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India Might Be Proud Of Irish PM Leo Varadkar, But He Would Still Be Deemed A Criminal Here

Son of an Indian immigrant, the 38-year-old doctor is gay and that is hardly deemed worthy of mention in a once staunchly Catholic nation. In his father's country, it's a different story.

04/06/2017 12:08 PM IST | Updated 04/06/2017 12:34 PM IST
Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters
Leo Varadkar arrives at the count centre as it is announced that he won the Fine Gael parliamentary elections to replace Prime Minister of Ireland (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny as leader of the party in Dublin.

When Leo Varadkar was announced to be be Ireland's next Prime Minister, miles away, Indians celebrated.

Varadkar, a trained doctor, will be the first Irish PM to have Asian roots as his father is an Indian immigrant born in Mumbai.

Varadkar's Indian relatives had gathered in Borivali in Mumbai on Friday to distribute sweets after the news arrived. His 93-year-old uncle, Manohar Varadkar, told the Hindustan Times, "I am extremely proud of Leo. My nephew is doing so well and has made the family name famous across the world."

What Varadkar's uncle and the other Indians forgot to mention was Varadkar would probably never have been a big leader in his country of origin. In fact, to this day, he would be deemed a criminal.

Varadkar is homosexual. The youngest leader to hold prime ministerial office came out as gay in 2015 before the then-staunchly Catholic country prepared the referendum on legalising gay marriage.

In an interview with RTE radio, when he came out, Varadkar said: "It's not something that defines me. I'm not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician, or a gay politician, for that matter. It's just part of who I am. It doesn't define me. It is part of my character, I suppose." He wouldn't have been able to say those same words in India.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), instituted in 1860 by the British, still remains alive. It criminalises sexual intercourse other than that of the penile-vaginal variety. This law is most commonly used to harass and intimidate members of the LGBTQ community.

In 2009, Delhi High Court had read down the law. That was however reversed by the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling re-instating Section 377, which pushed the decades-long struggle for equality back to square one.

This means even it's common knowledge that someone is gay, a public figure can't acknowledge it and come out in the open for fear of frivolous law suits and harassment. And in this climate of uncertainty and taboo, millions struggle quietly with their sexuality, unable to come out and tell their families the truth about who they are. In India, Varadkar would have struggled to be a mainstream politician.

If he were to visit India now, as the PM of Ireland on a state visit, he would have to refrain from having sex with a partner. He would of course have diplomatic immunity from Indian laws, but if he wishes to not violate local laws while he is here, that would still be the case.

An openly gay politician can't run for office in India, but those accused of corruption, murder and rape find their way into the Parliament rather calmly.

Here's more about Varadkar:

1. Varadkar created history when he became the first gay Prime Minister of Ireland and at 38, he is the youngest leader to hold the office.

2. Varadkar's father Ashok moved to Ireland from what was then Bombay in the 1970s. He chose one of Western Europe's most socially conservative countries to call home. Thirty-eight years later, his youngest child is set to become the once-staunchly Catholic country's first openly gay prime minister.

He met Varadkar's Irish mother Miriam while they both worked at an English hospital in Slough in the 1960s.

3. Varadkar was previously serving as the Minister for Social Protection in Ireland. Irish PM Enda Kenny resigned as head of the governing Fine Gael party, putting Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney in the leadership race. The final count had Varadkar winning with 60 per cent votes.

4. Varadakar entered Ireland's political scenario at 22. He was elected to parliament at 27.

5. Though some have likened Varadkar to the liberal favourites Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, the similarities are few beyond his youth. Varadkar is regularly attacked as a Thatcherite by his critics, notes The New Statesman. While he tries to portray himself as beyond party politics and the face of a new, liberal and progressive Ireland, his politics would best be described as conservative.

6. The most important thing to watch out for would be his promised reform agenda--including a referendum on introducing a limited form of abortion. Varadkar will have to wrestle with his history of fiery right wing criticism and the unstable coalition he must hold together.

"If my election shows anything it's that prejudice has no hold in this Republic. When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed his son would grow up to be its leader," he was quoted as saying by PTI.

The fact the milestone of electing a gay premier has taken place--in the words of one former government minister--"without anybody batting an eyelid" shows just how far Ireland has come.

Former Fine Gael deputy leader Nora Owen told Reuters, "We have come a long way and the fact that someone like Leo Varadkar, who is an openly gay man, living with his partner, can actually put himself forward for Taoiseach and nobody is batting an eyelid is wonderful and I think it's a great day for Ireland that we can do that". Sadly, we can't say the same about India.

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