On paper, India is a union of states. Yet, in practice, she actually works on a rather unique model of asymmetrical federalism. The right to the justice system in states such as Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur is significantly curtailed with Union laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives security forces sweeping powers to search, arrest and even kill. Article 371 of the Constitution makes it clear that Naga customary law and procedure will apply in Nagaland, no matter India’s stated aim of drawing up a Uniform Civil Code. And Tamil Nadu, citing its small upper-caste population, has rather successfully ignored the Supreme Court’s recommendation for capping all employment and educational quotas at 50%.

Mamata versus Hindi

In this, however, nothing is maybe as asymmetrical as the remarkable political power the state of Uttar Pradesh enjoys. Given that the state accounts for one Lok Sabha member out of every six, stable Union governments invariably need seats from Uttar Pradesh. Only two out of India’s 14 prime ministers up till now have not held a Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh. Given the multilingual nature of the Indian Union, this invariably means that the Hindi language of Uttar Pradesh (and other cow-belt states) dominates national politics. This linguistic asymmetry seems to have dawned on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as she steps up and tries to claim a national role for herself and her party, the Trinamool Congress.

In recent weeks, leading the Opposition against the Union government’s demonetisation policy, Banerjee has switched extensively to Hindi, the first signs of which could be seen on social media as the chief minister started to tweet in the language. An Indian Express report claimed that Banerjee was looking for a Hindi language coach, had purchased a Bengali-Hindi dictionary and was even working on a book of Hindi poetry. As part of her national push, Banerjee addressed a demonetisation protest in Hindi-speaking Lucknow on Tuesday. Next in line is Patna.

Prime ministerial language

How have other claimants to the prime minister’s post grappled with the Hindi language? India’s first prime minister hailed from Uttar Pradesh, where Kashmiri Brahmins had long settled as part of the Mughal bureaucracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, therefore, delivered his speeches in the crisp, prestige dialect of the Awadh elite. The current prime minister, while a native Gujarati speaker, is a long-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, where Hindi is the de facto language of organisation. While his language does fall short on some counts vis-à-vis native Hindi speakers, Narendra Modi is still seen as a powerful orator in Hindi.

Matters get a bit fuzzier in the south. Tamil Nadu saw violent language movements against the hegemony of Hindi in the 1960s, so it was no surprise that language was a thorny issue for the state’s politicians trying to make it in Delhi. Congressman Kumarasami Kamaraj was chief minister of Tamil Nadu from 1954 to 1963. As Nehru lost vigour after the Indian Army’s 1962 defeat to China, Kamaraj gained significant power within the Congress. After the first prime minister’s death in 1964, Kamaraj emerged as the most powerful leader within the party, with enough control to play king-maker. He scotched the prime ministerial ambitions of both Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram, pushing Lal Bahadur Shastri as Nehru’s successor instead. Two years later, in 1966, he installed Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, as prime minister. Gandhi was seen as pliant and a political greenhorn and through her installation, Kamaraj intended to control the steering wheel from the backseat.

K Kamaraj

No Hindi, no English

But while Kamaraj held immense political power and was choosing prime ministers, never once did he throw his hat in the ring for the Indian Union’s most powerful job. The reason for that was simple: language. Kamaraj had risen from humble roots – he was from a backward caste and his father was a coconut seller. In 1959, Indira Gandhi, as Congress president, had described Kamaraj as rustic. After Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death in 1966, the Delhi media asked Kamaraj why he did not want to be prime minister. He quipped, “No Hindi, no English, how can I be PM?”

Later, Pranab Mukherjee, now the President, also blamed his lack of proficiency in Hindi to scotch rumours of his bid to become prime minister after the death of Indira Gandhi in 1984. “If you don’t know Hindi, you cannot be a prime minister,” he said bluntly. “There are certain skills that are required for certain work.”

Mukherjee’s statement is technically refuted by the fact that Karnataka’s HD Deve Gowda was elected the 11th prime minister of India in 1996. Gowda is the lone prime minister to not know Hindi. In many ways, though, this is the exception that proves the rule. Gowda’s experience served to underline the grip of Hindi on national politics. He was a compromise candidate for the Third Front, a coalition of state parties supported by the Congress from outside. He only became prime minister after candidates such as VP Singh and Jyoti Basu refused the crown of thorns that such a fractured mandate would bring. Not surprisingly, Gowda lasted less than 11 months. As a final validation of how Hindi was more important than India’s other languages when it came to Delhi’s politics, he was forced to deliver his only Independence Day speech at the Red Fort in Hindi rather than in his native Kannada. Given that he didn’t know any Hindi, this linguistic feat was achieved by the prime minister writing the speech in the Kannada script and then reading it out mechanically.