Engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, technocrats and entrepreneurs among achievers figuring in the list of people of Indian origin (PIOs) or non-resident Indians (NRIs) is by now quite known. But making a splash in public life in their adopted homelands is rare.
We saw the entry of four Indian Americans into the US Congress last year and Canada has had some for a while. But none can perhaps easily match the heights of those who have risen to the highest offices in their lands – such as prime minister or president. And we do have some. What’s more, these are mostly descendants of those who left India for distant shores to earn frugal livelihoods as blue collar workers– which makes their achievements all the more significant.
To mark Pravasiya Bharatiya Diwas, Connected to India profiles some such personalities who have become heads of governments or states.
Antonio Costa is the Prime Minister of Portugal and the chief guest at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas being held in Bengaluru this year. A lawyer-turned-politician known as “Babush,” the Konkani word for boy, Costa was born in 1961 – the year India liberated Goa from Portugese rule, in Lisbon. Son of novelist Orlando de Costa, whose writings included essays on Rabindranath Tagore, Antonio served as parliamentary affairs minister under Prime Minister Antonoio Guterres in a Socialist government between 1991 and 1999 and was later Lisbon’s mayor from 2007 to 2015.
Costa’s grandfather, Luis Afonso Maria da Costa, who was born and brought up in Goa, was a descendant of a prominent Hindu family, among those who converted to Christianity during Portuguese rule.
Cheddi Berret Jagan
His middle name, Berret – is actually a variation of Bharat. As a descendant of Bharat, Cheddi Berret Jagan was of Indian origin, but in Guyana, which was earlier known as British Guiana, he is known as “Father of the Nation” akin to Mahatma Gandhi in the land of his ancestors. Jagan’s parents came from Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district.
Cheddi Berret was the eldest of 11 children who grew up in abject poverty as his family worked on sugarcane fields in South America’s British colony – only to rise and become its premier from 1961 to 1964. Educated to be a dentist in the US after being unable to find a job as a high school graduate, Jagan set up a clinic in Guyana, and served plantation workers for low fees. His popularity as an adviser grew among the sugar belt workers, launching him into an eventual career in politics.
In 1946, he co-founded the Political Affairs Committee that later merged with Forbes Burnham-led British Guiana Labour Party to form the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), with Jagan as its leader. The two later fell apart.
The Leftist Jagan evolved from Marxism-Leninism to democratic socialism over the decades. His hardline Leftism in the early days alarmed British rulers. After being dislodged by the British from chief ministership after elections in 1953, Jagan assumed the office again after PPP’s victory in 1961. In 1966, British Guiana won independence and became Guyana. Jagan, who spent 28 years in the opposition, became Guyana’s president in 1992 after PPP won elections and held the office until his death in 1997.
Bharrat Jagdeo, an Indian origin leader, from Cheddi Jagan’s PPP, was President of Guyana from 1999 to 2011 and was earlier the country’s finance minister in the 1990s.
Tracing his origins to Haryana, Mahendra Chaudhry became the first Indo-Fijian to be the island nation’s prime minister in 1999 as leader of the Fiji Labour Party after defeating long-time leader Sitiveni Rabuka in a historic election. Chaudhry suffered a year later when he and most of his cabinet colleagues were taken hostage by coup leader George Speight. After 56 days in captivity, Chaudhry embarked on a world tour to rally support. In 2007, he served as a minister in an interim cabinet.
The trade union leader’s grandfather came from a village near Rohtak and arrived in Fiji in 1902 as an indentured labourer in a sugarcane plantation.
Devan Nair Chengara Veetil also known as CV Devan Nair was the third president of Singapore. The son of a rubber plantation clerk, Nair moved from Malaysia to Singapore with his family when he was 10 years old. He received his early education at Rangoon Road Primary School. He went on to pursue his Senior Cambridge Certificate at Victoria School. Nair joined the teaching profession and first taught at St. Joseph’s Institution and then at St Andrew’s School. During this time, his interest in the trade union movement was ignited. Nair led the Singaporean trade union movement and founded the National Trades Union Congress in 1961.
He entered the Singapore Parliament in 1979 by winning the Anson seat in a by-election. On 23 October 1981, Nair was elected by Parliament as Singapore’s third president and he assumed office the next day. During his term as president, Nair continued to champion workers’ rights. On 28 March 1985, he resigned from his position as president on the grounds of ill health.
Sellapan Rama Nathan, usually referred to as S.R. Nathan, was the sixth president of Singapore, serving from 1999 to 2015. He surpassed Benjamin Sheares to become Singapore's longest-serving President.
Twice expelled from school in a troubled youth after seeing three brothers die early and a suicide by his father, Nathan ran away from home and survived as a translator for the Japanese during World War II. He completed his secondary education through a correspondence course and went on to become a civil servant. He was elected unopposed as President in 1999.
Panday, born in 1933, struggled as a cane weigher and primary school teacher before becoming a civil servant and eventually the fifth prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, part of the West Indies, in 1995. He served in office until 2001. A lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn in London, Panday entered politics in 1966 as a member of the Workers and Farmers’ Party and later formed Club 88 that became a political party, the United National Congress.
He was hit by a scandal in 2006 after being convicted for failing to declare a London bank account but came unscathed in an appeals court.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, born in 1952, served as Trinidad and Tobago’s seventh prime minister -- and the first woman prime minister -- from 2010 to 2015. As a key member of Basdeo Panday’s United National Congress, she is now leader of the opposition.
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, often referred to as Chacha Ramgoolam, was the first Prime Minister of Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island whose population of 1.3 million is predominantly of Indian origin. A leader of the Mauritian independence movement, he served as the first chief minister and Prime Minister of Mauritius.
He worked for the emancipation of the Mauritian population, established free universal education and free health care services, and introduced old age pensions. In Mauritius, he is known as the "Father of the Nation" after leading the movement that led to the independence of Mauritius from British rule in 1968.
Anerood Jugnauth is the current Prime Minister of Mauritius. A central figure of Mauritian politics in the 1980s and 1990s, Jugnauth has more or less continuously held a constitutional office since 1976. He was Leader of Opposition from 1976 to 1982. He served as Prime Minister from 1982 to 1995 and again from 2000 to 2003. He was then elected as President of Mauritius and served in the office from 2003 to 2012. Following his party's victory in the 2014 general elections, he was appointed again to serve his sixth term as Prime Minister by President Kailash Purryag in 2014.
Rajkeswur Purryag, known popularly as Kailash Purryag, served as the President of Mauritius from 2012 to 2015 as its fifth head of state, succeeding Sir Anerood Jugnauth.