In times past, a section of society was treated as “untouchable” by the rest. They were not allowed to approach the others, and if by mistake one of them made physical contact with the “touchable” part of society, the unfortunate individual was put to death. In the south, a section of society was not merely “untouchable” but “unseeable”. This lowest of the low was forced to ring bells or shout out their location, so that others may be warned to keep away. They were not allowed to use the same paths as others did, having to content themselves with moving around inside fields and jungles, out of sight of others. The rigid stratification of society –which after a while became based on birth – helped weaken the different kingdoms within the country such that they became easy prey for invaders from Afghanistan, Arabia, Central Asia and the territory that is modern-day Iran.
One of the few benefits of British rule was the springing up of reform movements within the Hindu religion, many led by thinkers from Bengal. Raja Rammohun Roy and others like him understood that there was no way India could expel the British, unless society itself became more just. For millenia, learning had been confined to a small proportion of the total population. The rest were given no opportunity to study. This state of affairs continued till the Mughal era, when several from the lower orders of society discovered that they could vastly improve their status by adopting the faith of their conquerors. Of course, such individuals could not dream of equality with the Mughal princes and their retinue, just as later on Christian converts in India were still treated as inferior to the British,despite both having the same faith. However, the treatment given to them was far better than the discrimination they had endured when they were in their previous faith, a factor that encouraged a steady flow of converts for several centuries.
Ever since the 1857 uprising, the British in India were reluctant to force social change,or to impose their systems and standards on those who did not want them. Hence the country had to wait till independence in 1947 for laws to get passed that criminalized discrimination on the basis of caste. A section of government jobs was set aside for those from the castes that had suffered discrimination. This was meant to be a temporary measure, but now seems to have become permanent. Thanks to such policies, many from the former “untouchable” castes got educated, and these days, include within their midst some of the country’s most talented people. Since the 1990s, they have begun to vote tactically, such that in several parts of the country, chief ministers have come from their midst. An example is Chief Minister Mayawati of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. She has proved to be an effective administrator, as well as a determined campaigner.
Should she succeed in coalescing the underprivileged across the country, she may even emerge as India’s first-ever “Dalit” ( or “untouchable”) Prime Minister. At present, her only challenger for such an honour is the telegenic Speaker of the Lok Sabha ( or Lower House of Parliament), Meira Kumar, who entered the Indian Foreign Service due to her studious qualities, is the daughter of the late Jagjivan Ram, who for decades was a Union Cabinet Minister under successive PMs. Each portfolio that he handled was administered well. This columnist’s father was in charge of rural credit at the Reserve Bank,and he used to say that he found Minister Ram to be “the most efficient member of the Cabinet”. His daughter has clearly inherited these qualities, for she is handling her duties as Speaker very well, without once losing her temper. As a senior leader of the Congress Party, Meira Kumar has a chance to be the PM, except that she is scrupulously honest, and hence not popular with other party leaders, most of whom view politics as a means to riches. However, the decision on whether or not she gets selected as a replacement for Manmohan Singh is entirely in the hands of Sonia Gandhi. Of course, the choice of a non-family member to be PM is only in the event that her son Rahul decides not to take up the job. So deep-rooted is loyalty to the Nehru family within the Congress Party that Rahul Gandhi would have the support of 100% of Congress MPs,including current PM Manmohan Singh, if his mother decided to appoint him. His father Rajiv Gandhi was about the same age when he took charge of the country in 1984, and like Rahul today, Rajiv too had zero experience in government before taking up the Prime Ministership.
The steady drumbeat of scandal has lowered the chances of Home Minister Chidambaram or others in the Union Cabinet of ever replacing Manmohan Singh. Each day fresh reports of corruption are emerging, the latest being allegations of favouritism shown to two oil companies, one foreign and the other Indian. Should this scandal become too hot to handle,the way the telecom scam has developed, it is possible that some minister or the other may first be thrown out of the Union Cabinet and thereafter be sent to Tihar jail, the way the former Telecom Minister has been. The calculation would be that the sacrifice of a minister would satisfy the people and douse their anger. However, the reality in India is that although others sign on the files,the real decision-making power vests with Sonia Gandhi. Trusted officials and party members convey her commands to the ministers and even the PM.
Indeed, Manmohan Singh has been honest enough to admit before television cameras that he follows the “orders of Soniaji and Rahulji”
That Sonia Gandhi frequently uses the corporate aircraft of one of the oil companies that is the subject of public
attention is known to mediapersons and others in the national capital. That Sonia Gandhi, her two children and her two sisters travel extensively is equally known. Many times,such visits are made on corporate jets, although no photographer is permitted near the runway when such flights take off and land. The media in India is silent as a mouse about such travels of the First Family of the Republic.
And while the same ministers who dance to her commands get excoriated for possible corruption, Sonia Gandhi herself is kept out of controversy. Recently a Canadian diplomat even wrote in a newspaper that she was among the country’s most determined corruption fighters, an image shared by the foreign media, who give her favourable coverage even as they have now begun to expose the failings of Prime Minister Singh. Indeed, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has become the new “untouchable”, only this time, she is at the top of the heap rather than at the bottom. Whether it is key decisions or changes in personnel, hers is the final – often the only – say. So pervasive is her authority that many are now saying that it would be best for the constitutional fabric of the country if she were to take charge as PM, rather than – as now – exercise power without responsibility.
– Pakistan Observer, Islamabad, June 14, 2010
» Prof. M.D. Nalapat is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Karnataka State, India.