Many conservatives and Christians are touting Nikki Haley's convincing win to be the GOP candidate for governor in South Carolina as proof, along with Bobby Jindal's successful run for Louisiana governor in 2007, that both Republicans and the South are going post-racial, and that these Indian-American pols show how open the party really is.
"For the GOP, this is the best case scenario," said David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network
, Pat Robertson's Virginia-based news station. "You have a Christian, Indian-American woman representing your party in a state in the Deep South. Folks, from a PR perspective it doesn't get any better than that. Haley's victory adds much needed diversity to the GOP rainbow."
But many Indian-Americans say the primary victory by Haley (she seems a likely winner in November, too) and Jindal's growing prominence (he has been hailed for his response to the Gulf oil disaster) have also exposed a serious downside for their community, which is largely composed of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, the so-called "Dharma" religions that dominate in India and much of Asia.
That's because both candidates felt they had to explicitly and increasingly reject the religious elements of their native heritage -- Hinduism for Jindal, and Sikhism for Haley -- while playing up the Christian faith they both embraced as young adults. The issue appears likely to become a growing concern as Indian-Americans emerge on the national scene; there are currently a record six Indian-American candidates
running for Congress, and at least two others running for statewide office.
"Many Hindus and Sikhs may question why Jindal's and Haley's disavowals need be so public and unflinching," Aseem Shukla, a doctor at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, wrote at The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog
. "Religious conversion should be a personal sojourn, but Jindal's and Haley's capitulation to an evangelical insistence on public religiosity and rejection of their ancestral faiths are galling to many."
To a degree, Barack Obama faced the same problem as a candidate, since he had to demonstrate his Christian bona fides for many on the right who were convinced (as many still are) that he was a Muslim, which he never was. He also had to overcome concerns from the far right about his race -- much as Jindal did with his ethnicity, and as Nikki Haley had to do, as was seen from the vicious "raghead" comments and other attacks on her in her South Carolina contest.
In the end, conservative voters in Louisiana and South Carolina showed that those concerns were not going to stop them from supporting Jindal or Haley. But one thing those candidates had going for them was their Christian faith, which was always front and center.
Jindal was born in the U.S. of Indian parents and raised a Hindu, and he became Catholic while in college. Haley was also born in the United States of Indian immigrant parents and was raised a Sikh, another major religion on the Indian subcontinent. She became a Methodist at 24, and continued to attend both Christian and Sikh services, though attacks questioning the legitimacy of her faith during the recent campaign led her to downplay her family connections to Sikhism.
That overt religious identification with voters has left some Indian-Americans ambivalent about her victory, and Jindal's legacy.
"The pigment of Obama's, Jindal's or Haley's skin does not seem to matter goes the popular narrative, but Christian faith is a foregone criterion for electability," Shukla declared. "A religious litmus test is clearly in play."
And it is a test, many feel, that candidates like Haley and Jindal are all too willing to ace.
For example, Haley has always used her middle name, Nikki -- her full name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa -- and she married Michael Haley in 1996. As attacks on her heritage grew more intense during the campaign, she seemed to massage her public profile
to make her appear more Christian and less Sikh. (Assimilating, whether religiously or culturally, is a perennial issue for all immigrants groups, and even within families: Haley's oldest brother -- she is one of four siblings -- is a retired military man and a Southern Baptist.)
Like many second-generation immigrants, Jindal also altered his name to fit in, asking his parents when he was 4 if they would call him "Bobby" -- like one of the boys in "The Brady Bunch" -- rather than his given name of Piyush. But not only has Jindal been outspoken in defending his adoptive Catholic faith over and above Hinduism and other religions, but in 2007, while in Congress, he was one of a handful of legislators to abstain from supporting a non-binding resolution recognizing the historical significance of the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali.
Haley and Jindal "were really ambitious about their politics, and they could not do it being Hindu or their old religion," Vidya Pradhan, editor of India Currents magazine, told The Associated Press. "I do think it was a political move," Pradhan said of their increasing identification with Christianity. "They felt that not being a Christian would hurt them."
Of course, that charge could be made against almost any politician today, as Republicans and a growing number of Democrats seek to demonstrate that they are good, churchgoing Christians -- and most important, even better Christians than their opponent.
Many Indian-American politicians counter that their faith is irrelevant to their electoral fortunes, and that Americans will not hold their beliefs against them, whatever they profess.
Yet that may be a public posture to some degree, showing a desire not to play the victim card.
Surveys show Americans grow more reluctant to vote for a candidate the more "exotic" or alien that candidate's religion appears, with Mormons and Muslims, for example, still facing major obstacles
to public acceptance. (Atheists still fare the worst, by far.)
Hindus and Sikhs are such a small community, and until now have had such a low profile, that pollsters have not even asked about the public's comfort level with them. But the public knows so little about Indian religions that they are often lumped together with Islam, or glibly disparaged, as evangelist Franklin Graham recently did with Hinduism's deities. "No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation," Graham said
on May's National Day of Prayer.
Moreover, the political calculus is likely more complicated for Indian-Americans who run as Republicans, and in regions like the South.
Except for Haley, the other seven Indian-American candidates for Congress this year are Democrats, and most are practicing Hindus or they do not highlight any particular faith orientation.
The candidates are: Surya Yalamanchili, a former Procter & Gamble brand manager, who will face incumbent Republican Jean Schmidt in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District; Ravi Sangisetty, who is running for the open seat in Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District; Reshma Saujani, who is waging a primary challenge to longtime incumbent Carolyn Maloney in New York's 14th CD, and running on an unlikely pro-Wall Street platform
; Raj Goyle, who is running as a blue dog Democrat in the 4th Congressional District in Kansas; Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran, who won a Democratic primary for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District; and Ami Bera, a physician who is challenging incumbent Rep. Dan Lungren in California's 3rd CD.
Also in California, Kamala Harris, the child of an Indian mother and black father, won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general and is favored to win the election this fall.
The irony of all this religious fretting and posturing is that Americans across the board have become so broad-minded about faith and so accepting of Hindu-like beliefs that Newsweek's Lisa Miller in 2007 wrote an essay titled "We Are All Hindus Now."
As Miller noted, two-thirds of Americans believe -- as do Hindus -- that many religions can offer eternal salvation
, not just Christianity. And more Americans than ever are choosing to be cremated at death, which is the traditional Hindu practice. Moreover, one-quarter of Americans (24 percent in a 2009 Pew survey) believe in reincarnation.
Miller also mentioned yoga, which is a traditional spiritual practice of Hinduism and Sikhism -- but something that has become such a popular part of America's fitness and well-being culture that most any candidate could get away with declaring themselves an adherent.
Heck, even Sarah Palin made waves among yoga fans when she was photographed in Runner's World showing off the classic Vrksasana
, or "tree pose." Except she was doing it incorrectly, which may cast doubts on how well she really knows her Hindu traditions.