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What a Capitol idea

Only when India elects a PM irrespective of religion can we call ourselves truly secular, writes Chinmaya Gharekhan.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2009 10:21 IST

When the 44th President of the United States of America is sworn in on the west front terrace of the Capitol in Washington DC later today, the most significant phrase, in some ways, will be the first four words in his oath of office: “I, Barack Hussein Obama.”

Traditionally, American presidents have used their full names at the swearing-in ceremony. Obama has decided to follow the example of his predecessors. Anyone who watched him on TV on the night of his victory would have observed how composed and collected he was; not flashing ‘V’ signs and not giving exuberant display of triumphalism. The fact that his staff has let it be known that he will use his full name suggests that, first, he had thought about the matter and realised its significance and, second, that he was determined to do what he thought he ought to, irrespective of consequences.

By and large, Indians have reacted with incomprehensible enthusiasm to Obama’s victory, despite many realising that the Bush years were good for India. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that most Indians shared the almost universal desire for a change from George W. Bush. That a large majority of them is young and would naturally relate to a younger person at the head of the American administration had no doubt something to do with it. As a people, we react to events or statements emotionally. We are susceptible to flattery. When Henry Kissinger described India as a major regional power, and when Condoleezza Rice said that the US wanted to help India become a major power, our ego was tickled no end. All that a foreign leader has to do these days to attract loud applause from an Indian audience is to declare support for permanent membership for India in the UN Security Council.

Obama has already incurred the displeasure of some of our analysts for his comments on Kashmir. We, as a nation, have yet to come to terms with our growing influence. We should display confidence and take such remarks in our stride.

The serious question for us to ponder is how we can do an Obama in India. It has been suggested that if and when a member of the Dalit community succeeds in occupying the office of the Prime Minister, our democracy would have proved itself. Without a doubt, that would indeed be a historic development. However, the parallel is not quite apposite. It is true that the Dalits have been oppressed and suppressed over centuries, like the African-Americans have been, since the founding of the American republic. Dalits, like the Blacks in America, have only recently been empowered and are slowly beginning to claim for themselves a place in the sun. Nevertheless, Dalits are a part of the majority community; they belong to the Hindu fold. Together with the OBCs, the Dalits constitute a majority not only within the majority community but also within the population as a whole. It is not that far-fetched, therefore, to envisage a Dalit as the occupant of 7 Race Course Road.

The more appropriate analogy of what happened in America — the election of a member of a group which constitutes about 12 per cent of the population to the highest executive office — would be the elevation of a member of the community that also forms about the same percentage of India’s population to the highest executive office which, functionally, is the office of the PM. Unlike Dalits in India or Blacks in America, Muslims in India have never been subjected to any discrimination in our country. They have occupied the highest constitutional office as well as senior- most positions in the judiciary and many other professions. Nevertheless, the prospect of a Muslim PM has been remote.

In today’s India, when suspicions between Hindus and Muslims run deep, hardly anyone would give a second thought to the proposition. However, following the attack on Mumbai in November, the idea of India seems to have been strengthened. While retaining all other identities, we have become more conscious, and proud, of our identity as Indians. Leaders of the Muslim community have condemned the attacks, as they always have. It is rather sad that in our secular India, Muslims should find it necessary to make a public display of patriotism.

Obama was elected despite, not because of, his race. When that happens in India, when leaders will get elected irrespective of their religious affiliation, it would be a final vindication of our credentials as a secular, non-sectarian democracy, just as Obama’s victory removed all doubts about American democracy.

(Chinmaya Gharekhan is India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations)