The most common refrain about the Obama victory seems to be the message that it sends out about the post-racial American society. A country that was among the last to grant its ethnic minorities civil rights has now elected one of them its president. As Jonathan Zimmerman observed in the Washington Post, the US lagged other nations — both European powers and newly-independent nations in the Americas — in abolishing the slave trade, abolishing slavery, granting voting rights and civil rights to its minorities. It was the only significant supporter of the apartheid South Africa regime, only imposing sanctions in 1987. Yet it has now become the first white-majority country to elect a coloured leader. It is a remarkable achievement by any measure.
Yet P. Sainath seeks to downplay its significance by comparing with the Indian subcontinent, and with India in particular:
India today has an upper-caste Hindu woman as President. A dalit (former Untouchable) as chief justice of its Supreme Court. A Muslim for Vice-President. A Sikh for Prime Minister. And the leader of its biggest – and ruling – political party, the Congress, is Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic from Italy. The Speaker of Parliament is a godless Communist.
India’s most famous war hero (and the only one to make Field Marshal rank) who died this year was a Parsi (of Zoroastrian faith). Sikhs (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) account for less than two per cent of the population. Muslims (Veep Hamid Ansari) 13.4 per cent. Dalits (Chief Justice Balakrishnan) 16.2 per cent and Parsis are the tiniest of minorities – less than 100,000 in a population of one billion plus.Roman Catholics from Italy — we have just one and she is the most powerful politician in the country.
Incidentally, the last President of India was a dalit. No, this does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities. It does mean, though, that the US, far from being unique, is an awful latecomer to representation of minorities…
Now, I admire all the above things about India, but — even leaving aside the howler about the “last President” — I find the argument extremely sloppy. First, none of the above figures were directly elected by the people of the entire country — we do not have such a system. We do have direct election of parliamentarians, but only to the lower house (I strongly feel that we should adopt a US senate-style direct-election system for the Rajya Sabha too); only Sonia Gandhi and Somnath Chatterjee, of the names listed above, won Lok Sabha elections. Our head of government, in particular, did not stand for election to the Lok Sabha and was not advertised before the election as the probable prime minister. Our head of state, the President, is not directly elected. So this comparison is pretty meaningless. If we are talking about people other than the heads of state or government, the US has had minorities and women in position for quite a while: even the Bush regime included Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Second, our privileged communities — the Brahmins and other upper castes — are in fact numerical minorities, and the oppressed communities are rather large in number. So it is not very surprising that, with free and fair elections, some members of those communities get elected. It is more similar to post-apartheid South Africa than to the US; the surprise (and cause for concern) is the continuing dominance of the upper castes, not the representation of the others. And some of the minorities he mentions — Parsis, Sikhs — have not been particularly oppressed historically, though the Sikhs endured much savagery after 1984.
Back to Obama: I have been, and still am, skeptical about his near-messianic appeal and do not expect huge differences in US policy, whether at home or abroad. I do expect better diplomacy, and it will be disappointing indeed if he does not use the goodwill earned by his middle name to rebuild bridges with the Muslim world in particular. But from all that I have been reading lately, he is one of those rare figures in politics who is genuinely well-read, intelligent, knowledgable, inquisitive, and exhibits the same personality in private as in public. He is easily one of the more talented world leaders in recent memory, and I hope he will be able to use his talents to rise above Washington’s “business as usual”. Sainath says, correctly, that his list of prominent Indian minority figures says nothing about the status of India’s minorities; but I’d say Obama’s election does say something about the status of blacks in America. More importantly, the fact of his election will almost certainly be positive for the future of race relations in America. Change in caste prejudices in India seems much slower in coming.