Southern Fried Desis

How curious. By the looks of it, Nikki Haley is a shoe-in to win the gubernatorial election in South Carolina. This means that come November, the first two US state governors (akin to chief ministers in India) of Indian origin are going to be elected in the Deep South. The other one, of course, is Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

It helps to know that even by the standards of the South, these states are especially conservative and their politics strongly charged with race. Yet no Indian-American has been as remotely as successful politically in any other part of the country.

Most of the others are aiming to be, at best, attorney-generals or state legislators.

Here are some of the themes that have revolved around them.

1. There was nothing Indian about Haley and Jindal. In other words, they have embraced Christianity, modified their names to sound more Western and therefore dropped their “Indianness”. Partly true. However, I say most Indian-Americans who are born in the US (as Haley and Jindal both were) are nothing other than overwhelmingly “American.”

This has been the case with all immigrants born in the US who do not live in ethnic ghettoes. They absorb the values and culture of the population around them. Most Indian-Americans are liberal Democrats because they live in liberal Democratic suburbs near big cities. Anglicizing names is common among all US immigrants.

Hindu rightists and liberal-leftists, going by the blogs, are particularly shrill about the religion shift. Personally, I think conversion is a wholly individual decision.

If Jindal converted to Catholicism for expediency’s sake, he chose the wrong religion: Louisiana is overwhelmingly Baptist. His first governor election run foundered because the Protestant voters in the north were suspicious of his Catholicism – his Indian background was quite secondary.

Admittedly, if they were overtly desi, their political success would have been a lot harder. But the truth is that their Indian, non-Christian origins were raised by their opponents repeatedly, so it’s hard to believe that this was not widely known among the electorate. The evidence is that they didn’t care.

2. Republicans are looking for token non-whites. That could be conceivable in posts that are not elected directly by the voters. The Republican national party’s bodies, for example. But to fight your way through grueling primary elections and then put yourself before the voting population of the entire state – that requires genuine mass support.

Much of the racist and ethnic-based attacks against them (sexist in the case of Haley as well) came from Republican opponents. What is striking is that these campaigns failed. Even at the primary level, where the voting is largely by registered Republicans, this stuff didn’t have much impact.

The more economically wealthy and urbanized Southern states have changed politically. North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas (it was part of the Confederacy) have large numbers of minority politicians. And the Republican party has widened its embrace there. George W. Bush won his governorship by winning over blacks and Latinos.

I suspect that something similar is happening in Louisiana and South Carolina. That the Republican party there now has enough members who no longer rally to calls that White Christendom is under threat.

3. Towards a structure of minority politics. I am putting out an educated hypothesis here. The Democratic Party is more structured in its minority politics than the Republicans (who didn’t have any structure to speak of.)

The “space” for a minority politician in the North and West is occupied by the far more numerous black and Latino leadership. And this makes it harder for an Indian-American – or Asians in general – to carve out a political space. This space is also occupied in some regional Republican parties, like Florida with its Cuban-American voting bloc.

This is not the case in places like Louisiana or South Carolina where history has so polarized minority voting that the minorities are all in one party and it is defined entirely as black vs non-black.

An Indian-American fundraiser somewhat confirmed this once when he spoke of how he was wooed by the ultraconservative Jesse Helms. The latter basically said Asians were okay because he saw race in US politics as being only about blacks.

So an Indian-American can run in these areas so long as they are a) not in-your-face foreign, b) are conservative/libertarian in believing in small government and oppose abortion, and c) are seen as broadly racially neutral.

If this theory is correct, I would expect Indian-American politicians to pop up in small homogeneous states like Maine and Montana as well.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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