India's 'Obama Moment' Will be When a Muslim Becomes PM

Barack Obama's emergence as the front-runner in the US presidential election confirmed that the much-hyped "American dream" is not a myth after all. It is possible for a person with talent and charisma to break through the glass barrier. No walls of prejudice separate him from the rest.

Obama's rise is the greatest vindication, therefore, of America's multicultural polity. If and when he takes the oath of office Jan 20 next year, it will be an unprecedented "Obama moment" in American history.

When can India demonstrate that its pluralism, too, offers equal opportunities to all? There are not a few disadvantaged groups in India, like the American blacks. Among them are the former "untouchables" or the Dalits and the Adivasis, the pre-Aryan "original" inhabitants.

But probably no community is as disadvantaged as the 140 million Muslims because, in addition to their economic backwardness and social isolation, they also bear the stigma of being a religious minority whose patriotism is suspect. From this standpoint, they are "aliens" compared to the Dalits and Adivasis, whose nationalism is not questioned.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Muslims have long been the specific target of a major social and political group - the aggressively Hindu majoritarian Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If colour marks out the blacks from the white majority in America, religion distinguishes the Muslims from the Hindu majority in India.

What is more, the RSS-BJP hardliners hold the past against them - the arrival of the followers of Islam in India in the eighth century, the demolition of temples by the invaders and, finally, the partition of India in 1947 on the grounds that the Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations.

Clearly, the history of the Muslims militates against their total and unchallenged assimilation into Indian society. Even if integration does take place over time, there will still be groups like the RSS-BJP and the Shiv Sena that will arouse suspicion and animus against them, especially when Islamic terrorism has become a major modern-day scourge.

It is easy to see, therefore, that the Indian Muslims face even greater obstacles in the political field than the African Americans in the US. In addition to the "sin" of being responsible for the vivisection of Mother India, the Muslims, especially the poorer among them, have the disadvantage of being socially secluded because of their preference for cloistered existence in ghettos, and being educationally backward because of their reliance on religion-oriented teaching in madrassas.

Yet, it is astonishing that despite such negative features, sections of the community have broken through the glass barrier in a spectacular fashion in certain fields. Although the Muslims no longer play a major role in politics, they have notched up huge successes in films, music - both classical and popular - and in sports.

Both Bollywood and cricket, India's favourite sports, have long been the domain of Muslim stars. Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nasiruddin Shah and "King" Shah Rukh Khan have been household names as matinee idols along with singers like Suraiya, Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mehmood.

In cricket, the Nawab of Pataudi, Mohammed Azharuddin and now the Pathan brothers - Irfan and Yusuf - are in the headlines. And in classical music, the traditions of Alauddin Khan, Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ali Akbar and others remain undimmed.

Arguably, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that, like Azim Premji in the corporate sector, Muslim politicians will gradually begin to make their presence felt on the national scene. It is obvious, however, that they will first have to overcome the huge burden of erasing the memory of one of their foremost politicians of the pre-1947 period, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose name was proposed for prime ministership by Mahatma Gandhi as a last-ditch attempt to save the unity of India.

Jinnah's elevation would not have been considered a breach of any barrier because India had had several Muslim dynasties, including the famous Mughals, along with Hindu ones (mainly in the south) since medieval times. After 1947, however, not only did the number of prominent Muslim politicians begin to dwindle, those who remained in the field tended to be on the defensive because of the traumatic events of the partition.

Six decades later, the Muslims may no longer be haunted by the country's division because of the healing passage of time, and also because the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 had exposed the hollowness of the two-nation theory. But they remain very much on the margins where politics is concerned, except in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir. Otherwise, it wasn't till 1989 that India had its first Muslim home minister (the Communists had their first eight years later). But there are no Muslims in the top echelons of even the secular parties, let alone the BJP.

Nor are there any signs of a promising political figure on the horizon. Let alone be an automatic choice for the prime minister's post, there are no Muslim chief ministers outside of Srinagar. Even if partition is now a closed chapter, the blow it dealt to Muslim politics in India has been crippling. It will evidently take decades before they join the various political parties in sufficiently large numbers to enable some of them to climb up the ladder to prominent positions.

India had its first Sikh prime minister - though an "accidental" one, in Manmohan Singh's own admission - 57 years after independence, but neither a Muslim nor a Christian one in all these years; nor, for that matter, a Dalit or an Adivasi one. Evidently, the glass ceiling is very much in place to exclude all but the upper castes. Yet, unless someone from these communities can rise to the top, India will not be able to celebrate its "Obama moment" and fulfil its tryst with multiculturalism.

But it is also undeniable that when a stage is reached in a country's social and political development, when a person heads a government solely because of his competence and popular appeal, then his community becomes irrelevant, just as Manmohan Singh was chosen not because he is Sikh but because of his reputation for integrity.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)


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