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Nation's First Indian-American Governor Takes Office

  • Eve Abrams

When Bobby Jindal was four years old, he asked his Punjabi-born parents for permission to change his name from Piyush to that of the youngest brother on a popular TV sitcom, The Brady Bunch. The name stuck, and Monday, January 14, a 36-year-old Bobby Jindal became the nation's first ever Indian-American governor, and the first non-white governor of Louisiana in more than a century. Eve Abrams traces his journey to the Louisiana state house.

Bobby Jindal was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but his parents hail from half a world away. Jindal's father Amar grew up in the small, rural town of Khanpur in northwest India. While at Punjab University studying business and engineering, he met his future wife Raj Gupta, a nuclear physicist. She was pregnant with their first child -- the future governor -- when she was accepted as a graduate assistant at Louisiana State University. The Jindals moved to Baton Rouge in January 1971, six months before Bobby was born.

Bobby Jindal spoke about his parents during his election victory speech last October. "My mom and dad came to this country in pursuit of the American dream," he told the cheering crowd, "and guess what happened? They found the American dream to be alive and well right here in Louisiana!" He took the occasion to thank them publicly for what he called "their sacrifices for me and for my brother."

"My parents have seen what I've seen: that in America, and here in Louisiana, the only barrier to success is your willingness to work hard and play by the rules!"

Jindal was willing to do both and he succeeded. With a master's degree in health care policy from Oxford University, he was running Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals at the young age of 24. Three years later, he was chosen president of the University of Louisiana. And two years after that, President George W. Bush appointed him Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But Jindal had his eye on a different sort of public service. After narrowly losing his first bid for governor in 2003, Jindal ran for Congress, and voters sent him to the House of Representatives twice.

Thomas Langston, chair of the Political Science department at Tulane University in New Orleans, notes, "The remarkable thing about Bobby is that although he has an Indian surname and a Rhodes scholarship on his resume, he has the image that he has worked very hard to cultivate of a down-home country boy."

Langston says that new image, which emphasizes his family and conservative Christianity, made the difference in Jindal's statewide victory. "In Louisiana politics," he explains, "you have New Orleans and everything else. New Orleans is not congenial to conservative or Republican candidates, and so the race for Bobby Jindal was to win a good majority of votes of everybody else."

Langston says Jindal spent much of his campaign in north and central Louisiana, where he had little voter support in his first run for governor. "[He was] really cultivating, in particular, the Christian Conservative base of voters for Republican candidates in that region. He spent a lot time giving witness at churches. He spent a lot of time, in other words, making certain that the voters - this time around - know who Bobby Jindal is, and he is a religious conservative Republican."

An opponent of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and gun control, Jindal nevertheless promises to work hand in hand with state Democrats who tend to hold opposing views on social issues, in order to bring about positive change. He has pledged to end Louisiana's reputation for political corruption and to raise the ethical bar for elected and appointed officials.

At his victory celebration in October, he told his supporters: "It is my intention to work closely with the legislature, and I am looking forward to it, but please understand this: I'm not going to take no for an answer on reforming our ethics laws. Real ethics reform is not simply campaign rhetoric. It is the lynchpin for change, for regaining the confidence of the voters, for turning our state around. If and when folks try to stop it, I will call them out."

While in high school, Jindal began exploring Christianity, and he officially converted to Catholicism a few years later, abandoning the Hindu faith of his parents. He and his wife, Supriya, have three young children. Publicly, Jindal emphasizes his Louisiana citizenship; his Indian cultural associations are private affairs.

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