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An Obama Moment for India’s Untouchables

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.”

In theory, this already has happened: K. R. Narayanan, born into a poor Dalit family, served as India’s president, the highest office in the land, from 1997 to 2002. But the Indian Presidency is a largely ceremonial position: real power is vested in the office of prime minister, and no Dalit has come close to holding that post. Since independence in 1947, a majority of India’s prime ministers have been Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste.