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‘Govigama’ monopoly of presidents and premiers in Sri Lanka

2017-07-22 00:10:09
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By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

 

71-Year-old Lawyer Ram Nath Kovind has been elected on Thursday July 20th 2017 as the 14th President of India! An excerpt from Indian English daily 
“The Hindu” stated as follows - 

 

“Ram Nath Kovind was on Thursday declared elected as India’s 14th President polling 65.6% of the vote defeating the Opposition’s joint candidate, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, who secured 34% of the vote. Mr. Kovind will be the second Dalit President of India after late President K.R. Narayanan but, more significantly, the first from politically significant Uttar Pradesh and the first person from the BJP to hold the office of President since Independence”.


“Speaking to the press after returning officer for the poll, Anoop Mishra, declared him elected, Mr. Kovind said it was an “emotional moment” for him.“I never dreamed of this position nor was it a goal. My election to this post is a message to all those who discharge their duties with honesty and integrity,” he said, promising to uphold the Constitution of India and follow the policy of Sarve Bhavantu Sukheenaha or peace and prosperity to all”.

The Indian Presidency is largely a ceremonial, but symbolically significant post. The President is elected by members of the Indian Lower (Lok Sabha) and Upper (Rajya Sabha) houses of Parliament along with members of the various state legislatures (legislative assemblies). The votes are graded accordingly and allocated a particular value. In the current presidential poll the total number of MPs and MLAs who cast their votes was 4851, bearing a combined value of 1090300. However, with 77 votes being declared invalid — 21 from Parliament alone — the total number of valid votes was 4774, bearing a combined value of 1069358. Mr. Kovind nominated by the BJP led govt polled 2930 of these votes — bearing a value of 702044 — while the opposition candidate Ms. Kumar gained 1844 votes — with a value of 367314.  


As a keen observer of the Indian political scene for many decades, the election of an Indian President is an exercise I greatly admire. What I have been impressed about most is the tradition followed by successive Indian Governments of electing presidents reflecting the mixed population of the country at large. India has through a deliberate process of selection ensured over the years that members of the regional, religious and linguistic minorities are rotated as Presidents of India. In recent times caste and gender too have become relevant factors.  

 

Even though titular the Indian head of state does have prestige and stature as the President of the world’s largest democracy. More interesting and important perhaps is the fact that the Indian presidency has evolved over the years as a symbol of that Country’s vast diversity and ethnic pluralism

 


After 20 years of independence from the British and partition, India elected its first Muslim President in 1967. There have been two more Muslim presidents thereafter in 1974 and 2002.The first Sikh President was elected in 1982. Presidents have been elected from the Southern States of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka,Tamil Nadu and Kerala as well as the Non - Hindi speaking states of Maharashtra and West Bengal. The first woman President was elected in 2007. The first depressed caste (Dalit) president was elected 50 years after independence in 1997. Now 70 years after independence a second Dalit president has been elected. Interestingly enough the opposition candidate Ms. Meira Kumar is the daughter of legendary Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram. Had she won India would still have had both its second Dalit president and first Dalit woman president..Thus the Indian presidential elections manifest an evolving tradition of recognizing the diversity and plurality that is India in a symbolic manner.  


India’s First Prime Minister
Even the Prime Ministerial office in India has begun to reflect the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi- caste society of India over the years. The Hindi speaking people form the largest linguistic group in India. They number about 41% of the population. Other linguistic groups form the rest. Religion wise Hindus form 80% of the population. Muslims are about 15 %. In the early years after Independence most Prime Ministers came from Hindi speaking Uttar Pradesh which is also India’s most populous state. India’s first Prime minister Jawarhalal Nehru hailed from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh (UP) but he was actually of Kashmiri pundit Brahmin lineage. His successor Lal Bahadur Shastri was also from UP. So too was India’s third and first woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was Nehru’s daughter. Indira married Feroze Gandhi a Parsee. Their son Rajiv became Prime Minister in 1984. He too contested from a UP constituency.  


