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The office of Prime Minister: A largely north Indian upper-caste, Hindu affair

Independent India's prime ministers have mostly been members of entrenched social elites, or numerically larger populations


Rajat Ghai
Narendra Modi’s brilliant master stroke on Tuesday, twisting Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s words into something completely different in an attempt to garner Dalit and OBC votes in Purvanchal and Bihar in the last two phases of the Lok Sabha election, brought home a sober truth (to me at least): For most of its post-independent phase, India has been ruled by prime ministers who have been members of socially dominant groups or numerically larger populations, thus indicating a less-than-equitable distribution of power at the top-most level of Indian polity.

Having hardly mentioned the C-word in the poll campaign before, Modi went to town about his ‘neech jaat’ origins on Tuesday. The ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ and one-time ‘chaiwala’ belongs to the Ghanchi community of Gujarat. Followers of both, Hinduism and Islam, Ghanchis are the traditional ‘oilmen’ of Gujarat, usually engaged in oil-pressing (‘Ghanchi’ derives from ‘Ghanch’, the Gujarati term for an oil pressing machine). In this way, the caste is the Gujarati equivalent of the North Indian Teli and are classified as OBCs under Indian government laws.

Modi is not the first OBC leader who could become prime minister of India. Hardanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda, a Vokkaliga from Karnataka was the first OBC PM that India had, way back in the 90s.

A quick glance at the 12 other prime ministers (besides Deve Gowda) however, reveals that most have been north Indian, upper caste Hindus.

Of these twelve (Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P V Narasimha Rao, I K Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh), six have been Brahmins (Nehru, Indira, Desai, Rajiv, Rao and Vajpayee), though Rajiv also had Parsi blood in him.

Of the remaining six, two have been Rajputs/Thakurs (V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar), two Khatris (I K Gujral and Manmohan Singh), one Jat (Charan Singh) and one Kayastha (Lal Bahadur Shastri).

Religion-wise, twelve prime ministers have been Hindu, while Manmohan is the lone Sikh.

Vis-à-vis ethnicity and language, ten premiers have been from North India. Of these, eight are from Uttar Pradesh (Nehru, Shastri, Indira, Charan Singh, Rajiv, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Vajpayee), and two from Punjab (Gujaral and Manmohan). Morarji Desai was a Gujarati, while Rao and Deve Gowda were from South India (Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka).

And of course, Indira Gandhi was the lone female premier of India, albeit one of its most charismatic till date.

So is India a less representative democracy? The answer is yes. However, a most important and interesting fact to remember is that Britian and the United States, India’s democratic peers and who India looks up to, are hardly better than us in this respect.

Consider this: Of the 44 US presidents till date, almost all have been English speakers. The lone president whose mother tongue was not English was the Dutch-speaking Martin Van Buren (1782-1862). Most US presidents have been of English or Scots-Irish ancestry. Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower were both German-Americans. And John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the lone Irish-American.

Religion-wise, most US presidents have been overwhelmingly Protestant. Kennedy was the lone Roman Catholic.

No wonder then, that the US presidency has been largely been called a ‘White Anglo Saxon Protestant’ or WASP male preserve. To some extent though, the US ‘corrected’ this when, in 2008, it elected its first bi-racial/coloured/Afro-origin leader, Barack Hussein Obama. And chances are very strong that in the coming years, a woman (of any race), a Hispanic/Latino or even an Asian could get to sit in the Oval Office.

Across the pond, in Britain too, most prime ministers have been white, Protestant (mostly Anglican) males. Benjamin Disraeli did have Jewish roots, but he had been converted to Christianity before he came to public life. Maggie Thatcher has been Britain's only female premier.

The big takeaway here is that no democracy, whether it be the US, Britain or India, is perfectly representative of its population. The key aspect about democracies is that they are constantly evolving, changing and dynamic in nature. What was the norm yesterday won’t be tomorrow. The forces of change are always churning and fashioning out a democratic society.

And thus, while Modi may have used his caste status for lowly political gain, his ascent itself shows that Indian democracy is maturing slowly. With Dalits, OBCs, tribals and other marginalized groups getting more say in political power, it is a more level-playing field now, more than ever.India in the future could look forward to having its own ‘Obama Moment’, when a Dalit, Muslim or Christian could hold the reins of power at 7, Race Course Road.

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First Published: May 07 2014 | 4:13 PM IST

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