on in the global economy). The fact is, if Jindal (or any Indian-American) were running for president right now, I think voters would be skeptical that he'd be willing to take a stand against outsourcing to India. I think we'll start to see that problem bubble to the surface as first generation children grow into our politicians and leaders.

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Milmay, NJ: Indian people in my neck of the woods tend to live in households where the parents are either doctors or engineers. It seems like traditional Republican economic strategies would appeal to these high-earners. In a closely knit community, why should Indians support anyone in the Democratic party, when their agenda tilts toward social instead of fiscal conservatism?

Shiwani Srivastava: You're right - there is a large percentage of Indian Americans in the medical and engineering sectors. This tends to feed into the model minority stereotype of Indians as high earners - and yes, you will find wealthy Indian Americans (as in any community) who vote Republican because of their fiscal conservatism. But if I had to theorize on why registered Indian immigrants and Indian Americans still tend to vote Democrat, I'd say it relates directly to a.) the geographical location of the community in more blue stats (like NJ, NY, and California) b.) how a President handles foreign policy in South Asia, c.) how religious/Christian the Republican rhetoric is at the time, and d.) the fact that most Indian Americans don't arrive wealthy - it's a slow climb to the top.

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Washington, DC: Whether he's Indian enough is not the true question (I have three first cousins whose mother was born in Karachi before the partition). The real question is whether Mr. Jindal really believes that Catholic priests should perform more exorcisms and that there is a provable component of otherwordly mysticism in the Catholic religion. That aspect of his belief system is so far outside the mainstream that I wonder how he can function in society.

Shiwani Srivastava: I think you're pointing to an important issue here - religion creeping into political rhetoric. In general, I've been finding people in the Indian American community who express discomfort with Jindal not so much because he converted to Christianity, but because of the way in which it has informed his place and politics in the Republican party. That being said, he is known for being a great administrator and I do think the two things are (and should be) separate spheres.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I recall after September 11 that anyone wearing a turban--Muslim or Hindu--was suspect. People in government buildings wearing turbans were often questioned, and I had an American born friend who converted to Hinduism who was questioned by police for taking photographs in a garage. How does the Indian American population feel about the Patriot Act and Governor Jindal's support of the Patriot Act?

Shiwani Srivastava: I actually wrote a story on violence against Sikhs (followers of Sikhism, a South Asian religion in which men wear turbans) following 9/11, and the violence against this community was staggering. I'd also like to call attention to your point that Indian/South Asian Americans can be Hindu, Muslim, and a variety of other religions. Thanks for mentioning that. And yes, they have been unfairly profiled and taken into custody as a direct result of the Patriot Act, which Jindal supported making permanent. I think this is probably the biggest bone that the community would have to pick with Jindal.

But as an important aside, it also shouldn't devolve into an us-versus-them mentality in terms of "Oh, you should be racially profiling THOSE Muslims." The point is, many of these people imprisoned under the Patriot Act (South Asian, Middle Eastern, whatever) were completely innocent and given no trial, which makes it inherently unconstitutional.

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Madison, Wisconsin: What difference does it make whether he is Indian Enough? He was born in the US and an American. End of story. I think the Indian community should worry about how they can be part of this community and make a name for themselves by being active in all areas of their lives. Thank you.

Shiwani Srivastava: Thanks for your comment - it points out an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, there's the feeling that Jindal should represent the community, meaning Indian Americans. But on the flip side, Indian Americans want to be recognized as Americans - because they are. Jindal represents that conundrum, which is why I think he's such a hot topic. But I think it's possible (and important) to find a middle ground.

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Alexandria, VA: Is this the difference between Democrats and Republicans: when a Democrat grows up he goes from being a Barry to a Barack and when a Republican grows up he goes from being a Piyush to a Bobby ?

Shiwani Srivastava: I've wondered about this too - why names are so important to people in this election and political climate. I think it's because they trace back to people's identity. For example, I read an article in an Indian American magazine suggesting that the actor Kal Penn (the actor from the Harold and Kumar movies) should change his name back to Kalpan Modi now that he's famous. But in some ways, Kal Penn is ALSO his identity as an actor - is it so different from having a name like Bono or Sting? I think you will see people trying to equate politics with the name choices of these two candidates in particular. But I'd say this is an identity issue that crosses party lines.

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Exorcism: A good 35% of the Republican party is evangelical and much closer culturally to rural Afghanistan than they are to the rest of America. So I don't think a little thing like holding exorcisms will stop him from getting the nomination in later years. But how do you think the supernatural beliefs will go over with educated America?

Shiwani Srivastava: I definitely understand the sentiment you're getting at. But I worry about labeling any of Jindal's (or anyone's) beliefs as "supernatural" - something that I think all Americans need to watch out for, religious or not. Let's say Jindal was a Hindu and decided to run for president - would the fact that Hinduism is polytheistic automatically have his beliefs labeled as supernatural at best, and backwards at worst? But it does start to become a concern when someone's religion directly informs their political policy (which it does with Jindal in terms of stem cell research and teaching creationism in school).

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Arlington, VA: Shiwani,

In your opinion, what percentage of Indian-Americans/South-Asians are Democrats versus Republicans by age group, socio-economic status and immigration status (newer citizens versus older ones)?

I would think the younger/newer population are more liberal-leaning and hence would not be inclined towards Jindal.

Shiwani Srivastava: The only figure I have is from Asia Times regarding the 2004 election. Registered Indian American voters favored Kerry over Bush almost 4 to 1, but 30% of were undecided. I think that points out two important things - 1.) politicians really should be paying more attention to the community because there's room to win them over, and 2.) if Indian Americans want the attention, they need to register to vote. I actually don't have any numbers on the age group or socio-economic breakdown, but I know that South Asians for Obama has been largely organized and led by relatively middle-class, well-educated South Asian Americans in their 20s and 30s. No surprise, though, that Obama is mobilizing young voters. But if I had to speculate, I'd agree with you that young Indian American voters aren't inclined to support Jindal.

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"The New Jews": An Indian doctor-character on TV recently said "We're the new Jews." Interesting concept, considering the educational parallels, name-changing, entrepreneurial approach to the American Dream. Much more similar than to the American black history.

Shiwani Srivastava: I've actually heard that parallel made before as well. I think if you looked for similarities between just about any minority groups in the U.S., you could find them. That being said, there are also significant differences in their histories, and therefore how they are viewed in American society. Sorry if that's a bit of a vague response.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I know there is an Indian American in the New Jersey legislature. Do you have a count as to how many Indian Americans are in elected positions and, if so, how many are there?

Shiwani Srivastava: Unfortunately, I don't know. This is a list I'd love to see compiled, so if anyone does have the answer, please do send it along.

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Shiwani Srivastava: Thanks for the great questions! If you do find more information and statistics on Indian Americans in politics, please let me know - you can leave a comment for me at www.shiwanisrivastava.com.

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