On 21st January 2021, the United States made history. After more than 250 years of independence, they have a cabinet that represents the diversity of the country. After a long struggle, Joe Biden finally became President.
The oath of office made him the second catholic President of the United States and Kamala Harris – the first woman, first African-American, first African-American woman, first South Asian-American and first South Asian-American woman to take charge as Vice President of the United States of America (USA).
Biden’s cabinet includes the openly gay and former Mayor of Indiana, Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation while a black man named Lloyd Austin had been appointed Secretary of Defence. Biden’s cabinet is set to be the most diverse cabinet in the history of the United States, and the American media and public cannot get over it.
This excitement, the euphoria and celebration in America got me thinking – Did India ever have such a diversity? If yes, did the Indian public and media appreciate it or showed that level of excitement and celebration that United States is showing right now?
In 2004, Italian-born Indian citizen Sonia Gandhi was all set to become India’s Prime Minister. But, due to pressure from coalition partners and protests from opposition political party leaders, the President of Indian National Congress Sonia Gandhi chose Dr Manmohan Singh to become India’s head of government.
His appointment was celebrated. And why? The Oxford and Cambridge educated economist Dr Manmohan Singh led India out of the financial crisis to economic liberalization in the 1990s. His economic policy led India into the 21st century as a promising global power, and no one could refute it.
Adding to this, he became India’s first Sikh Prime Minister. Not only that, Dr Manmohan Singh became the first Prime Minister of India that belonged to a minority religious group. In India, Sikhs are a religious minority with a population of 2.5 percent who are mostly limited to the state of Punjab. After being Prime Minister for 5 years, he got re-elected in the 2009 general elections.
Before I go further, I must clarify for the American audience. Just like in the United States, we also have two main parties – BJP and Congress. You can equate BJP with the Republicans and Congress with the Democrats in terms of ideology, but not history. In historical terms, Congress has been India’s Grand Old Party (GOP), and BJP was formed in the 1980s.
Another difference is that we have multiple regional parties that act as checks and balances in our system. Our regional parties also have representation in the Parliament and get a say on who will form the government due to coalition politics. As a result, we have a multi-party system as opposed to the American two-party system.
Under his government, Muslims were represented as well. India had a Muslim Vice-President named Mohd. Hamid Ansari. We had Salman Khurshid, a prominent lawyer, as our Foreign Affairs Minister and had representation from India’s only Muslim-majority state of Kashmir as well. Farooq Abdullah and his son, Omar Abdullah, both became members of his cabinet. In fact, Farooq Abdullah, a Kashmiri Muslim, was also considered for the post of India’s President.
Women were not left behind – Manmohan Singh’s government gave India its first female President, Mrs. Pratibha Patil. The lower house of Parliament for the second time elected a woman leader of Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi.
Meira Kumar became the first woman and first Dalit woman speaker of the Lok Sabha (meaning house of the people). Meira Kumar was not the only oppressed caste representative in Singh’s government, Sushil Kumar Shinde became India’s first Dalit to become Home Minister. But, was the representation in this government limited to religion and gender? No.
Another form of conflict that exists in Indian society and federal structure is between the North and the South. South India always feels neglected when it comes to appointments and representations. But, under Manmohan Singh’s government not only South Indian’s got representation, they also held vote-bank power.
In other words, they were elected representatives holding high positions such P. Chidambaram who became India’s Finance Minister and A.K. Anthony from the state of Kerala who handled Ministry of Defence for 10 years.
But, was everyone represented? While Manmohan Singh’s government was India’s most diverse – it also left behind some groups. The government did not give adequate representation to people of the North-East, neither to the tribal community. While these groups need for representation has been discussed in the Indian media landscape.
Unlike American politics, India has never discussed in the public domain about representation of LGBTQ community. A recognized minority community under 2011 census, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community is 5 percent of India’s population. Though Manmohan Singh government did not give them representation, it did move a step forward by recognizing them as a minority.
Manmohan Singh’s government’s diversity was never celebrated nor even highlighted. Their work in giving LGBTQ community representation was not even talked about. Today, when I look back and see how the United States is appreciating its political identity, it makes me wonder: Did India take its political diversity for granted?
Did we not appreciate what we have got to offer to the world in terms of pluralist mature democracy? Or were we just careless about unity with diversity, and as of this moment in history – have we thrown it away for a homogenous society?