The joke in Louisiana is that Bobby Jindal can’t hold down a job, wrote the Wall Street Journal after his historic election as the first Indian-American governor of a US state. Being the youngest governor in the US is almost natural for the 36-year-old Jindal, a man whose career has moved at lightning speed.
He was an intern at US Congress while an Ivy League college student, became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a McKinsey management man and, by 24, was in charge of Louisiana’s $4 billion healthcare system. In two years he ruthlessly pruned the bloated system back to financial health. It proved he had the ability to go with his brains. His career went into warp speed. He was director of a national health commission at 26, president of the University of Louisiana at 27, an assistant secretary in Washington by 28. Jindal’s rapid-fire analyses of policy issues bemused his fellow Louisianan politicians. “Bobby talks faster than I can think,” one of them said.
Having a reputation for brains is not a crowd-puller in Louisiana, roughly the US equivalent of Bihar. This is a state so steeped in corruption, poverty, racism and bigotry that even locals call it “Lousy-ana”.
Beating the odds
Having dark skin and being of foreign extraction is no help either. When Jindal unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2003, his Democratic political rivals ran advertisements in which they deliberately darkened his skin and fluffed his hair to make him look like a black. They also played up his official first name, Piyush.
Even a family crisis that was evidence of his cool-headed ability — the delivery of his third child when his wife, Supriya, suddenly went into labour in their house — led one of his opponents in this election to refer to him as “the midwife” and said the event “showed a lack of planning that ill becomes a would-be governor”.
Yet his smarts and his skin were the same when he lost four years ago. What changed? One was Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina devastated not only Louisiana’s largest city, New Orleans, but it also irreparably damaged the reputation of Kathleen Blanco, the woman who had beaten Jindal in 2003, and the laidback politics of entrenchment she represented. Blanco dithered throughout the tragedy.
Jindal, though only a junior Congressman, was a whir of activity. When a rescue helicopter pilot asked for authorisation to rescue people, Jindal’s staff could only get a bureaucratic run-around from different Washington agencies. He personally called the pilot and told him, “Go in.” The pilot said, “You got me authorisation?” Jindal responded: “Yes, I’m giving you your authorisation right now.”
The second was old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning. In 2003, Jindal had fared poorly in conservative and Protestant North Louisiana. This time he personally knocked on doors throughout the area. Jindal later said the “number one reason” this area went for him in this poll was that “we spent time there”. And once they met him, these Louisianans liked what they saw. A man who had answers, spoke of action and promised to clean up the state’s dysfunctional government. As Jindal said after his election, “Our people don’t want to be amused by their leaders any more.” They want to be served.
They also liked the fact Jindal was a very conservative Christian, who declared there were “no exceptions” to abortion bans and questioned Darwinian evolution. He has also been an unstinting supporter of George W. Bush and the US military involvement in Iraq.
Many Indian-Americans express reservations at Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism, seeing it as a cynical move to further a political career. However, evidence to this effect is thin. Jindal turned to Christianity when he went to a church high school and became a Catholic at Brown University. In any case, Protestantism would be the more sensible path for an aspiring Louisiana politico: the state is only 30 per cent Catholic. In fact, his rivals accused him of “anti-Protestant” writings during the campaign.
Indian-American leaders universally praised Jindal’s victory and dismissed the controversy over his religion. “The American people showed that competence is the real winner,” says Sanjay Puri of the US-India Political Action Committee. Jindal’s victory, says Ashok Mago of the US India Security Forum, “is a confidence builder for second-generation Indian-Americans that you can succeed in politics at any level if you have the right message and the determination to succeed”. A number of Indian-American lobbyists said the community provided Jindal sizeable financial support. But for all of them this was a victory for all of them. “It is another sign of the coming of age of the Indian-American community politically,” says Puri.
Jindal has never hidden his Indian background. He avoids specifying his race on any government document — but he ideologically opposes “all quotas, all set-asides” and reservation policies. During his acceptance speech he spoke of his parents who moved from Punjab to Louisiana so his mother could study at the state university. “My dad was the first and only one of nine kids to even go to high school.” Jindal liked to say that when his father sat him down and said “you have a lot of potential” it was understood his son wasn’t working hard enough. Whatever standards were set, Jindal has clearly breached the upper limit.
Louisiana’s governor-elect has a remarkable mandate for change. By winning 54 per cent of the vote, he wiped out claims that a Republican contender was sure to win because Katrina had driven away so many black voters. Calculations show the “hurricane factor” meant about 50,000 less black voters. Jindal’s lead over the second-highest candidate was in the hundreds of thousands.
Given his own ethnicity, his campaign could hardly be about race. Jindal’s was an uncompromising message of change, of ridding Louisiana of its Bad Old Ways, of reversing the state’s brain drain. “I have said throughout the campaign that there are two entities that have the most to fear from us winning this election — one is Corruption and the other is his sidekick Incompetence. If you happen to see either of them, please let them know the party is over.”