Move over, Arnold Schwarzenegger. America has a new political star.
Bobby Jindal, the 36-year-old son of Indian immigrants, was elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday. He’s the first non-white governor of a Deep South state, and one of very few non-whites to achieve political success in a majority-white constituency.
Talk about assimilation—Jindal is so American that when he was four years old he told his parents he wanted to be called Bobby, like the youngest of “The Brady Bunch,” rather than his given name of Piyush.
Although he’s a conservative Catholic who lives far from the bright lights of Hollywood, Jindal has a lot in common with Schwarzenegger. Both reflect America’s historic promise as the land of opportunity. Arnold’s election four years ago was improbable enough to impress even the French: “American democracy has tremendous resilience,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French interior minister. “Someone who’s a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name and can become governor of the biggest American state – that’s not nothing.”
Around the world, especially in Asia, people may be even more impressed with the slight young Jindal, a whiz kid Rhodes Scholar who became Louisiana’s state health secretary at 24, head of the University of Louisiana system at 27, and assistant secretary for health care in the Bush administration at 29. When he first ran for governor, no one thought a dark-skinned 32-year-old with no electoral experience could be elected. But he led the first round handily and then narrowly lost to lieutenant governor Kathleen Blanco in the runoff. After he got elected to Congress and Blanco botched the Katrina disaster, she chose not to run for reelection and Jindal waltzed to a 54 percent victory against 11 opponents in an open primary. With more than 50 percent, he avoids a runoff and is governor-elect.
Jindal’s future could be even more promising than Schwarzenegger’s. His mother was pregnant when his parents arrived in Baton Rouge from India, so he’s a natural-born citizen and eligible to run for president–if he can achieve success as governor of what is arguably the nation’s poorest and most corrupt state, which is still suffering badly from the hurricane. But watch for him to be featured by the Republican Party as a symbol of America and of the GOP’s welcoming approach to minorities.
Schwarzenegger and Jindal both campaigned as fiscal conservatives, but they part company on social issues. Jindal, a convert to Catholicism, ran radio ads attacking abortion, gay marriage, and Hollywood and supported the teaching of “intelligent design.” The pro-choice Schwarzenegger vetoed a gay marriage bill but has supported domestic partnerships.
In American politics, immigration is usually discussed as an issue for Hispanic voters, the largest group of recent immigrants. Republicans will hope that the combination of the Terminator and an Indian-American Republican governor in the Deep South can counter the party’s increasingly tough line on immigration and shake up immigrant voting patterns. Jindal and Schwarzenegger may play some role in improving the image of the Republican Party in America, and the image of America—land of freedom and opportunity—in Europe, Asia, and the rest of the world.