Can a non-Hindi speaker become India’s PM? Kamaraj and Pranab didn’t think so
"If tomorrow, someone from Tamil Nadu or from West Bengal becomes the Prime Minister, why should we force him to speak in Hindi at the UN?" This was Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s strong objection against making Hindi an official language in the United Nations.
And while the ‘Hindi imposition’ debate has been alive and kicking for several decades now, it appears that one political leader passed up the nation’s top job for not knowing Hindi or English. The man was none other than late Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) Chief Minister K Kamaraj.
Despite being President of the Congress party between 1964 and 1967, Kamaraj had no personal ambition to become Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death.
Shoib Daniyal in Scroll.in writes, “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.”
Shastri, however, passed away in less than two years, making Kamaraj the obvious choice for Prime Ministership. But it was not to be, with Kamaraj, the then Congress President, making it clear that he was not even in the race. In an interaction with the press in Delhi, Kamaraj reportedly explained his rationale: “No Hindi, no English, how can I be PM?”
Instead, he helped elevate Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, who was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1966. Some, however, argue that not knowing Hindi was Kamaraj's excuse, when in fact, he intended to hold the reins with an inexperienced Indira at the helm.
Hindi, it appears, also got in the way of another political leader’s climb to the top. Former President Pranab Mukherjee revealed that he had never considered himself in the reckoning for the Prime Minister’s chair. In an interview to India Today, Pranab Mukherjee, who had served as Finance Minister and External Affairs Minister in the UPA government, said that he was not disappointed when then Congress President Sonia Gandhi chose Manmohan Singh as PM instead of him.
“Not disappointed, because I considered myself disqualified from ever being the Prime Minister of India. One disqualification was that, for most part of my career, I was always in the Rajya Sabha. Only in 2004 did I win a seat to the Lok Sabha. Second, though I was elected to the Lok Sabha, I did not know Hindi. And without knowing Hindi, nobody should venture to be the PM of India," said Pranab Mukherjee.
Sonia Gandhi, who is often tagged as a "foreigner" by the opposition parties, is also accused of not speaking Hindi "properly". She declined to be the PM in 2004, stating that her "inner voice" wouldn't allow it.
While Kamaraj and Pranab may have had a different view, Congressman Tharoor on his part, is clear – Hindi cannot be imposed even if the Prime Minister is from Tamil Nadu or West Bengal.