Just Call Me Bobby

01/07/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 29: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 29, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Members of the Republican Party are scheduled to speak at the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference, which hosts 1,500 delegates from across the country through May 31st. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

People outside India find my name very hard to pronounce. Radhika, you think. It's a simple enough name. As simple as Sarah, much simpler to the Indian diction than Elizabeth. But when it's not the Indian mouth attempting to pronounce Radhika, the unfamiliar 'dh' proves an insurmountable obstacle. I've been called Rad-heeka, Rudd-eeka and many other variations, to the extent that I now gratefully smile when people call me Radika, replacing the soft 'dh' with a harsher 'd' sound. I don't mind. I can live with Radika. It's close enough to the original.

It's not just Indians who travel abroad and find their names unpronounceable. Jewish Levis' have changed their names to Lewis. Italian Rodolpho's have been reincarnated as Rod. At home too, countless Siddhart's refer to themselves as Sid, endless Sukanya's as Sue. In this global age, where the natural urge is to anonymise and fit in, it is unsurprising that Louisiana's Indian-American Governor Piyush Jindal has chosen to identify himself as Bobby Jindal.

A name change is understandable. But as Bobby Jindal readies himself to fight for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US Presidential Election, there is little else about the changes he has made to the persona he exhibits to his potential electorate that is palatable.

He has chosen to oppose same sex marriage. This stance unwittingly allies him with much of middle-class, middle-age India. He has chosen to have his Governor's portrait painted in a shade that is several unnatural degrees lighter than his own skin tone. Again, that could be argued as ill-advised and typically subcontinental vanity. India, of course, is full of men and women desperate to edit the melanin out of their skin.

"Yet for Piyush - sorry, good ol' Bobby - to reject the financially powerful voters he can actually call on as his own defies logic."

But Jindal's every effort has been to distance himself from his Indian heritage, and from the Indian community that has been a support and important source of funding to him thus far. Every other candidate seeks to appeal to the minority vote. Barack Obama won two elections in part because of his powerful oratory, but also because a great swathe of non-Caucasian America threw their weight behind the non-Caucasian candidate. Hillary Clinton has an important vote bank in women, in liberals and is additionally taking pains to publicise her mother's financial struggles to appeal to the working class demographic. Jeb Bush - political royalty and a committed Republican - will play up the fact that he married a Mexican immigrant and speaks fluent Spanish to target the fast growing Latin American vote bank. Yet for Piyush - sorry, good ol' Bobby - to reject the financially powerful voters he can actually call on as his own defies logic.

Little surprise then that the Indian-American vote bank is vociferously turning to social media to pour scorn on Jindal's campaign.

The hashtag #bobbyjindalissowhite trended on Twitter for much of last week after Jindal said that he did not believe in Indian-Americans (or African-Americans or Irish-Americans) but simply Americans. His announcement that he was 'tanned, rested and ready for this fight' drew great ire. Mostly, India and Indian-America is unsure whether he is uncomfortable with his skin colour or simply blind to it.

What a contrast he provides to Obama, who for all the problems of his Presidency, has been a beacon for young African Americans.

And yes, African Americans will still identify themselves as a distinct ethnicity. The recent events in Charleston and Ferguson attest to this.

"This loss of memory may have endeared him to the ultra-conservative Republican Party faithful to date, but is unlikely to do him any favours with the wider American electorate."

What a difference Bobby Jindal is, poster boy as he is for forgetting your heritage. No one is asking him to stop eating with a fork and knife. It might surprise him to know that we can use cutlery in India too. No one is asking him to wear a sherwani. No one is asking him to speak in Hindi. We in India rock Western wear too, we too speak English. No one needs him to be a ghetto Indian. But what would be gracious for - no, incumbent on - him to acknowledge is the importance his background has had on his success. His meteoric rise in the Republican Party has in some part been due to his being a minority. And his Indian background is surely responsible for his academic achievements and for his ambition. Duty and respect are a key part of his cultural heritage, as is filial respect. Emphasising these aspects of his upbringing would do him no harm on the campaign trail. De-emphasising his roots may well do.

Bobby Jindal is an American. No one is denying that. Hundreds of thousands of others of Indian origin identify themselves as American too. But what he seems to have forgotten is where he comes from, and the traits he owes to his heritage. This loss of memory may have endeared him to the ultra-conservative Republican Party faithful to date, but is unlikely to do him any favours with the wider American electorate. For they are acutely conscious of all the divisions manifesting themselves in American society. And they will know that someone who chooses to forget their past is in equal danger of losing their path to their intended future.

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