There have been other premiers from the Hindi speaking states like Chaudhari Charan Singh, V. P. Singh , Chandra Shekhar Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However there have been Prime ministers from Non-Hindi speaking states too. The first elected non -Hindi Prime minister was Morarji Desai a Gujarati. The present Premier Narendra Modi is from Gujarat too. Gulzarilal Nanda who served twice as acting prime minister after the deaths of Nehru and Shastri was a Punjabi Hindu. So too was Inder Kumar Gujral. P. Narasimha Rao and H. D. Deve Gowda from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka respectively have also been Prime ministers. No Muslim has been elected Prime minister, but a Sikh Dr. Manmohan Singh was Premier from 2004 to 2014.  


The election and/or appointment of Prime Ministers depend on electoral results and political power equations. Though non - Hindi speakers have become PMs it wasn’t due to deliberate design. However as far as the symbolic Indian presidency is concerned, one is able to discern a definite and consistent method of trying to elect Presidents representing and reflecting the plural heritage of India. The latest election has seen a Hindu from Hindi speaking Uttar Pradesh being elected president, but the significant plus point is that he is a Dalit. The Dalits are supposedly of socio-culturally inferior castes.Thus President Kovind’s victory is testimony to the multi-caste social structure of India and a victory for those seeking the eradication of caste inequality.  

 

While most caste groups have political representation at different levels and different degrees, it is the Govigama and Vellala castes that dominate the politics of the Sinhala and Tamil people respectively

 

 


Compare and contrast
Whenever Presidential polls are held in India, I have a tendency to compare and contrast it with the situation in Sri Lanka. Like India, Sri Lanka too has a multi-ethnic, multi- religious , muti-caste society. Sinhalese comprise 75% While Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and other ethnic groups comprise the rest.Religion wise Buddhists who are predominantly Sinhala form 70% of the population.Hindus, Muslims and Christians are the other major religious groups. The percentages in terms of caste are difficult to gauge. It could be surmised that the Govigamas as well as the Vellalas are the numerically large castes within the Sinhala and Sri Lankan Tamil people. While most caste groups have political representation at different levels and different degrees, it is the Govigama and Vellala castes that dominate the politics of the Sinhala and Tamil people respectively.  


I know it’s distasteful to discuss caste in public, but in Sri Lanka as in India, the “caste” factor can’t be ignored as far as politics and arranged marriages are concerned. The caste factor came to the fore in political discussions in India when two “Dalit”candidates competed for the presidency. Indian analysts delve into this topic without inhibitions. Likewise the element of caste can’t be ignored in Sinhala or Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. So let us look at this issue more honestly and less hypocritically .  


As stated earlier the numerically dominant caste among the Sinhalese are the “ Govigamas”. Their counterparts among the Tamils are the “Vellalas”. Since Independence from the British in 1948 all Prime Ministers and Presidents in Sri Lanka with one solitary exception have been from the “majority” Sinhala race, “majority” Buddhist Religion and “majority” Govigama caste. The only exception (some say aberration) was Ranasinghe Premadasa who was a Sinhala Buddhist, but not from the dominant Govi caste.  


The first Ceylonese Governor – General (G-G) in 1954 was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, a Sinhala Govi protestant Christian. In 1962 Sir Oliver was replaced by a Kandyan Radala William Gopallawa as G- G. Governor-General Gopallawa transformed into President Gopallawa in 1972 after the Republican Constitution was promulgated.In 1978 came J.R.Jayewardene’s executive Presidency. Thereafter the Prime Minister post became relatively “powerless”. Even then it has been a Sinhala, Buddhist, Govigama preserve with the exception of Premadasa who shattered the glass ceilings of both the Premiership and Presidency in 1978 and 1988 respectively.  


CP de Silva was the only non – Govigama caste member who could have become Prime Minster in 1960 as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP). He was thwarted by the Governor - General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who was to later express his “misgivings” about a PM from the “Salagama”caste to political leaders such as S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and Dr.N.M.Perera. CP de Silva was an old Thomian and ex - civil servant with a proven track record as administrator. He also had the numbers in Parliament to form a majority govt.Yet Sir Oliver opted to dissolve Parliament instead of appointing the “Minneriya Deiyo” as PM. Later on CP de Silva’s “party” opted for Sirima Ratwatte Bandaranaike from Balangoda to Charles Percival de Silva from Balapitiya as SLFP leader. CP stepped down “voluntarily”. However in 1964 he defected to the opposition with a group of 14 MP’s. At least six of the defectors were from the Salagama caste.  

