An Obama Moment for India’s Untouchables

Among the many international consequences of Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the United States is the widespread introspection around the world about whether such a breakthrough could happen elsewhere. In most countries, the answer is no, but in India it is a definite possibility.

NEW DELHI – Among the many international consequences of Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the United States is worldwide introspection about whether such a breakthrough could happen elsewhere. Could a person of color win power in other white-majority countries? Could a member of a beleaguered minority transcend the circumstances of his birth to lead his or her country?

While many analysts in a wide variety of nations, especially in Europe, have concluded that such an event could not occur there in the foreseeable future, India is an exception. Minority politicians have long wielded authority, if not power, in its various high offices. Indeed, India’s last general election, in 2004, was won by a woman of Italian heritage and Roman Catholic faith (Sonia Gandhi) who made way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam) in a country that is 81% Hindu. Not only could it happen here, Indians say, it already has.

Such complacency is premature. The closest Indian analogy to the position of black Americans is that of the Dalits – formerly called “Untouchables,” the outcastes who for millennia suffered humiliating discrimination and oppression. Like blacks in the US, Dalits account for about 15% of the population; they are found disproportionately in low-status, low-income jobs; their levels of educational attainment are lower than the upper castes; and they still face daily incidents of discrimination for no reason other than their identity at birth. Only when a Dalit rules India can the country truly be said to have attained its own “Obama moment.”

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

Registration is quick and easy and requires only your email address. If you already have an account with us, please log in. Or subscribe now for unlimited access.


Log in;
  1. An employee works at a chemical fiber weaving company VCG/Getty Images

    China in the Lead?

    For four decades, China has achieved unprecedented economic growth under a centralized, authoritarian political system, far outpacing growth in the Western liberal democracies. So, is Chinese President Xi Jinping right to double down on authoritarianism, and is the “China model” truly a viable rival to Western-style democratic capitalism?

  2. The assembly line at Ford Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

    Whither the Multilateral Trading System?

    The global economy today is dominated by three major players – China, the EU, and the US – with roughly equal trading volumes and limited incentive to fight for the rules-based global trading system. With cooperation unlikely, the world should prepare itself for the erosion of the World Trade Organization.

  3. Donald Trump Saul Loeb/Getty Images

    The Globalization of Our Discontent

    Globalization, which was supposed to benefit developed and developing countries alike, is now reviled almost everywhere, as the political backlash in Europe and the US has shown. The challenge is to minimize the risk that the backlash will intensify, and that starts by understanding – and avoiding – past mistakes.

  4. A general view of the Corn Market in the City of Manchester Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

    A Better British Story

    Despite all of the doom and gloom over the United Kingdom's impending withdrawal from the European Union, key manufacturing indicators are at their highest levels in four years, and the mood for investment may be improving. While parts of the UK are certainly weakening economically, others may finally be overcoming longstanding challenges.

  5. UK supermarket Waring Abbott/Getty Images

    The UK’s Multilateral Trade Future

    With Brexit looming, the UK has no choice but to redesign its future trading relationships. As a major producer of sophisticated components, its long-term trade strategy should focus on gaining deep and unfettered access to integrated cross-border supply chains – and that means adopting a multilateral approach.

  6. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now