Skinny Candidates With Funny Names

I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
—Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2004)

The South Asian presence in U.S. politics has ramped up in recent months starting with the controversial election of Bobby Jindal to the governorship of Louisiana. His victory was remarkable in a conservative state but less heartening once we look beneath the surface event and explore the rhetoric of Jindal's campaign. South Asia and South Asian-Americans have also played important roles in the 2008 Presidential campaign raising questions about Indian-American campaign donors for example or the debate over unilateral military action against Taliban forces operating within Pakistan. Here Barack Obama, another candidate "with a funny name," is in focus.

In October 2007, the New York Times published an article on Bobby Jindal's second campaign for the Governorship of Louisiana ("An Improbable Favorite Emerges"; Octobr 19, 2007), focusing on his apparent surge of popularity in rural northern Louisiana. This is an area that was considered staunchly conservative, dominated by the same white voters who had earlier supported avowed racists like David Duke. In Jindal's first gubernatorial campaign, in 2003, these were the voters who balked at the prospect of voting for a non-white candidate—even one whose conservative credentials are extensive and consistent. According to the Times, Jindal's success was in large part due to his ability to eschew the impression that he is an immigrant overachiever and policy wonk (though his extensive resume suggests that is exactly what Jindal is). This success is exemplified best by a photograph included in the article, showing Jindal shaking hands with a stereotypically rural white southerner—a tattooed, bearded heavy-set man wearing overalls and a baseball cap. Earlier, the photo suggests, this man might have run from a skinny, overeducated career politician whose parents immigrated from India. Now, however, the man is evidently going to vote for "Bobby."

After seeing the profile in the New York Times, it was no surprise to me that Jindal went on to win the election as predicted on October 20, 2007, becoming the first Indian-American governor in United States history. As a second-generation South Asian-American, I was, however, deeply torn about the event. Jindal's campaign success (again, encapsulated in the photo I mentioned earlier) taps into an anxiety I myself have had as a child of immigrants—who became the first (and only) person in my extended family to earn a Ph.D. Even if one's tastes and cultural values are profoundly "Americanized," as mine are, there remains a sense that the Indian immigrant doesn't quite fit, a perception which can be felt in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, ranging from naive "cultural" inquiries from one's friends and colleagues, to explicit racialized harassment (the latter being an especially common problem for Sikh men). What I call "immigrant anxiety" derives from the ignorance and xenophobia of some Americans, but a good part of it comes from the immigrants themselves, an internalized sense of remaining not-quite-pukka despite everything. Jindal's victory suggests he's been able to overcome both sides of the immigrant's anxiety syndrome: the part that comes from others' mistrust, and also the part that comes from himself—his own sense of being something different, something other than a "normal" American, or in this case, a representative Louisianan.

I should underline that despite my interest in the campaign, I'm far from sympathetic with Jindal's specific politics, and indeed, some aspects of Jindal's campaign that have begun to emerge after the election appear especially troubling. For instance, there is evidence that Jindal may have tried to build support amongst conservative white voters by using certain racially-charged keywords to indicate his lack of sympathy for six African Americans accused in Jena of assaulting white students (the "Jena 6"). According to an Op-Ed in the Shreveport Times by Tannie Bradley (October 5, 2007), Jindal is reported to have condemned the nationally-organized protest in Jena by the African American community in the fall of 2007, with words that echo the white segregationists of the 1950s and 60s: "We don't need anybody to divide us. We certainly don't need outside agitators to cause problems." If this quote is correct, Jindal's historic election as the first Indian-American governor—in a highly conservative state without a significant Indian-American population, no less—may have come at least partly via hostility directed against the African-American community.

This example of political "triangulation," is of course, not the only evidence that Jindal has worked hard to be acceptable to conservative white Americans. On internet forums, South Asian American commenters have also questioned—not necessarily fairly—Jindal's use of the adopted name "Bobby" (rather than Piyush), as well as his conversion to Christianity. For instance, one commenter, a desi who identifies himself as "Neal," writes on "But he changed his name, religion, and now his outlook to fit in. I do not see anything that inspiring in it for me from an Indian point of view." I say the criticism is not necessarily fair first because Jindal's conversion to Catholicism happened much earlier in his life, when he was a student, and had nothing to do directly with his political career. And while the conversion itself must be respected as a personal matter, it does appear that Jindal's highly zealous, widely publicized embrace of Catholicism (and de rigueur opposition to abortion) was a significant component of his general success.

Secondly, there is the matter of names and nicknames, and here again the criticism comes across as somewhat unfair, as Jindal is far from the only one to prefer to publicly identify himself using an American-sounding nickname rather than his difficult-sounding South Asian given name—there are many a "Jaswinder" who end up as "Jesse." But the point remains: Jindal's level of success is hard to imagine if the candidate is "Piyush" rather than "Bobby." Both Jindal's underlined Catholic religious identity and his nickname, though not calculated, do at least coincidentally reinforce the suspicion, held by many South Asian Americans, that Jindal has bent over backwards to downplay any signs of foreignness associated with his Indian heritage. The same commenter quoted above, Neal, underlines this point succinctly as follows: "[Jindal] proves that brown skin in and of itself is not necessarily a barrier, sure [to success in American politics]. But Desi identity is more than skin deep. Even accounting for the politics, I don't see that much similarity between Jindal and myself."