 


D.S. to Ranil Wickremesinghe
Every Prime Minister of Ceylon/Sri Lanka from D. S. Senanayake to Ranil Wickremesinghe (except Premadasa) has been from the Govigama caste. Every President from William Gopallawa to Maithripala Sirisena  (except Premadasa) has been from the Govigama caste. Even the progressively enlightened Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who broke barriers of religion,caste and class in personal life by marrying Vijaya could not break such barriers in political life. When the time came to replace her mother Sirima Bandaranaike as Prime minister there were many suitable non -Govigama aspirants like Nimal Siripala de Silva, G.L.Peiris and Mangala Samaraweera. Yet she chose the lacklustre Ratnasiri Wickramanayake as premier. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who served as Governor - General for 8 years was a Christian, but a Govigama. The only non - Govigama to be Premier and President was Ranasinghe Premadasa, but he was a “Sinhala Buddhist”.  


If this was the plight of persons who were “Sinhala” and “Buddhist” but not “Govikula”, then what chances do the ethnic and religious minority community members have in Sri Lanka at this point of time? None whatsoever!! The only non - Sinhala, non-Buddhist who could have aspired to the Prime Minister post under an executive presidency was former Foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. However Lakshman Kadirgamar learnt a bitter lesson when Chandrika Kumaratunga wanted to make him Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapakse sabotaged the move to become Premier in 2004. But it was possible that Rajapakse may have made Kadirgamar Premier for “cosmetic” purposes at least after attaining the executive presidency in November 2005. Speculation on that count however is irrelevant as the tigers killed Kadirgamar before the Presidential elections itself.  A political tradition of inclusiveness reflecting the plural heritage and ethno-cultural diversity of a country has to be gradually evolved. The practices maintained currently in India with regard to the Presidency was carefully built up over the years. A brief re-run of the history of Indian presidents and the nature of the presidency is worthwhile and necessary at this juncture to understand how this inclusive and broadly representative tradition evolved over the years. I have written on these lines on earlier occasions and would be drawing upon such writings in this article.  


The Indian Presidency unlike that of countries like Sri Lanka, USA, Russia or France is not an executive Presidency. It’s more of a ceremonial post like that of the Governor – General when Sri Lanka was Ceylon or that of the President before Junius Richard Jayewardene transformed it as an Executive President. Even though titular the Indian head of state does have prestige and stature as the President of the world’s largest democracy. More interesting and important perhaps is the fact that the Indian presidency has evolved over the years as a symbol of that Country’s vast diversity and ethnic pluralism.  


Despite various challenges from within and without India has remained strong and united. India has fourteen major national languages and over 250 minor languages and dialects. All the major religions of the world are found there. Its regions are widely disparate and unevenly developed. Moreover India is plagued by caste differences. Fissiparous tendencies were galore in the early years of Independence. Many analysts predicted fragmentation within years. The Indian state and elite were so paranoid about divisive tendencies that they downplayed the “federalism ” of its Constitution and instead emphasised “on its unitary characteristics”.  

 

The prevailing tradition of appointing minority community members was broken

 


Accommodating diversity
In stark contrast,Sri Lanka has only two premier languages, three major ethnicities and four chief religions. Sadly political muddling and lack of vision led to disintegrating chaos and a destructive civil war.But “Mother” India was fortunate in having enlightened children to lead the nation.The Nehruvian vision of accommodating diversity and forging unity in practical terms laid the groundwork for a strong, united India to emerge. Re- organizing states on a linguistic basis, secularism and co-operative federalism were the key elements that went into re – inventing modern India.  


In Sri Lanka it was the opposite with Sinhala being imposed as sole official language, Buddhism being given foremost place and rabid opposition to any meaningful form of the federal idea or power sharing.. The end result of this process is now clearly and tragically visible. An important reason – if not the only one – for this contrasting state of affairs between India and Sri Lanka is the accommodative spirit displayed by Indian policy makers and administrators in celebrating diversity and practising pluralism. This spirit was absent among the dominant political class and bureaucracy in Sri Lanka.  


