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An Obama Moment for India's Untouchables

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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.

Yet the next national elections, due before May 2009, may produce a plausible Dalit contender for the job of prime minister - Kumari Mayawati, the female chief minister of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

Since 1991, no Indian governing party has enjoyed a secure parliamentary majority on its own, necessitating multi-party coalition governments. The current Congress Party-led government of Manmohan Singh comprises 20 parties; it succeeded a 23-party coalition headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party's Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

When the election results are declared next year, no one doubts that the first challenge will be to cobble together another coalition. Both the Congress and the BJP will seek to make alliances with the dozens of smaller parties likely to be represented in parliament.

But this time they are likely to face a third alternative: Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) may command a bloc of at least 50 seats. She has publicly expressed her disdain for both large national parties; she would much rather lead a coalition than join one. And if the electoral numbers break down right, she could conceivably assemble a collection of regional and left-wing parties and stake a claim to rule India.

This is a remarkable development: the idea that a Dalit woman could lead India has been inconceivable for 3,000 years. But India's democracy has opened new pathways to empowerment for its underclasses. The poor and the oppressed may not have much, but they do have the numbers, which is what matters at the ballot box.

Dalits and India's aboriginals (listed in the Constitution as "Scheduled Castes and Tribes") are entitled to 85 seats in India's 543-member parliament that are "reserved" for candidates from their communities. Mayawati's shrewd alliances, including with some members of the upper castes, which propelled her to power in Uttar Pradesh, give her party a fighting chance to win a number of other seats as well. In a coalition-dependent parliamentary system, that could be all she needs to become prime minister.

The daughter of a government clerk, Mayawati studied law and worked as a teacher before being spotted by the BSP's founder, the late Kanshi Ram, and groomed for political leadership. Her ascent has been marked by a heavy emphasis on symbolism - her rule in Uttar Pradesh has featured the construction of numerous statues of Dalit leaders, notably herself - and a taste for lavish celebrations.

Mayawati's weakness for "bling" has been demonstrated at her extravagant birthday parties, which she presides over laden with diamonds, saying (rather like Evita Peron) that her luster brings glamour and dignity to her people. She takes pride in being the Indian politician who pays the highest income taxes - about $6 million last year - though the sources of her income are shrouded in controversy. She has been accused, but not convicted, of corruption several times, with one notable case involving the construction of an elaborate shopping complex near the Taj Mahal, in violation of zoning laws.

Critics argue that Mayawati's promotion of Dalit welfare seems to start with herself. But there is no denying that her rise to power in India's largest state, which sends 80 members to parliament, has given her a vital platform to bid for India's most powerful job. With her diamonds and her statues, and a reputation for dealing imperiously with her subordinates, she's clearly no Obama. But if she succeeds, she will have overcome a far longer legacy of discrimination.

(Author's note: this column was originally published on in November, 2008)