Not surprisingly, Jindal's victory in Louisiana was widely covered by the Indian media in October 2007, but the honeymoon was short. In December, two Indian graduate students were murdered at LSU in Baton Rouge, not far from where Jindal's transition offices were located. The Telegraph (Kolkata) ran the story, "Silent Jindal Jolts University" (December 18, 2007), the title of which speaks directly to the sense of betrayal that the Indian-American governor-elect seemed to be unwilling to put his name on the line in the interest of his fellow desis—in this case students recently arrived from India. In fact, Jindal did soon issue a public statement condemning the murders and expressing condolences to the victims' families the day after the Telegraph article appeared—but the note of outrage at his silence in the previous days remains interesting because it suggests how much weight the Indian media in particular have attached to Jindal's rise to power. The South Asian American community, by contrast, perhaps knew better than to expect any external evidence of fellow-feeling or special sympathy from a politician who has aimed, throughout his career, not to allow himself to be marked as "foreign."

There is, of course, more than one politician in the U.S. at present with a name that some Americans find hard to pronounce. The other name that comes immediately to mind is, of course, Barack Obama. And here, what's striking is that it is known that Barack, as a child, was widely called "Barry," but as a politician has insisted that he be referred to by his proper name—the reverse, in some sense of Bobby Jindal's story. Some voters, in the Democratic primaries, have balked at the foreign-sounding name "Barack Obama," and one man in the Iowa caucus was quoted by a New York Times reporter as saying he "couldn't vote for someone named Obama" ("After Iowa, Challenges Lie Ahead for Obama"; January 4, 2008). Another, more familiar problem for Obama is of course the color of his skin, and it remains to be seen whether and how that will be rendered an issue in the weeks and months to come. But perhaps Jindal's example in Louisiana might show that ethnic (if not racial) difference might be effectively contained in political discourse through careful rhetorical posturing. The question for Obama, perhaps, will be whether to follow suite in the interest of neutralizing difference and garnering more votes.

Obama is, of course, not only a victim of xenophobia via funny-namism. In June of 2007, his campaign released a "leaked" memo that seemed to dish out xenophobic insinuations itself. Entitled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab) Personal, Financial, and Political Ties to India," the memo mentioned that the Clintons hold stocks in various Indian companies, that Clinton has had ties to a donor named Sant Singh Chatwal, with a checkered legal history, and finally that Clinton has hedged on the effect of outsourcing on the American economy. The rhetorical method of the memo was primarily insinuation rather than direct argument, as one sees even in the memo's title, "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)," which suggests that Clinton's ties to India, and Indian donors, are strong enough that they compromise her integrity. Obama rightly repudiated the memo just two days after it was released, using strong language (he called it "caustic" and "stupid"), and nothing even remotely similar to it has emerged since June. The memo has, nevertheless, had an afterlife, as it has recently been invoked by former President Bill Clinton as an example of Obama's "dirty campaigning"—in order to clear Clinton's own tendency to make questionable allegations about his wife's opponent. Finally, it should be noted that at least one of the questions raised by the memo, regarding the role of "bundler" Sant Singh Chatwal, has continued to dog Clinton, being reprised, for instance, in an unrelated September article in the Washington Post ("When Controversy Follows Cash"; September 3, 2007).

Finally, South Asian issues have also entered the campaign via questions about geopolitics and terrorism. Here, the focus of attention has been Pakistan, and again, it is Barack Obama who started the ball rolling with a major policy speech given on August 1, 2007. In the speech, Obama argued that the U.S. must take a robust stance against Islamic terrorists in Pakistan, stating, "It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." In the days following the speech, the statement was interpreted by a number of television pundits, as well as the candidates themselves, as suggesting that Obama was advocating a dangerous kind of unilateral military action in Pakistan, which might well lead to general instability in the nuclear-armed region. The Pakistan question emerged for a second time following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, though this time both Clinton and Obama were relatively careful in their statements following the tragedy. By contrast, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson made a very strong statement condemning Musharraf's failure to govern: "Musharraf has failed, and his attempts to cling to power are destabilizing his country. He must go" (December 27, 2007). For their part, several Republicans quickly rose to exploit the tragedy as proof that the "War on Terror" must continue. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has since dropped out of the race, was the most egregious in this regard, and his television ad "Ready," which was first broadcast on January 2, 2008 (it is still available on YouTube, as of this writing), used Bhutto's image as part of its "be afraid, be very afraid" message.

As of this writing, the presidential campaign is in full swing, and it is likely that South Asia, and South Asian-Americans, will emerge yet again as points of political contention in the months ahead. Unfortunately, there is little likelihood for improvement in the way in which these issues will be exploited in the political discourse. While what we have seen thus far has been less than inspiring, as Obama himself might say, one can always hope.


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