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'It's unfortunate Washington has become so partisan'

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November 24, 2006 19:13 IST
While senior Republican incumbents and candidates across the country bit the dust in the Congressional elections on November 7, US Representative Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal recorded one of the highest victory margins by any lawmaker in his re-election bid for Louisiana's First District.

He registered 87.9 per cent, polling 71,493 votes. His three opponents managed fewer than 11,000 votes combined.

Before the election, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times Picayune newspaper published out of New Orleans, part of which falls in Jindal's constituency, said in an endorsement: 'Jindal brings an impressive level of intelligence and energy to everything he does, and that has been true during his first term in Congress. Although he was a newcomer to elected office, he quickly established himself as a leader in Washington.'

The Times Picayune, which noted that Jindal serves on both the Homeland Security and the Education and the Workforce Committees, said this has 'put him in a good position post-Katrina. His extensive background in health-care policy also is a plus. He has put his talents and energy to good use in his first two years in Congress, and he deserves another term.'

In an interview with Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa, Jindal acknowledged that taking care of his constituency, especially after Katrina and Rita, helped him garner the overwhelming margin of victory he did.

While bemoaning the defeat of Republican Indian-American candidates, Jindal lauded the successes of the Democratic Indian-American kind, saying that a few years ago Indian- American representation in seven state legislatures would have been unthinkable.

You were one of a very few Republican incumbents who not only bucked the national trend and got re-elected, but won with a thumping majority -- perhaps one of the highest margins in the elections -- while many of your senior Republican colleagues bit the dust. How do you explain the roaring success of your race?

A couple of things. We obviously worked very, very hard. The hard work started literally right after we got elected two years ago. We've been working very hard for this district. We passed several bills in Congress.

For example, the very first bill we passed was to repeal attacks on FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants. We passed legislation bringing over a billion dollars to our K-12 schools. We passed legislation to get Louisiana our fair share of our own oil and gas royalties, which has been an issue for 50 years.

Also, I got elected president of the freshman class. We worked hard through the term, but, really, after the storm -- after Katrina -- we were very, very active. According to federal government studies, we handled more casework than any other member of the (Louisiana) delegation. We helped more people after the storms (Katrina and Rita) than any other member of the delegation and brought that same intensity to the campaign. We knocked on 150,000 doors in just the last week alone.

So we have worked hard since we got elected, and we worked especially hard after Katrina.

So despite predictions that you were a shoo-in, you didn't take anything for granted...

That's exactly right. But you know, Louisiana is not nearly as partisan as the rest of the country. We got open primaries, my district is actually majority Democrat by registration. But people don't vote party line here. We have a lot of people that vote for the candidate.

I obviously got tens of thousands of Republican votes, tens of thousands of Democratic vote, and I think that's a good model for the country.

It's unfortunate that Washington has become so partisan. I think voters on election night were saying they were tired of the name-calling, tired of the mud-slinging. I certainly think they expect us to work together and that they don't like the partisan fighting.

There's no denying that the war in Iraq and many of the conservative Republicans' support for it, was what did them in. But you were also a conservative Republican who strongly supported the war and President Bush on this piece of foreign policy. How was it that you weren't felled by voter antipathy and hurt as much as others?

For quite a while, I've been reminding the administration of the President's own ideas when he ran against Al Gore -- when the President said that he was not for using the American military for nation-building.

I continued to remind them of that because he said that six years ago on the campaign trail and I agreed with him then. It's certainly a good thing that Saddam (Hussein) is gone, but, I also think that we certainly need to be aggressively shifting responsibility to the Iraqi people.

I don't think our troops need to be there forever. I don't think we can force the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds to live together if they don't want to live together peacefully. They have to decide that for themselves.

With the replacement of (Defence) Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld and with the incoming (former) director (of the Central Intelligence Agency, Robert) Gates, I am hopeful that the administration will be open to the ideas of the (former US Secretary of State Jim) Baker and (former) chairman (of the House International Relations Committee) Lee Hamilton's Iraq Study Group.

These are very, very accomplished statesmen -- bipartisan. We don't know what their final recommendations are, but I do hope the administration will be open to listening to these views.

I think a lot of people when you look at the polls -- the vast majority of people -- supported getting rid of Saddam, thought that was the right thing to do, but where they disagreed with the administration has been the execution of the war since then and their concern is that there has to be an exit plan.

There has to be a strategy for shifting this responsibility to the Iraqi people. American voters are certainly proud of our troops, proud of their performance, but don't believe that we can be there forever -- nor should we be there forever.

Although Indian Americans who ran for the state legislatures on the Democratic Party ticket, did very well, the Indian Americans who ran on the Republican ticket -- except for you -- such as Raj Bhakta and Dilip Paliath, were routed, caught in the undertow of the current situation. What would your advice to them be because they are pretty disillusioned as are the Indian-American Republicans and other community leaders who supported them and held fundraisers for them?

A couple of things. One, for the Indian-American community there were still a number of successes, at least with the office-holders -- state and federal office-holders. Seven states have now got Indian-American legislators. That's certainly something we need to celebrate. That's certainly more than we've had before and I think that if you go on back several years and predicted that there will be nine elected office holders in seven states, that would a pretty remarkable thing.

But in terms of the candidates in the Republican community, even though they lost, I am so glad to see more Indian Americans participating, running for office, donating, volunteering. We have to understand there will be setbacks. We are not always going to be successful.

I didn't win my first governor's race. It's important that we continue to work hard and we continue to try. We need to be smart in the races we target. We need to be smart in getting the resources. We need to get our messages to voters and in winning, but we can't give up.

President Bush lost his first election. Senator (John) Kerry lost his first election. Former President (Bill) Clinton lost an election. There are many, many examples in America's political history of successful leaders who lost when they first ran, or lost in the middle of their careers.

We can't let one setback discourage us. We need to regroup, we need to find good candidates to support. And, I've always said, look, I am a Republican, but I am always encouraged, I am always pleased to see Indian Americans run in either party. It's just good that we are getting involved in the process, and, so even though there were some setbacks, but there were also quite a few victories on election night itself.

Did you find that this time around too the Indian Americans supported you very strongly in terms of fund-raising, in terms of contributions, in terms of volunteering, etc, even though they probably knew that you were going to have and easy and comfortable re-election?

The Indian-American community has always been tremendously helpful to me. It started in the governor's race, where 10 per cent of our donations came from -- or something a little under 10 per cent -- the Indian-American community.

With this race, it was probably a lot less than that, but that's understandable. We were an incumbent running for re-election. There were other races that I know a lot of people were targeting and supporting.

We know that we've got supporters in the community and we know that when we need them, if we need them, certainly that they will support us again as they've supported us in the past.

There were several individuals who have supported us in every race. The percentage was lower in this race, but again, that's understandable, given the fact that we are an incumbent (political party) and that we had a broader base of support across the district.

Aziz Haniffa

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