In the footsteps of Colin Powell

Observations on race and American politics

Forget Arnold Schwarzenegger's triumph in California. Much more interesting and significant for the future of American politics is the battle in Louisiana. There, in the race for governor, the present lieutenant (deputy) governor, Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, faces a 32-year-old Rhodes scholar who has served in the Bush White House. His name is Bobby Jindal.

Don't let that first name mislead you. Jindal's parents are immigrants from India and he has changed his given name from Piyush to Bobby. Born a Hindu, he switched in his teens to Catholicism. In a southern state where people are acutely aware of racial divisions, where the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke once ran a credible gubernatorial race, Jindal topped the all-party primary, outpolling Blanco, his nearest rival, by a full 15 percentage points. If he succeeds in the final poll on 15 November, he will be the first Indian-American state governor.

A great victory for minorities? Not exactly. What distinguished Jindal from his rivals was his arch-conservative social platform. In his radio ads, he has opposed abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, gay marriages, condoms for teenagers, gambling and sexually explicit music and videos. He has supported a form of wedlock (called covenant marriage) that makes divorce harder to obtain, the right to bear arms (quoting the Second Amendment) and business tax cuts. He was one of three candidates (including Blanco) who refused even to meet the Louisiana League of Equality, which sought candidates' endorsement of a bill outlawing discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

Yet Jindal is not a simplistic, Bible-thumping evangelist. He is an intelligent man who speaks rapidly, in the measured bullet points demanded by the 30-second soundbites of US politics. He has chutzpah and ambition, and personifies the dream that most Americans believe is accessible to all, if only they work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. At 24, Jindal met the outgoing Republican governor, Mike Foster (who is backing his candidacy), to explain his ideas for reforming Medicaid. After listening to his pitch, Foster offered Jindal the job of deputy secretary in the Louisiana department of health and hospitals. Jindal declined, saying he wanted the top job.

He got it, and he turned around Medicaid - from a deficit of $400m to a surplus of $220m - by cutting fraud and wasteful expenditure while increasing health screenings and immunisation for children. Even critics do not dispute the achievement.

At 27, when he looked scarcely older than a postgrad student, Jindal went on to run the state university system. He raised graduation and retention rates; private donations rose and more chairs were endowed. Impressed by the wunderkind, the White House summoned him to serve as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the federal department of health and human services.

But Jindal surprised everyone by resigning early this year to run for the Louisiana governorship. One of his first promises was to disinvite Jacques Chirac to the December celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase (when the US bought the territory from the French). For the French president, it would be a personal blow: as a student in 1953, he visited New Orleans and wrote a thesis on its port.

Nearly one-fifth of the $1.5m that Jindal has raised for his campaign has come from the country's two million Indian-Americans. But his social agenda, whether genuine or driven by electoral needs, has alarmed many Indian-Americans, of both left and right. Hindu nationalists do not like him because some of his views on religion border on Christian fundamentalism (he favours displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings). Progressives in the Indian-American community are similarly appalled. But Louisiana has few Indian-Americans. It isn't their votes that will count, but their dollars.

The success of a minority candidate would ordinarily be a matter of joy, but Jindal is "too dark for the white folks and not dark enough for the blacks", one (unnamed) black state senator told a journalist this month.

Yet despite the formidable obstacles, Jindal may win. Successful candidates or political appointees from under-represented and underprivileged minorities are often conservative. The mainstream tends to view women and blacks as too radical if they stand on a centre-left platform. The first black secretary of state in the US is a Republican (Colin Powell); it was a Republican president (Ronald Reagan) who appointed the first female ambassador to the UN (Jean Kirkpatrick) and the first female Supreme Court judge (Sandra Day O'Connor). And think about it: Britain's first female prime minister turned out to be Margaret Thatcher, not Barbara Castle or Shirley Williams.