WASHINGTON (AFP) — The son of Punjabi immigrants won an election in Louisiana to become the United States’ first Indian-American state governor, according to election results Sunday. With the win, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, 36, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, also becomes the United States’ youngest governor, and the first minority to hold the post since the 1970s. “My mom and dad came to this country in the pursuit of the American dream. And guess what happened? They found the American dream to be alive and well right here in Louisiana,” Jindal told a cheering crowd after he claimed victory.
Jindal said his election win would give a “fresh start” to the state, which is still struggling to rebuild two years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and cast a harsh spotlight on racial inequities in the south. “In America and here in Louisiana, the only barrier to success is your willingness to work hard and play by the rules,” said the new governor-elect, promising to implement more rigorous ethics laws. Republican elders in Washington said Jindal’s election was a welcome election victory at a time when the party appeared to be losing public support.
Bobby Jindal’s positive message of economic opportunity, ethics reform, and tough action against crime clearly resonated with Louisiana voters,” said Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, in a statement. With the party hard-pressed in several key upcoming election races, he said Jindal’s victory gives Republicans a template for future election success, and sends the message that “Republican candidates who are true to our party’s fundamental principles win at the ballot box,” Duncan said. Jindal, who won 53 percent of the vote with more than 90 percent of votes counted according to The Advocate newspaper in the state capital Baton Rouge, is to be sworn in as governor in January.
In 2004, Jindal became the second Indian-American to be elected to the US Congress. Some analysts blamed discrimination for his narrow 2003 loss in the Louisiana governorship race to Kathleen Blanco, who is white. But this year’s race was changed due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which devastated much of New Orleans and transformed the political landscape. Blanco did not contend the race following a backlash at her administration’s response to the disaster and there were no other strong opponents on the field.
Jindal also benefited from a low turnout of African-American voters, who traditionally back Democrats, and won largely based on strong support from whites in the southern state, analysts told the Advocate. Jindal, who as a boy adopted his nickname “Bobby” from a character on The Brady Bunch television show, converted to Roman Catholicism from Hinduism as a teenager and has moved rapidly up the political ladder. An Oxford University-educated Rhodes scholar, he was appointed secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals at the age of 24. After a brief stint in Washington, he returned home as the youngest president of the University of Louisiana System before being appointed a top policy advisor in the federal department of Health and Human Services.
He refused to admit that ethnicity was a factor in his failure to carry the state in 2003. But he worked on his image, donning cowboy boots and jeans and spending time in fundamentalist Christian churches. Jindal was born and raised in Baton Rouge after his parents came to the United States so that his mother, pregnant with him at the time, could continue her graduate work in nuclear physics. His father, an engineer, was one of nine children in a poor rural family in Punjab.