It is said in lighter vein that the cohesive bonds keeping modern India together are the Indian civil service, Railways, Cricket, Hindi Cinema, English language and the Institution of the Indian Presidency.The “Rashtrapathy” though a ceremonial post has developed over the years into an institution symbolising pluralism and reflecting diversity.This process has been strengthened not through legislation or litigation but through an interesting on going process of usage and convention. The spirit of accommodation has through practice forged a rough pattern in selecting Presidential candidates.  


As stated earlier the idea has been that of giving recognition and representation to all of India’s diverse ethnicities, regions and religions. This unwritten procedure has more weight than written laws or rules.The evolution and growth of the Indian presidency and the different strands of society reflected and recognized by that Institution is an interesting tale worth recounting.  


After Independence, the first Indian to be Governor – General of the Dominion was a Tamil Brahmin C. Rajagopalschari or Rajaji. Meanwhile a Constituent assembly presided over By Dr. BR Ambedkar drafted India’s Republican Constitution. India became a Republic formally on Jan 26th 1950. The first President was Rajendra Prasad. He was a Hindi speaker. Prasad was a man of great stature and a political personality on par with Jawarhalal Nehru. In the old days of “left” and “right” Prasad was a “rightist” and Nehru left of Centre.With Prasad’s elevation to the Presidency a potential rival to Nehru was sidelined. 

 

This in a sense is reminiscent of D.S Senanayake’s stratagem in persuading Sir Baron Jayatilleke to become Envoy to India.Newly elected Ram Nath Kovind is the 14th President of India. Actually he would have been the 15th but for Rajendra Prasad becoming President for a second term in 1957. He is the only President to have served for two successive terms.  


In 1962 the eminent scholar and philosopher Dr. S. Radhakrishnan became President. He was vice – president earlier. Radhakrishnan though a resident of Chennai was a Telugu by ethnicity. The South Indian Radhakrishnan was the President when Nehru died in 1964 and also when Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in 1966.  

 

The celebration of diversity and the conscious effort to recognize plurality lies at the core of India’s comparative success in crisis management

 


India’s first Muslim President
After Radhakrishnan another scholar and educationist Dr. Zakir Hussain became President in 1967. He was India’s first Muslim President. A member of a regional and linguistic minority was followed by a member from a religious minority.The Prime Ministers up to that time were from the majority Hindi speaking Uttar Pradesh. But the Presidency was rotated to accommodate Minority members.  
Zakir Hussain died in office in 1969. The Presidential stakes became a power struggle. On the one hand was the “old guard” party hierarchy known as the “syndicate” while on the other was Indira Gandhi attempting to break free of those who had installed her in office.The “syndicate” consisting of people like S. Nijalingappa, Kamaraj, SK Patil, Atulya Ghosh etc wanted the speaker N. Sanjiva Reddy to be President; Indira wanted the vice – president VV Giri to succeed Hussain.The elections saw Indira calling upon Congress members to defy the party high command and vote for Giri. There was a third candidate C. Deshmukh fielded by Rajaji’s Swathantra party. Giri won. The Congress party split.  

 

VV Giri a former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka was a Kannadiga from the Karnataka state. The Muslim Hussain was succeeded by a linguistic and regional minority member.1974 saw Giri’s term of office ending. He was succeeded by Fakhruddhin Ali Ahmed a North Indian Muslim. He was a cabinet minister and Indira Gandhi loyalist. So India had a religious minority member as President again.

 
1977 saw Ali Ahmed passing away while holding presidential office just as Zakir Hussain. Meanwhile Indira Gandhi was defeated in the polls. A Janatha coalition was in power with Morarji Desai from Gujerat as Prime Minister.Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was made President. He was the man defeated in 1969 by VV Giri. Reddy was a Telugu from Andhra Pradesh. Once again a regional and linguistic minority member was President.  Indira returned to power in 1980. In 1982 Giani Zail Singh was made President. He was a Sikh from Punjab and a devout loyalist of Indira Gandhi. So another religious minority community member was President.1987 saw the Vice – president R. Venkatraman succeeding Zail Singh. Venkatraman was a Tamil brahmin from Tamil Nadu and had been a cabinet minister earlier. Thus a regional cum linguistic minority community member was President.Rajiv Gandhi was killed in 1991. The new Congress government had PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. Rao was from Andhra Pradesh. For the first time a South Indian was Prime Minister.  


