India swears in 'untouchable' as president
July 25, 1997
Web posted at: 3:04 p.m. EDT (1904 GMT)
NEW DELHI (CNN) -- One of Mahatma Gandhi's most cherished
dreams came true Friday, as K.R. Narayanan was sworn in to
the highest office in India.
Narayanan, India's 10th president, is a member of the
socially and economically disadvantaged section of Indian
society known as Dalits, or "oppressed people," the lowest
caste in the Indian social system. As he took office, he
pledged that the concerns of the "common man" would now take
prominence in the country's affairs.
He also expressed deep concern at the rampant corruption
prevailing in Indian society. Currently, a $280 million
corruption scandal is rocking the three-month-old minority
coalition government of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral.
In contrast, politicians embraced Narayanan as a
noncontroversial candidate; he is one of the few prominent
Indian politicians untainted by scandal. He was elected last
week to succeed Shankar Dayal Sharma, whose five-year term
Narayanan studied at the London School of Economics before
returning to Indian in 1948. He went on to serve as India's
ambassador to China and to the United States, two of the most
important posts in his country's international service.
He turned to politics in 1980, winning a seat in Parliament
on a Congress Party ticket. For the last five years, he has
served as vice president, the official who presides over the
upper house of Parliament.
Former lowest class split into haves, have-nots
Narayanan was born to a poor southern Indian family, a member
of the lowest Hindu caste formerly known as the
In modern India, untouchability is banned, and the Dalits,
who make up 25 percent of India's 970 million people, have
won special education and job quotas to help them improve
their socio-economic status.
The special privileges have by-and-large been cornered by a
new Dalit elite, including people like the London-educated
Narayanan. Meanwhile, many in India's villages remain poor
Narayanan's elevation will not dramatically alter their
status or empower them. Nonetheless, the success of this
veteran politician is a powerful symbol that even the poor
and the low-born can rise to the highest office.
Correspondent New Delhi Bureau Chief, Anita Pratap contributed to this report.
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