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Indian-Americans Feel 'Disappointed,' 'Abandoned' By Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced his presidential candidacy in June and suspended it this week.
Sean Gardner
Getty Images
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced his presidential candidacy in June and suspended it this week.

In suspending his campaign for president, Bobby Jindal gave a nod to his immigrant roots.

"To put this in perspective, my parents came to this country 45 years ago; they came here for freedom and opportunity," Jindal told Fox News Tuesday night. "I don't think in a million years they would have ever imagined that I'd be governor, or that one day I would be running for president of the United States."

Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, was the first Indian-American politician to run for president, but his historic bid for the White House didn't feel so historic to many Indian-Americans. There were Indians on the left who mocked him, and Indians on the right who questioned him.

He changed his first name from Piyush to Bobby and converted to Christianity in high school. Overall, Jindal's brand of identity politics (or lack of identity politics) disappointed many of his fellow South Asians.

But it wasn't always that way. When Jindal first ran for office in 2003, many Indian-Americans considered him a breakout star.

Sure, he was Republican and most of them were Democrats.

But for a hot second, there was bipartisan pride in Jindal's political success.

We were supporting him all these years because he's one of us. ... It hurts when somebody says that I am no more Indian-American.

"He was a whiz kid, very high intellect," said Sanjay Puri, who remembers meeting Jindal a decade ago, as the chairman of the US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC was far more active in those days, raising about half a million dollars in 2006. This cycle it has barely raised $2,000).

Jindal announced he was going to run for Congress at a USINPAC event, which Puri remembered as "a great moment of pride."

"We did fundraisers ... but we also started connecting him with the rest of the community around the country," he said.

Puri says he introduced Jindal to Indian physicians, businessmen and motel owners across the country. In fact, financial records show Indian-Americans across both major political parties wrote Jindal checks.

"He was a young, dynamic personality," said Sampat Shivangi, a Republican doctor in Mississippi who has supported Jindal over the years. "I thought he'll be the next generation of Indian-Americans to come up in public life."

Jindal made history as the first Indian-American governor in the country in 2008.

But any lingering cultural pride quickly fizzled.

These days, the Indian-American community's once-golden son has become the black sheep. Many say they consider the Louisiana governor a huge disappointment.

I think it's very unfair for our community to pass judgment on Bobby.

They say in private the governor took their money but, in public, he downplayed his ethnic identity.

'Hyphenated Americans'

By the time Jindal announced he was running for president this summer, the son of immigrants had alienated many immigrants.

"I am done with all this talk about hyphenated Americans," Jindal said in his announcement speech. "We are not Indian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans ..." he continued.

That particular remark about hyphenated identity upset a lot of folks in the Indian community. Liberal Indian-Americans ripped into Jindal, calling him a sellout. South Asian comedian Hari Kondabolu and others mercilessly mocked him on social media using the hashtag #JindalSoWhite.

But even some longtime Indian-American Republican supporters like Shivangi, who says he was one of the few Indian faces in the crowd for Jindal's presidential announcement, were troubled by the Louisiana governor's cultural evolution.

"I won't be telling the truth if I said I was not disappointed. I was," said Shivangi. "We were supporting him all these years because he's one of us. ... It hurts when somebody says that I am no more Indian-American. A lot of people felt that he used Indian-Americans to rise up to where he is. Once he got in, he just abandoned all of us."

Though Shivangi says that Jindal distanced himself from some of the very people who once generously opened up their wallets for him, he still has a soft spot for him. Just because Jindal "abandoned" the community, Shivangi doesn't think the Indian community should "abandon" Jindal, he says.

Shivangi is convinced Jindal is going through some sort of temporary identity crisis. "I strongly feel that he will be back in our fold," he added.

But Versha Sharma, 29, is not so forgiving. Like Jindal, she grew up with Indian immigrant parents in Louisiana.

She says Jindal's run for governor excited a lot of Indian-Americans in her home state and, in fact, it even split loyalties in her traditionally Democratic family.

"My mom and my sister decided that the identity politics of voting for the first Indian-American governor was ... exciting, so they actually voted for him the first time around," said Sharma.

That affinity was short-lived.

"We realized he didn't actually want to be publicly embraced by the Indian-American community," Sharma said.

Sharma says — to be clear — she's never believed that Jindal ought to wear his Indian-ness on his sleeve.

"It's not just that I think, 'Oh, he's Indian; he should talk about Indian issues," said Sharma. "It's because he has taken pains to make sure that he's not really painted with this immigrant brush."

Sharma recalls her own Indian-American childhood in Louisiana — and the sting of discrimination

"I distinctly remember [people] coming to our house door on Diwali — which is the festival of lights, it's a very important holiday for Hindus, it's our new year. They would come to our door on Diwali and hand us pamphlets telling us Hinduism was evil," said Sharma.

She said she doesn't understand how a fellow Indian-American from Louisiana would pretend those instances don't occur, and she feels that the way Jindal deals with identity politics is a denial of her own existence.

But Puneet Ahluwalia, a Republican operative in Virginia, said he doesn't understand the Indian community's expectations.

'Unfair' To Pass Judgment?

"When I see Bobby Jindal, I see a brown face," said Ahluwalia. "Just look at him — he's an Indian. Jindal is an Indian name. I don't think anything more than that has to be said."

Ahluwalia points out that Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans don't constantly beat their ethnic brand, especially when they run for national office.

"It's important for [Jindal] to be seen as a leader of the masses," he said. "I think it's very unfair for our community to pass judgment on Bobby."

But the general distaste for Jindal isn't just about identity politics — it's also ideology.

"Bobby is very, very, very conservative, and over time he's just gotten more and more conservative," said Puri with USINPAC. "[The] Indian-American community's not. They're a fiscally conservative, socially liberal community."

Research shows Indian-Americans are the most heavily Democratic Asian group in the country.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside, recently surveyed a group of 150 Indian-American elites and found that the Indian community's disappointment with Jindal is about more than policy disagreements.

"What we found is that Bobby Jindal had among the lowest approval ratings of all the Republican candidates," said Ramakrishnan. "They felt that he was inauthentic, that he was trying to run away from his identity and he was embarrassed about being Indian."

Ramakrishnan points out that many Indian-Americans lean left, but the vitriol directed toward Jindal goes beyond partisan politics.

Some of the same people who criticize Jindal said they've written checks to a different Indian-American Republican governor — South Carolina's Nikki Haley.

She's a Republican who converted to Christianity too, but some Indian-Americans give her more cultural street cred for visiting India, meeting the prime minister, and appointing an Indian-American as her chief of staff.

"Sometimes symbolic things do matter," said Puri. "She's not running away from her heritage, and I think that's the difference between Bobby and her."

In the end, though, it wasn't Bobby Jindal's identity politics that tanked his campaign. Jindal struggled to raise money, failed to gain traction in debates, and never quite stood out in a Republican field dominated by outsiders.

Neither the Jindal campaign nor the the governor's office responded to requests for comment.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.