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The Rediff Interview/Bobby Jindal

November 03, 2004

On the eve of the November 2 election, Republican Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal was confident of victory in Louisiana's District One.

On Tuesday, the Republican became the first Indian American to be elected to the US Congress in 46 years after Dalip Singh Saund, a Democrat who represented California. A historic victory indeed.

In an exclusive interview to National Affairs Editor Aziz Haniffa a few days before the election Jindal said he would consider hiring Indian-American staff in his Congressional office in Washington, DC and would almost immediately join the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

He believes that "given the new economy and the new threats in our world, including the terrorist threat, there are wonderful opportunities for India and America to work together."

An interview first published in India Abroad, the newspaper owned by

Are you geared up for victory?

Absolutely. We are working very hard. We have knocked on over 30,000 doors. Until the last day, we will continue talking to as many voters as possible. We are not taking anything for granted. I have told my staff we have got to run and act like we are behind. It will be the best way to ensure victory. Louisiana has this open primary and we are interested in avoiding a December run-off. We would like to win November 2.

Obviously, you don't want a repeat of the governor's race last year where you won the primary easily but didn't get the 50 percent to avoid a run-off and was beaten in a close race by Democrat Kathleen Blanco even though you polled more votes than her in the primary.

That's right because when you are ahead by that much (in the polls) it's important to remind supporters (to vote) for you. You don't want your voters to get complacent as so many people think you are going to win, they may not remember to go out and vote. As our run-off is later than the rest of the country -- not until December -- if we were in a run-off, it will reduce our chances of going to DC and getting on a good committee as so much of that work happens in Washington in November.

It's not only important we win, but that we win in November so that we can go up and participate in freshman orientation and hopefully get on the right committees.

In terms of the recent polls that show you leading by huge margins -- 70 percent or more -- and your fundraising that has been great too. Aren't things looking up for you to register a rollicking victory?

The last polls had us at 73 percent but the only polls that count are those on election day. We can't afford to take anything for granted. We are working extremely hard, we have had dozens of these back-porch conversations -- these are parties in neighbourhoods throughout the entire district -- where we are meeting voters one-on-one to answer questions.

We have got over 100 volunteers from around the district who are going door-to-door in the last couple of weeks to remind voters of voting in the Congressional race. A lot of people will be voting for the presidential race, but they have got to remember to vote for the Congressional race as well.

Are you concerned about the Louisiana State Democratic Party now having four Democrats in the fray? Could they be a spoiler?

You always have to take your opposition seriously. So far, not a single candidate is emerging from the (Democratic) pack, but certainly in combination it's plausible that they could together -- there are four Democrats and a Republican -- get over 50 percent of the vote. It's very important for us to go out there and campaign hard. They range -- the five candidates -- from a variety of backgrounds and experiences from across the district.

Has there been any really nasty, negative campaigning and advertising against you by opponents, reminiscent of the final days of the governor's race last year? Or has it been much more diluted this time around?

All five candidates have come after me but we have not seen much of radio advertisements and mailers and television advertising against me. It will start this week. You have got five people, instead of one, attacking me. All of them have come after me but it has not got to the intensity we saw in the governor's race. Even in that case, our opponent did not intensify the attacks against me till the last week. In fact, we saw the worst attacks in the last two days. But that is expected as your opponents hope not to give you time to respond.

Jindal for Governor!

But you are ready this time?

Absolutely. I am not going to let anybody steal this election away from me. I am not going to let anybody grab. We are going to respond to every single accusation. At the end of the day, we have no regrets over last year's performance. We made a commitment to running a positive race. That was the right thing to do.

You did an urgent letter writing campaign to raise funds among top contributors a couple of weeks back. It was extremely successful. In terms of funding last minute advertisements, I guess you are ready to launch a media blitz if this kind of negative campaign begins in the last few days.

Absolutely. Every dollar helps. Our donors have been helpful. We have confidence if we get our message out, we will be successful. But that needs resources, which is where our donors have been very supportive, their fundraising effective. With the presidential race in the offing, they are buying all available television time. We must have our dollars now to reserve some of it, to pay for mailers and to get our message out there.

In terms of the Indian-American community, have they been as enthused as they were when you ran for governor? Have you found their contributions to your campaign coffers have been as generous as they were earlier?

The Indian-American community continues to be incredibly supportive. Like last year, this year too it has played a vital role. In fact, its contribution last year was even more important. When I was in a crowded field with negligible name ID, the Indian American community's support helped me get started. It assisted me to get credibility and make it into the run-off. Though I had the advantage of having the name ID this year, I cannot help being grateful to the Indian-American community for its support.

One of the things we have said -- and this in no way diminishes the Indian-Americans' support -- is that for any candidate to be successful, it is important the vast majority of the support comes from one's district.

It is so because candidates sometime get into trouble when they try to raise most of their money or elicit most of their support outside their district. While the Indian-American community can't supply me with the majority of funds, it can certainly help me improve the effectiveness of the support I get within the district. We get encouraging letters and thoughts and prayers. That's very important for us.

Your agenda in Congress will be to represent District 1 and be the best Congressman ever from there. But do you feel a special sense of responsibility or sense of awe as you are probably going to be the first Indian-American Congressman in nearly five decades?

Absolutely. I expect to concentrate more on healthcare than an average fresh Congressman. I expect my connections with the Indian-American community, my experience with it will help me play an effective role in Congress. It will benefit not only the Indian-American community but also my district.

There are many issues that are as important to the Indian-American community as to my district, not to speak of our country -- issues ranging from tax policy to trade. There are people in Congress who have taken a long-standing interest in these issues. I will work with them as well. Given the new economy and new threats to our world, there are wonderful opportunities for India and America to work in tandem.

Have there been promises from the Republican leadership like Speaker Dennis Hastert or Majority Leader Tom Delay, or both, of some good committee assignments for you once you are elected? For, they and others in the leadership have certainly taken notice of your campaign and consider you one of the rising stars in the GOP?

No, there hasn't been. It's too early. They would not do that. They don't do that for anybody. But they do know of my interests. People in Washington and elsewhere have been saying, 'Look, let's take advantage of Bobby's experience. He being up here before knows a lot about healthcare, which has been very helpful.' But at this point, everybody's focus is on winning the election. Real discussions about committee assignments will start in November. Which is why it is important for me to win in November.

In the second week of the month, they have an orientation where new members will go to Washington. I want to participate in that as if I don't I will be at a disadvantage in respect to my peers.

If elected and you come to Washington, do you intend to consider qualified and experienced Indian Americans on your staff in your Capitol Hill office?

Absolutely. We have had several Indian Americans working very hard on the campaign. We have had a mixture of volunteers as well as paid staff. They all have made a wonderful contribution to the campaign. It makes sense that when you set up a new Congressional office, you pick from your campaign volunteers and paid staff for the best and brightest people. Federal laws restrict us from promising anybody a job till after the election. Therefore, we need to keep our options open and look at people who have helped us with the campaign.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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