BATON ROUGE, La. – The magazine India Today hailed his "sheer brilliance" and pronounced him "Arnold Schwarzenegger with brains." And Indian Americans everywhere — Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Texas oilmen, doctors and bankers in the East — have opened their checkbooks for him.
Bobby Jindal (search), the overachieving American-born son of immigrants from India, has emerged as an improbably strong contender for governor of Louisiana, bringing forth pride and money from fellow Indian Americans.
"He's going to open doors for our community," said Dr. Bhupi Patel, president of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness (search) in Washington. "We understand that to be a part of this great nation, we have to be involved politically. If you ask any Indian across the country you'll see a sense of pride."
He added: "We're going to do everything in our power to see that he's successful."
The 32-year-old Republican was the top vote-getter in a five-way open primary earlier this month and will face Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) on Nov. 15 in a bid to become Louisiana's first non-white governor since Reconstruction. The latest polls show the two in a dead heat.
Some members of the mostly Democratic Indian-American community are uneasy with the former Rhodes Scholar and assistant health secretary under President Bush because he is a conservative Republican who has aligned himself with the evangelical wing of the party.
Still, for or against Jindal, many Indian Americans see the rise of this non-Anglo Saxon as a watershed moment in this conservative Deep South state where a majority of white men voted for white supremacist David Duke just over a decade ago.
Jindal's views are debated at gatherings of Indian Americans and in the Indian press, here and on the subcontinent.
"There is an incredible buzz," said Aneesh Chopra, a campaign contributor, Jindal friend and avowed Democrat in Washington.
There are 1.67 million Indian Americans nationwide, 8,000 of them in Louisiana, where they account for less than 2 percent of the population.
Indian Americans are perhaps America's most prosperous immigrant group, with the highest median household income and highest proportion of college graduates, according to a 1996 Harvard study co-written by Chopra. Yet their elected representation at the state level or above is paltry — two state legislators (one of them the speaker of the Maryland House).
Jindal has held fund-raisers in major cities around the country, and in a campaign finance report from earlier in the year, more than a third of the contributions, or about $185,000, appeared to have come from Indian Americans.
"It's been very positive, from people inside and outside the state," Jindal said. "They've been very excited, very supportive."
Shailesh Mehta, former chief executive of the financial services company Providian, attended a fund-raiser for Jindal in the San Francisco Bay area recently and contributed $2,500.
"The Indian youth is very much overwhelmed," Mehta said. "He's becoming a role model."
Jindal regularly celebrates his parents' coming to America from the Punjab over 30 years ago. A fervent Roman Catholic convert, he has embraced the views of Louisiana's largest voting bloc, white conservatives: opposition to abortion, with no exceptions; rejection of gun control; promotion of religion in public life; hostility to affirmative action; and questioning of evolution and tolerance for creationism.
"Part of my astonishment and frustration is what he's doing with this ability," said Vijay Prashad, a scholar at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "He's decidedly out of step with the broad Indian American community."
According to the 1996 study, 42 percent of Indian Americans identified themselves as Democrats, 13 percent as Republicans.
Sanjay Shah, the West Coast-based creator of an Asian American comic strip, recently depicted Jindal as a hypocrite.
"I find it disingenuous. He comes out to California to raise money, and he never discusses his views on social issues," Shah said. "Who would want their community to be associated with David Duke supporters?"
Jindal and others suggest that sentiments like those of Shah merely demonstrate the diversity of the Indian American community.
"The really exciting thing about Bobby Jindal is, he is not a stereotype," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a scholar at New York University. "I'm sure there are a lot of South Asians who would have liked the first major party candidate to have been a Democrat or liberal, but history doesn't always work that way."