The Rediff US Special/ Suleman Din and J M Shenoy
If 29-year-old Bobby Piyush Jindal seems a bit too young to be the assistant secretary in the Health and Human Services, remember he was 27 when he was appointed president of the University of Louisiana System, one of the largest public university systems in America, with nearly 100,000 students and a $ 450 million annual budget.
Jindal will become the highest-ranking Indian American in a federal government post, following confirmation by the Senate. He seemed too young to some when, three years ago at 26, he became executive director of a bipartisan presidential commission charged with reforming Medicare, America's largest insurance system for nearly 40 million people. Most Medicare recipients are elderly, about 5 per cent are people with severe disabilities.
At 24, while many of his friends were in graduate schools or climbing the first steps in a corporate ladder, he was the secretary of health in Louisiana. He forwent admission to Harvard and Yale medical schools to lead the Louisiana health system, with a $ 4 billion budget and over 1,200 employees.
The appointment was a "bit unorthodox due to his age," Governor Mike Forrest had owned up. But the unorthodox decision paid off spectacularly.
Jindal not only eliminated the $ 400 million deficit in Louisiana's health system by overhauling it, but also created a $ 170 million surplus. He also moved Louisiana from 37th to third best, nationally, in health screenings for children.
How could Washington not love this man?
In his new avatar, he is expected to develop major reform initiatives including Medicare modernization and expanding coverage for the uninsured, explains Tommy G Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services. Medicare, whose annual budget runs into tens of billions, has been ailing for several years. Its potential collapse is a huge worry for both political parties.
Jindal can see the big picture and has a bipartisan approach at public policy, officials in Washington say. "Bobby Jindal is a proven innovator and problem-solver," Thompson said. "I have said many times that we must not be bound to practice of the past. We have new challenges, and we need to be open to new approaches. He can help us move quickly in a bipartisan push to bring Medicare program into the 21st century."
Jindal, who says he is drawn to public service, attributes his life philosophy to his conversion from Hinduism to Catholicism while studying at Brown University, where he majored in biology and public policy.
His parents had always taught him and his younger brother "about how important public service is," he said in an interview with rediff.com 18 months ago. "Because we have received so much, it is important to give back."
He reportedly gives away 10 per cent of his income to charities. His parents, who are active in the Hindu temple in Baton Rouge, accepted his conversion without any hassles, he adds.
His life has been anything but orthodox. His parents -- Amar, an engineer and Raj, a senior manager at Louisiana State Department of Labor -- migrated to America six months before he was born and they had named him Piyush.
But according to The Washington Post, four-year-old Piyush told his parents that he wanted to be called Bobby, a name he borrowed from the youngest kid on The Brady Bunch television show. "My legal name is still Piyush," he told rediff.com in an earlier interview. "My brother's name is Nikesh. He never adopted a nickname."
Years later in a very liberal Brown University, he turned to the Republican Party, and never missed daily mass.
Though he worked for McKinsey and Co for nearly a year after getting a graduate degree in public policy from Oxford University, this Rhodes scholar is obsessed with public service.
Jindal, who was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was chosen by Scholastic Update magazine as "one of America's top 10 extraordinary young people for the next millennium."
In Louisiana, many of Jindal's admirers are overjoyed at his new appointment. But they will miss him, too.
"I hate to lose Bobby to Washington," said Governor Foster. "But President Bush has called on him personally to provide valuable advice on top health issues facing our nation. wherever Bobby has served, he has made enormous contributions."
Louisiana senator John Breaux, a Democrat, hailed Jindal's nomination as, "Great news for everyone." America's national health system needs to be improved and modernized, the senator said, adding that he looked forward working towards that goal with Jindal.
Jindal said through his spokesperson that he looked forward working with President Bush. He for one surely believes his work should speak more than his words.
The Louisiana boy -- who will now move to Washington with his wife Supriya Jolly, a chemical engineer -- has often been asked if he would he consider running for public office.
His answer has remained the same: "I am currently focused on policy work." But he has also said: "I won't rule out anything for the future."
Nitish S Rele contributed to this article.
Design: Lynette Menezes
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