In late October 2007, thirty-six year old Piyush “Bobby” Jindal won the gubernatorial election in Louisiana. Jindal, whose family migrated to the US from Punjab, is the first Indian Asian governor in US history. Indian American groups across the country greeted his victory. The Indian American Leadership Initiative put out the most amusing statement, “Bobby Jindal replaces the Mardi Gras Indians as the best known Indian from Louisiana.” A spokesperson for the National Federation of Indian American Associations said, “It is a great moment in the history of America when someone who looks like us becomes the Governor of Louisiana. We should all be dancing in the streets to display our pride.” Jindal’s victory had little to do with his being Indian American. A long-time conservative Republican, this young man ascended rapidly from Bush appointee to US Congressman to Governor in little more than a decade. When his victory was announced, President George W. Bush hastened to congratulate him for his “incredible honor.” Jindal is a fervent advocate of Bush’s occupation of Iraq.
Piyush Jindal was born in Baton Rouge in 1971 to graduate student parents. Attracted by the television show The Brady Bunch, four-year-old Piyush took the name of one of its characters, Bobby. As a teenager he converted to Roman Catholicism (his parents remain Hindus). All this indicates his remarkable drive. This self-direction was soon profitably yoked to an insatiable ambition. A Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University followed college at Brown University. Armed with the best academic credentials, Bobby joined the global consulting firm, McKinsey and Company. At Oxford, Bobby studied Political Science, and it was politics that drew him away from the world of money. In 1995, at twenty-four, Bobby Jindal was appointed to head Louisiana’s Department of Health & Human Services. Within two years, Jindal’s stewardship of the agency erased its considerable budget, at enormous human cost. Louisiana dropped from 48th to 50th (last) in the national health care rankings during Jindal’s tenure. Louisiana’s own health care agency reports that part of the problem was the slashing of funding for a robust set of state hospitals and outpatient primary care facilities. These are the very sections that Jindal sliced in order to bring his agency into fiscal health.
Jindal’s fiscal success attracted admirers in the Bush White House, where he was brought to head the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, the government health insurance system. The Commission provided no final recommendations for the system’s reform, although it suggested that the government raise the eligibility age for access to the system (which would mean that one would have to be older before being able to join the insurance scheme). As the Commission stalled, Jindal returned to Louisiana to run the state University system. Before he could settle in, the Bush White House called him back to Washington to be the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once more, before he could get going, he returned to Louisiana to run for Governor against the popular Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in 2003. The establishment endorsed Jindal, as Bush’s proxy, but he could not defeat Blanco. Jindal nevertheless won a safe Republican seat to the US Congress the following year. As soon as he won this seat, he quietly began his campaign against Blanco, which meant that he spent a lot of time in Louisiana and tried to make as few waves in the Congress (he did, however, cast some crucial votes against bills on medical insurance that would have crossed pharmaceutical companies, his major financial backer).
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast in 2005, and the very poor recovery planning in its aftermath dented Blanco’s popularity. Jindal remained silent in this period, speaking banalities rather than making any direct assault on the shabby reconstruction effort for the population (which would have also indicted his patron, President Bush). Blanco’s tarnished star forced her to withdraw from the gubernatorial race in 2007, which left the field open to Jindal.
The Rot of Racism.
One reason Jindal did not defeat Blanco in 2003 is that he was unable to draw the full weight of the white vote. Many conservative whites preferred to vote for a white, Cajun (“native” Louisianan) Democrat than an Indian American (albeit one born in Louisiana) conservative Republican. It should be borne in mind that the leader of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, won 44% of the Republican vote in a 1990 primary election (60% of the white vote); a year later, Duke repeated this feat, and bragged, “I won my constituency. I won 55 percent of the white vote.” Despite having the second largest African American population in the US (after neighboring Mississippi), Louisiana’s politics are structured around the ability of the state-wide candidate to draw in the white vote.
