The New Orleans Diaspora May Redraw South's Political Map (2005)
Jindal is a lucky guy.
Sure, he has enviable credentials as Brown's magna cum laude, a Rhodes scholar, policy wonk, whiz kid, efficient administrator, good son, great husband, doting father and, yes, devout Catholic.
And of course, he's made history as the first nonwhite to be elected to a statewide office in Louisiana since Reconstruction, the first Indian American elected as head of a state and, at 36, the youngest governor ever. But that's not why he's lucky.
He's lucky because he didn't become governor at 32.
Had he not lost by a whisker to Cajun Democrat Kathleen Blanco in the 2003 gubernatorial race, it is not improbable that Jindal's political future would have been swept away by Hurricane Katrina. No doubt, he would have fared better than Blanco, being the habitually efficient technocrat that he is. But the post-Katrina debacle was the result of systemic failure, compounded by politics, corruption and cronyism at all levels. A Bobby in Baton Rouge couldn't have stopped the cookie from crumbling.
Yes, he's lucky, fortunately for Louisiana. He is the best qualified, genuinely committed and singularly competent enough to undertake the state's second Reconstruction, or Reconstruction 2.0 in the technobabble Jindal is likely to bring to the table.
He is lucky because Louisianans were compelled to overcome their historical, social and racial biases to elect a candidate for his core competence -- not the color of his skin or the content of his character. As the New York Times said, Jindal "offered something few others could to a state that is on its knees. Louisiana is more desperate than ever, a place where the glaring needs of its citizens evidently trumped considerations of race and ethnicity."
The same baggage narrowly denied him the governorship last time, when the Louisiana whites were seduced by the race card so deftly played by Blanco. But this time, the Democratic Party's Southern Strategy didn't work, just as it, in a different hue, didn't work against its own candidate in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin.
That said, Jindal did a very calculated tightrope walk across the swampy marshes of the state's politics. He steered clear of identifying himself with national Republicans and President Bush, whose response to Katrina has become a sententious noun for incompetence -- "You've done a heckuva job, Brownie."
The same Jindal, in the last election, touted his access to the president in whose administration he had served as an assistant secretary for health and human services. Jindal also became a recluse from his undistinguished stint in the U.S. Congress, where he made brief news as the originator of the idea of inking the index finger of all who attended the 2005 State of the Union as a sign of support for Iraqis who had participated in their first free election days earlier.
At the same time, Jindal marshaled his conservative credentials by resolutely canvassing in the northern and eastern parishes as a Bible-thumping Catholic, who'd let creationism be taught in state schools. Fortunately for him, barring his target audience, few seem to believe Jindal's faith in Genesis as authentic, notwithstanding the constant flouting of his religious conversion (from Hinduism) and convictions.
Outside Louisiana, Jindal's religious views are seen as a blatant attempt to ingratiate himself to the Christian right -- particularly among Indian Americans, who view him in part with pride, because of his meteoric political rise, and in part with derision, because of his apostasy.
But his religious and social conservatism will not help Jindal in confronting the challenges that lie ahead. Even before Katrina, Louisiana was the poorest state in the Union, with the highest rate of illiteracy and the highest number of people without health insurance. Two years after the hurricane, not only is New Orleans still a ghost town in most parts, but the state itself has become a casino for the new carpetbaggers where the dice are loaded against the house.
Moreover, in the true tradition of the South, Louisiana politics and governance are beholden to the patronage of enternched interests. Jindal himself is a product of such patronage. It is naive to think that the interests that catapulted him to the governor's mansion will not exact a price. That will make Jindal's pledge to clean up the Capitol in Baton Rouge and focus on development of the state's ports, roads and research universities, easier said than done.
In addition, by all accounts, Jindal's victory has had to do with weak opponents with weaker credibility. He received very little support from African Americans, who constitute a sizable chunk of the state's population. That he, too, is a skinny guy with a funny name didn't cut much ice with blacks. In other words, even if the 54 percent vote he received to win the election outright is impressive, the nature of the support he enjoys is skin deep. The honeymoon, therefore, will be brief, as the pundits proclaimed.
Then again, Jindal has a habit of making history. And he's lucky, too.
The writer is the editor of The Indian American, a bimonthly magazine published from New York. This news analysis appears as part of the cover feature in the Nov-Dec issue of the magazine
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Albion Monitor October
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