Success Of Politicians Inspires Pride And Concern

❤️ Join Members on SPNT Mobile App!


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
When Barry Goldwater mounted his campaign for the White House in 1964, the Jewish humorist Harry Golden took notice. “I always knew the first Jewish president of the United States,” Mr. Golden put it, “would be an Episcopalian.”

On the surface, Mr. Golden was simply stating a biographical fact. Mr. Goldwater’s Jewish father had married an Episcopalian woman and their children were raised as Christians. More deeply, though, Mr. Golden was giving voice to what seemed then to be a bitter and immutable truth: A Jew could compete for national office only by shedding his identity.

Mr. Golden’s dated wisecrack has acquired a surprising relevance recently among a different religious and ethnic group. In Indian-American circles, the rising national prominence of two Indian-American politicians — Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the Republican nominee for governor of South Carolina — has provoked both pride and backlash.

While much of America celebrates Mr. Jindal and Ms. Haley as emblems of tolerance, as brown-skinned children of immigrants triumphing in the former Confederacy, a number of Indian-Americans have recoiled from the putative role models because each of them converted from a traditional Indian religion to a form of Christianity.

Not even the most caustic critics suggest that Mr. Jindal and Ms. Haley changed religion out of political expedience; both did so as young adults, well before beginning their electoral lives. Yet there remains discomfort and even disdain with Mr. Jindal among some Indian-Americans for having renounced his Hindu faith to adopt Catholicism and with Ms. Haley for leaving the Sikh religion to become a Protestant.

In their recent campaigns, while noticeably playing down their Indian roots, both have flourished their Christian credentials, at least in part to appeal to evangelical voters. Add to all that the decision of both candidates to change their names — Piyush Jindal taking on Bobby from the “Brady Bunch” character and Nimrata Nikki Randhawa taking her husband’s surname — and you have the makings of a controversy.

“People in the Indian-American community see someone like them doing something that’s in the public eye, but their route to getting there is at least a superficial denial of their ethnicity,” said Deepak Sarma, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “With the name plus the conversion, no one would guess they’re Indian-American. Maybe they’re embarrassed.”

One place where the crosswinds of Indian-American reaction can be measured is in the pages of India Abroad, a weekly newspaper with several hundred thousand readers in North America. After Ms. Haley won the Republican nomination for governor last month, India Abroad devoted its entire front page to a photo of her with the headline “The Future Is Here.”

Yet in succeeding issues, after the newspaper published an op-ed column lamenting Ms. Haley’s conversion, the top letter to the editor came from a reader disparaging her as a “female Uncle Tom” who would be “willing to sell Indian-American interests down the river in a heartbeat.”

In such comments, the newspaper’s editor, Aziz Haniffa, said he discerned two different strands of opposition. One comes from older Indian immigrants who may share the political conservatism of Mr. Jindal and Ms. Haley but are Hindu nationalists. Another comes from young, more liberal children of immigrants who view Christian conversion as part of a right-wing political identity.

“Indian-Americans don’t want them to wear their ethnicity on their sleeve,” Mr. Haniffa said, “but they also don’t want them to be apologetic.”

Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College in New York who has studied Hindus in America, pointed to another factor. From the historical experience of invasion, conquest and colonialism — by Muslims, Portuguese and British — many Indians associate conversion with coercion.

“They think of evangelism,” Professor Min said, “as a violation of human rights.”

Whatever Mr. Jindal and Ms. Haley think, they are apparently keeping it to themselves. Ms. Haley’s office did not reply to requests for an interview; a spokesman for Mr. Jindal said the governor was too busy dealing with the oil spill in the gulf.

While both politicians have de-emphasized their Indian heritage on the stump, both also have endured innuendo and ethnic slurs from opponents.

What can also be said is that the tension between group identity and political viability hardly began with them. Alfred E. Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for president, faced withering bigotry in his 1928 campaign. It took 32 years for another Catholic to try, and when John F. Kennedy did, he had to explicitly promise the American public that he wouldn’t be taking orders from the pope

The most successful Arab-American politicians — John Sununu, Spencer Abraham, Darrell Issa — have all been Christian rather than Muslim. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush engaged in a form of intra-Christian conversion by telling voters of their born-again experiences.

“There is a sense that anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism still lurks in the body politic, so that there is a benefit in modern, pluralist America to being a Protestant,” Julian E. Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, wrote in an e-mail message. “Conversion serves another purpose. It is used in an era when the religion part of electoral politics defines the character of a candidate.”

Running as a Christian also makes numerical sense. Indian-Americans account for only 0.2 percent of Louisiana’s population and 0.3 percent of South Carolina’s, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research group. The national figure is more than twice that, and New Jersey’s is almost 10 times higher.

Despite the daunting math, some Indian-American politicians have succeeded without altering their identity. Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh, in 1957 became the first Indian-American elected to Congress. At least five Indian-Americans, most of them Hindu, are expected to run for Congress this fall, from California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Yet like it or not, Nikki Haley and her critics may be part of the same curve.

“I am asking some of you old timers, the Gen-Xers, to take a breath and see how far things have come,” the blogger Abhishek Tripathi wrote recently on, a South Asian Web site. “When we were kids our parents forced us to be doctors or engineers. When I have a kid I am going to force him/her to be a governor.”

❤️ Join Members on SPNT Mobile App!