What more can we say about Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s governor-elect, Nikki Haley?
wspapers, blogs, and magazines—including this one—have over the past months and years devoted space to consideration of their campaigns, historic wins, Indian parentage, religious conversions, name changes, conservative politics, and role in the Republican Party. We’ve covered the racist campaign against Haley (recall South Carolina State Senator Jake Knotts calling her a “raghead”) and questioned whether or not either candidate would have succeeded if they had retained their respective Hindu and Sikh faiths. We’ve listened to their speeches (many of cringing, but with ears perked to catch some mention of India or Indians), and shrugged, unsurprised, at the same-old reactionary talking points.
Of course, Indian Americans are not the only ones paying attention to Jindal and Haley, but we have had the most vexed relationship to their political rise.
When Jindal was elected in 2007, he became the nation’s first Indian-American governor. A Rhodes-scholar, he was swiftly pegged a whiz-kid, the “Republican’s Obama.” Rush Limbaugh touted Jindal as a possibility for John McCain’s vice-president, and the new governor was tapped to deliver the Republican response to Obama’s address to Congress in February 2009. Jindal’s speech was poorly delivered and received, but he remains a subject of ongoing speculation for a presidential run in 2012.
Haley’s recent election came as no surprise. She received a strong endorsement from Sarah Palin, who characterized Haley as a “pro-family, pro-life, pro-second amendment” conservative. Without referencing India or immigration, Palin described Haley’s parents’ “honest” work ethic, perseverance, and ingenuity as the foundation on which the United States was built. Addressing a crowd of South Carolina Tea Party-ers, Palin proclaimed, “[Nikki’s] our kinda gal!”
Sure. But is she our kinda gal? You know, us Indians? We can’t shake the question, even though we know it’s not exactly the right one.
Liberal and progressive Indians feel no love for Jindal or Haley and wouldn’t have voted for either. That’s not my point. The fact is that even Indians on the political left have paid attention to the rise of Jindal and Haley. And despite our ambivalence about identity politics, we must continue to ask what their election represents—not just for conservative politics, but for Indian Americans, individually and collectively.
Why? For one thing, as Tunku Vardarajan has argued, Jindal and Haley tell us something about “the new racial face” of the American south. For another, Democrats are still trying to get our heads around the dearth of brown candidates in our ranks. And, as our own Sandip Roy has written, we have to consider Jindal and Haley within a larger movement of South-Asian American “discovery” of political clout, evidenced by the strength of organizations like the U.S. India Political Action Committee (USINPC) and SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together).
But there’s something else at stake, and that’s the articulation of an immigrant narrative at odds with the one many of us are now accustomed to telling, especially in California.
In Jindal’s response to Obama’s first Congressional address, he told his story: “My own parents came to this country from a distant land…” India—a distant land? Jindal’s speech was delivered just two days after Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar win, a moment which arguably brought India “home” for many Americans. And, if anything, the last decade has confirmed in the United States that India is far from distant. The Indian voice is not only on the other end of the line, but the Indian democracy is our supposed Eastern analogue. India and the United States are continuing to develop strategic partnerships (often problematically, but that’s a topic for another page), and Indian “soft power” continues to mold the hearts of yoga-practicing, “Jai Ho”-dancing Americans.
Jindal went on to describe his childhood: “Growing up in India, [my father] had seen extreme poverty. And as we walked through the [grocery store] aisles, looking at the endless variety on the shelves, he would tell me: ‘Bobby, Americans can do anything.’” Re-watching Jindal’s speech recently, I was struck not by his stock narrative of model minority success, but by how totally at odds his message was with the fact that Indian Americans have recently been returning to and investing in India in droves, as Vivek Wadhwa and others continue to demonstrate.
And now comes Nikki Haley, with her own model minority mythology, dripping
with Tea Party platitudes and dressed in the American flag. During her November victory speech, Haley thanked her parents and in-laws for reminding her every day, “how blessed we [are] to live in this country,” a country which nevertheless, she proclaimed, is under siege. “We want to take our country back!” Who are “we,” and whose country needs to be taken back from whom? Haley’s policy articulations rarely extend beyond the pledge to eliminate the corporate income tax.
Nikki Haley belongs to the Tea Party, not to Indian Americans. Bobby Jindal belongs to the Republicans. Both of them are deploying the normative story of Indian American success as artillery not only against other immigrant communities (as Vijay Prashad eloquently argued in The Karma of Brown Folk) but also against progressive agendas for the United States in the 21st century. They are also producing an image of India that continually reinforces middle-American chauvinism and provincialism.
Make no mistake—Jindal and Haley are as reliant upon India and their originary Indian-ness as any of the Indian American politicians who are more explicitly comfortable in their own brown skin. So it’s not enough for Indian Americans to say that we don’t support candidates on the basis of race, ethnicity, or identitarian identification. Jindal and Haley may not seem to be talking to us or for us, but they’re reliant upon a politicized construction of “our” story that will continue to operate unchecked—unless we check it.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.