By Bhavdeep Kang
Would Harris have secured the vice-presidential nomination if she were a practising Hindu? Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who identifies as Hindu, threw her hat into the ring early on, but found zero traction. The US constitution requires no test of religion for public office, but surveys show that the voting public does. The Indian obsession with the US elections is only natural; in a globalised and multi-polar world, electoral outcomes have far-reaching effects, particularly in the post-Covid geopolitical scenario. Equally natural is our vicarious sense of pride in the political success of PIOs. A section of Indian intellectuals attributes this success to the superiority of western political culture. How valid is that perspective?
The argument goes something like this: Western liberalism creates an enabling, pluralistic environment, in which Indian American politicians thrive, just as the US corporate culture puts Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas at the helm of IT giants. So much better than our messy identity politics, geared against minorities and women.
This warm endorsement of western liberalism overlooks the fact that in the US, which is a majoritarian democracy, political formations are arguably as 'Christian majority' as the BJP is 'Hindu majority'. The two most prominent Indian American politicians, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley, are both churchgoers, as was Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal, another PIO who made a bid for a presidential run. So was former US president Barack Obama.
Although there are a handful of non-Christian, non-Jewish elected representatives from minority communities, the more successful ones – at least those who get within viewing distance of the White House - tend to be churchgoers. Would Harris have secured the vice-presidential nomination if she were a practising Hindu? Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who identifies as Hindu, threw her hat into the ring early on, but found zero traction. The US constitution requires no test of religion for public office, but surveys show that the voting public does. Yet, colour, and not religion, is recognised as the major faultline in the social fabric of the US.
In India, faultlines are multiple: caste, class, community. So strong are prejudices of caste and class that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen as something of a poster boy for Indian democracy. Modi's humble (read dirt-poor) origins are now the stuff of legend, thanks to the Congress, which obligingly characterised him as a 'chaiwalla'. To boot, he is an OBC – an undeniable fact that political opponents have sought to deny and failed - and did not have the advantage of an English education.
He is as far from elite as can be and in that sense, ought to represent a success for liberal democratic values. But Indian intellectuals tend to perceive democracy solely through the lens of communalism. Indian democracy has failed, because the percentage of Muslims in the House is tiny, just about five per cent, which is far short of their demographic footprint. The same can be said of the OBCs, who with 120 members, form 22 per cent of the strength of the House, against a population of around 41 per cent.
This is not to argue that representation of minorities in Parliament is adequate; it clearly isn't. There should be twice as many Muslim MPs in the House. But no Parliament is a perfect mirror of demographics. Provision has been made for reservation of seats for SC/STs, but what can be done for other under-represented sections? The issue of proportional representation for minorities was discussed long before Independence and is a can of worms even the stout-hearted will not want to re-open. The fate of the Women's Reservation Bill is a case in point.
Democracy is messy, involving as it does conflicting interest groups and intersection of identities. The end result is that most people don't feel adequately represented. A thakur may feel there are too many brahmins and OBCs and not enough thakurs in the House. STs may feel they need more than 47 seats. The south may feel the north carries too much weight in Parliament. Women will justly feel that they need at least a third of the seats. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, you cannot satisfy all of the people all of the time.
In any event, none of the prominent US-born and bred Indian American politicians have any special rapport with the motherland, other than their names and complexion. They follow the party line on India and will continue to do so, regardless of the office they hold. Harris, for example, has been very critical of India's policies.
Contrasting western and Indian democracy, ie, comparing the position of Blacks in the US to that of Muslims in India is weighing apples against oranges. In this case, comparisons are not only odious, but extremely flawed.