In 1992 it was time for Venkstraman to step down as president.. His Vice – president was Shankar Dayal Sharma, a hindi speaking North Indian. With the PM being a South Indian, the North Indian Sharma became President.The prevailing tradition of appointing minority community members was broken. But the Premier was South Indian. In 1966 another South Indian Deve Gowda from Karnataka became Premier.  

 


First “Dalit” President
In 1997 KR Narayanan the vice – president succeeded Sharma. Narayanan a former career diplomat hailed from the South Indian state of Kerala. Once again a regional and linguistic minority community member was President. Now all four “Dravidian” states had enjoyed stints as President. Narayanan also set another precedent. He belonged to the so called low caste “Dalit” community. Thus after fifty years of Independence “casteist” India had a “Dalit” as President. Besides Narayanan also had “christian” links because of his wife and siblings who had converted.  

When Narayanan stepped down in 2002 the Bharatiya Janata party led coalition was in power. Jayalalitha Jayaram the actress turned politico was chief minister of Tamil Nadu. She proposed Abdul Kalam the famous nuclear scientist as President. Kalam was a Tamil speaking Muslim from Rameshwaram in the South of Tamil Nadu.. Hussein and Ali Ahmed were Urdu speaking Muslims. Abdul Kalam was a celebrity in his own right as the scientist credited with India’s nuclear capability.It made political sense for the Hindu rightist BJP regime to re- furbish its image by making a Muslim the President. Jayalalitha was happy about a “Thamizhan” becoming President.Tamil speaking Muslims in Tamil Nadu perceive themselves as Tamils observing Islam as a religion.They do not see themselves as separate from Tamil Hindus or Christians on account of their religion.  


2007 was time for Abdul Kalam to end his term of office. The vice – president was Bhairon Singh Shekhawat a Rajput from Hindi – speaking Rajasthan. He was a former BJP Chief minister of Rajasthan.The Congress did not want a BJP politician as President. So it selected Pratibha Patil who was then Governor of Rajasthan as the Govt candidate with the approval of its allies like the DMK and the Communist and Marxist parties. Shekhawat himself contested as an “independent” .The Presidential poll saw Pratibha Patil defeating her rival easily. Pratibha hailed from Maharashtra state and was ethnically a Mahratta. Maharashtra is neither North nor South but in Central or West of India. The Mahrattas are a distinct entity speaking the Marathi language.  

 


First woman president
Thus a regional and linguistic minority community member became President again. More importantly Prathiba Patil was the first woman to be elected as President of India. This was indeed a commendable milepost.In 2012 the ruling Congress led coalition Govt nominated senior minister Pranab Mukherjee as its presidential candidate. Mukherjee was also from a non - Hindi state. He was a Bengali hailing from West Bengal state.  Now a Hindu Dalit from Uttar Pradesh has become president.The BJP has been long accused of being an upper caste (Brahmin and Bania) oriented party. Electing a Dalit as president would help dispel this image. Besides at the recent UP polls, a sizable number of Dalits had voted for the BJP. Thus it made sense for the BJP to elect a Dalit Hindu from Uttar pradesh as president. Despite these political considerations the election has proved to be victory for the accommodative tradition. The celebration of diversity and the conscious effort to recognize plurality lies at the core of India’s comparative success in crisis management. The tradition of rotating the Presidency among regional, religious, linguistic and caste minorities is a healthy expression of that mindset.  


When compared to the success story of India in this sphere, Sri Lanka’s story has been a sad one. Political power has been entrenched with the Sinhala - Buddhist -Govugama - majority that seems to perceive its numerical superiority almost as a divine right. Not only is there unwillingness to share power with the minorities but even symbolic recognition of the island’s diversity and plurality seems impossible. It is this reluctance to share power even symbolically and the gross insensitivity of the ruling class to issues like this that lie at the core of the crisis in Sri Lanka. The unwillingness of the dominant group to share power is manifest in the election/appointment of the President and Prime Minister.  


Will Sri Lanka Ever Have.......?
Will Sri Lanka ever have a non - Sinhala, non - Buddhist President or Prime Minister? Even more importantly perhaps is the pointed question - Will Sri Lanka break the Govigama monopoly and have a non _Govigama President or Prime Minister in the near future?  


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com