Racist vigilante violence marks the state’s history. After the Civil War ended in 1865, for example, some local legislators considered a change in the state’s constitution that might allow blacks the franchise. Recalcitrant citizens formed the White League, whose violent tactics succeeded in ending any talk of equality. It was in New Orleans that Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man, was removed from a train in 1892 because he sat in a “whites only” section. The Plessy v. Ferguson case went to the US Supreme Court, which decided that blacks and whites should have separate facilities although these should be equal (the “separate but equal” statute). In New Orleans, as well, a black man, Oliver Bush, began a court case to get his son, Earl, into an all-white school. Eventually, in 1954, the US Supreme Court decided in Brown v. The Board of Education that segregation of this kind (known as Jim Crow) is illegal and should be abolished. Drawing energy from this decision, a young Martin Luther King, Jr., and his fellow liberal clergy formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New Orleans in 1957. In response, the White Citizens’ Council, an organization of the landed white aristocracy of the region, announced, “Integration is the Southern expression of Communism.” King and others took the fight against racism to the doorstep of the enemy.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it revealed the rot of a racist, segregated society. King’s movement ended de jure segregation, but it did little against de facto segregation and inequality. Almost twenty percent of Louisiana’s residents live beneath the US poverty line, and a dramatic number of blacks live not only in poverty but also in jail. The incarceration rate in New Orleans, where most blacks in the state live, is twice that of the US rate: 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents of the city. Katrina tore through the city and state, exposing the inequality and shocking the nation. Bobby Jindal, then a Congressman, held his tongue. His main gripe was not against the Bush administration that had sent the bulk of the state’s National Guard to Iraq (and so away from their posts when the disaster struck), nor was it against the long history of inequality revealed by the aftermath. Jindal decided to speak out against the “red-tape” of the government response. Katrina, which had come to mean the racism of the federal and state government, provided the young Congressman with an opportunity to champion less government and more “faith-based” reconstruction solutions. No word about the dispossession of his fellow citizens, and little care that the white elites were now moving to grab the land which once housed a large black population. Scott Crow, who worked in the reconstruction of the city, recalls how white militias roamed the city after Katrina, making sure to run blacks out of town, “These white militias made it their jobs to secure law and order in the absence of the police. Their brand of justice was to intimidate any black person walking on the street alone, or in any number that was smaller than the militia.” Blanco’s inaction compromised her; Jindal’s silence on issues of racism enamored him to a section of the white voters.
As the election campaign heated up, a terrible incident in the town of Jena, Louisiana, brought national attention to the enduring racism in the state. When white students intimidated black students at Jena High School (by hanging nooses on a tree and by pointing shotguns at them), the school authorities blamed the black students for making trouble. The police joined the administration and in the course of an altercation arrested and jailed six black students. The case of the Jena 6 (all teenagers) angered the nation. On September 20, 2007, thousands of people converged on the town to demand the release the Jena 6. Bobby Jindal, in the thick of his election battle, took a strong stand against the demonstrations. “We certainly don’t need any outside agitators coming in here,” he said. The phrase “outside agitator” has a long lineage in the anti-Civil Rights movement and within the White Citizens Councils. Jindal’s heavy-handed code sent a strong message to the racist vote that he could be trusted not to “pander” to the black population. Jena is in LaSalle Parish, whose white voters overwhelmingly voted for David Duke in 1991. This time Jindal carried that vote, winning the parish with a handy 55% (his closest opponent, Walter Boasso won short of 15%). “Don’t let anyone talk bad about Louisiana,” Jindal said as he claimed his victory. In other words, don’t talk about racism. “Those days are officially over.”
Go Easy on Conservatism.
A few days after the victory, Reverend Nehemiah Thompson of the National Association of Asian Indian Christians in the USA wrote a letter to The New York Times, Rev. Thompson’s advice was simple, “Go easy on conservatism. Ideology is a luxury of the upper class. But rebuild New Orleans. Care about the poor, the children, the elderly, the unemployed, blacks and Hispanics.” Jindal’s program, however, opposes stem cell research and abortion, is in favor of “faith-based” public policy, and corporate solutions to social problems (his election coffers were lined by oil and petroleum magnates).
Other Indian Americans share Rev. Thompson’s concerns. Deepa Iyer, the head of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow says, “Bobby Jindal should not get a free pass solely because he is of Indian descent.” She is concerned about his civil rights record. During his time in Congress, Jindal voted for strict immigration enforcement. As the governor of Louisiana, Iyer told me, “Jindal will have to confront some of these issues.” But will his confrontation be in the vein of Bush, or as Rev. Thompson put it, will Jindal “teach and practice what Jesus taught: nonviolence, compassion for the poor and the oppressed and healing of sick (health care for all)”?
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: email@example.com
This article originally appeared in the Indian magazine Frontline.