There’s an all-American, aw-shucks sweetness to the name Bobby. Something about its diminutive chumminess, its affiliation with rough-around-the-edges but ultimately gentle pop culture boys, its hazy, nostalgic attachment to fallen American icons and archetypes.
And Bobby Jindal, the newly elected governor of Louisiana and the first Indian American ever elected to a governorship, is as American as the best of them, and has a shot at becoming just as iconic. (Hopefully he’ll manage without the ugly declines of some Bobbys and or the ethical tangles of many Louisiana politicians.) In a great bit of personal lore, American-born Jindal chose, at age 4, to drop his immigrant parents’ chosen name of Piyush for the round, warm, American tones of Bobby, plucked from the appellation of the “Brady Bunch’s” youngest boy. The sweetest Bobby of them all the safety monitor, the underdog, the dreamer appropriately became Jindal’s namesake, and Jindal precociously began the process that all politicians and, more broadly, all second-generation kids must undergo: that of creating an American identity.
Jindal’s next big self-shaping moment came in high school when he began the process of converting from Hinduism to Catholicism. In a 2003 New Orleans Times-Picayune profile, he said he was moved to change faiths after the death of his grandfather, conversations with an interdenominational minister at Louisiana State University and years of study and church-going. One could argue that the switch (going from possible polytheism and mother goddesses and miracles to monotheism-with-saints and a mother-goddess-like figure and miracles) isn’t a radical one, but for Jindal, his new religion, along with his new name, would be of paramount importance to his political future.
Louisiana voters deserve credit for their flexibility. In just over a decade, they went from entertaining the candidacy of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke to electing their first female governor (over Jindal), and now they’ve chosen their first minority leader since Reconstruction. But would they have voted for a Hindu Piyush Jindal? “Bubbas for Piyush” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Bubbas for Bobby,” a bumper sticker that some Louisiana conservatives sported. And surely a Hindu candidate would find it harder to toss red meat at the right (bad pun fully intended). As a believer in a religion with no single book, no religious hierarchy and no well-established political tilt in the U.S., a Hindu candidate wouldn’t be able to use his religion as shorthand for his political platform as a Catholic might.
Of course, Catholic candidates don’t have it so easy either. Long discriminated against in the U.S., Catholic candidates still find their religious identity debated as a possible handicap and find it difficult to be flexible on core church positions, lest they be seen as flip-floppers. In fact, all candidates with a non-WASP, non-male identity of some kind have to answer for that identity. Hillary Clinton’s cleavage becomes a topic of debate; Barack Obama suffers accusations of not being black enough.
Jindal has benefited from the flexibility that comes with belonging to a minority without a set identity in the U.S. (for a while, Americans couldn’t even decide whether Indians were white or not). And whatever assumptions may be attached to the Indian identity funny foreign names, that wild religion Jindal sidestepped, thanks to his bold willingness to carve his own identity. His gubernatorial candidacies this one and his first four years ago were marked by questions of whether his dark skin would be unappealing to Louisiana whites, or whether he was dark enough for Louisiana blacks. Narrow-minded as the discussion was skin color shouldn’t be taken as symbolic of certain political values, as the highly conservative, brown-skinned Jindal shows it demonstrates how Jindal was free from a distinct racial identity and whatever political positions people attach to it.
And while Jindal is to be praised for running a smart campaign, embracing the flexibility of his political and personal identity, and putting other Type As to shame with his stunning career, his success raises questions of what pundits mean when they demand assimilation from immigrants and their children. Jindal is, after all, a right-wing ideal of assimilation, and that’s not just because of his self-selected first name. The Wall Street Journal praises him for downplaying his ethnic identity: “while he treats his Indian background as an overall plus, he won’t trade on it.” And the New York Times says says of his post-win football banter: “The message could not have been clearer: I’m one of you, a normal, red-blooded, football-loving Louisiana guy.” Red-state bloggers love his story and his stock Christian-right positions (no abortions, no exceptions; the Ten Commandments in government buildings; creationism in school curricula). If this is what the right wants when it asks immigrants to “assimilate” a version of American-ness that contradicts many American ideals, not least among them separation of church and state then it’s no wonder they’re never satisfied.
Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times’ editorial pages.
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