Leo Varadkar’s elevation as Ireland’s Prime Minister-elect last week seems to have confronted newsrooms of Marathi newspapers with a problem. Here is a “son of the soil”, a “Marathi manoos” whose family had roots in the Konkan, set to lead a foreign country, in a delicious post-colonial twist. One paper noted that a person from Maharashtra was yet to occupy that top seat in India.
Varadkar’s story has everything going for him – his family’s immigrant story is the stuff of dreams. Like the children of migrant parents winning spelling bees, heading multinational corporations becoming leader of a nation is an inspirational story. But, in Varadkar’s case it is not a straight story: there was the “inconvenient truth” of Varadkar’s gay identity.
Most English newspapers carried the news on the front page. The fact that he was an openly gay man received equal weight in the headlines, along with his young age and Indian origins. For some Marathi papers the issue of sexual orientation seemed an annoyance – something that had to be skirted around, if not ignored.
On Friday, Varadkar beat his rival, Housing Minister Simon Coveney, with 60% of the vote to win the leadership of Fine Gael party. This is how the Mumbai editions of Marathi newspapers dealt with the news on Saturday.
Maharashtra Times, one of the largest selling newspapers in the state dismissed the news in a photo digest.
It observed that though a “Marathi manoos” is yet to become prime minister of India, across the seven seas, a man from Malwan will create history in Ireland.
Kolhapur-based Pudhari – the third-largest selling newspaper in the state and the leader in Western Maharashtra, chose to completely ignore Varadkar’s sexuality.
The news report mentions that Varadkar’s family from his paternal side hails from Varad village in Malwan (Varadkar’s father Ashok moved to Ireland in the 1960s to work as a doctor where he met and married Miriam), and has relatives in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Borivli, who celebrated his win.
Sakal, another leading newspaper, reported the fact that fire-crackers were burst in some areas in the Konkan to celebrate Varadkar’s win.
There is no mention about his sexuality. It goes on to quote Varadkar saying that he would pull Ireland out of financial troubles and political stability. However, it failed to include Varadkar’s most-quoted statement in news reports across the the world: “If my election shows anything it’s that prejudice has no hold in this Republic.”
Sakal’s Pune edition carries the story on its front page, continuing it in a double column on Page 8. The report mention that Ireland’s prime minister’s seat would be occupied by a Maharashtrian.
Like other newspapers, it narrates the family story of migrating to Ireland and then goes on to mention that Varadkar has two daughters. In a sub head, almost as an aside, the story records that Varadkar supports “same sex marriage”. But again, his sexual orientation is given a complete go by. The new report states that in a 2015 interview, 38-year-old Varadkar had expressed his support for gay marriage and reforms in abortion laws. Many consider his win with such progressive views in an orthodox society a surprising turn, the newspaper goes on to say, without a hint of irony.
Lokmat, the largest-selling Marathi newspaper, was one of the only ones to mention that Varadkar was gay and the fact that Ireland was only the fourth country in the world to elect a queer person as its head.
The news seemed to have been completely ignored by Shiv Sena mouth piece Saamna, the supposedly liberal Loksatta, Yashobhoomi, Mumbai-based Hindi newspapers like Navbharat Times and Humara Mahanagar and Mid Day Gujarati.
The invisibilising of queer identities is not a new phenomenon and neither is it restricted to India. In the wake of the Orlando shooting at a gay club Pulse in 2016, Professor Martin Milton of the University of London had this to say: “When media outlets are unusually slow to report the Orlando shootings, relegating news reports to later time slots, pages within newspapers or referring to it solely as a terrorist attack, rather than also addressing its anti-LGBT+ focus, this is problematic. Even if one were to assume that these were all ‘accidental’ it is important to recognise that it means that once again LGBT+ experience is minimised.”
In the reportage about Varadkar’s election it is hard not to discern a similar pattern. The print stories in Marathi newspapers, with a few exceptions, seems to relegate the Prime Minister-in waiting’s queer identity at best as a foot note. There is no denying the fact that the story of an Indian origin person becoming the Prime Minister of a foreign country is newsworthy. For Marathi newspapers, the fact that Varadkar’s family traced their orgins to Maharashtra strengthens the case in editorial meetings for a front page mention. However, some newspapers have completely dropped the story, or invisibilised his queer identity or have mentioned his support for same sex marriages while omitting the fact that he was gay.
In the past, persons of Indian origin being appointed to head multinational corporations have merited flyer stories on the front pages. This time English newspapers that have carried the news have not deemed it worthy of a front-page flyer. As Professor Milton say,s even if one were to assume that all of these were accidental and there were other important news stories that merited space, it does seem like an attempt to minimise LGBTQ lives and experiences.
This article first appeared on Shibu Thomas’s LinkedIn blog.