There are more Muslim MPs in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party than there are in India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Many of these Muslim MPs are of South Asian origin: making the difference between our ruling party and Britain’s even more startling.
I hadn’t thought about it until Boris Johnson was forced to step down as the prime minister and the race to succeed him began in earnest. I was struck by the number of non-white contenders and began to wonder: Has Britain become a diverse society, where minorities get a share of power? Or is it just that India is a diverse society where minorities are kept away from power?
Both propositions are valid, I imagine. Come to think of it, even the United States’ Democratic Party may have more Muslim members in Congress than the BJP has Muslim MPs. (And Muslims are a much smaller proportion of the population in America than they are in India.) So, India is not necessarily a great example of a society where power at the Centre is shared with the minorities.
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Britain’s diverse candidates
Even so, the diversity within Britain’s Conservative Party—especially at the top—does seem astonishing. As The New York Times wrote about the British prime ministerial contenders a few days ago: “Six have recent forebears hailing from far beyond Europe — India, Iraq, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and Pakistan. Of the white men, one is married to a Chinese woman while another holds a French passport.”
Since The New York Times wrote those words, the race has begun to narrow (and will narrow further as more contenders drop out in the weeks ahead) and two prominent Asians have stepped aside. Among them are Priti Patel, the Gujarati home secretary, and Sajid Javid, the former health secretary who is of Pakistani-Punjabi origin.
Some of the contenders are well-known the world over. Most of us have heard of Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to our finance minister). But there are many other Asians who we may not have heard of in India. Suella Braverman was born to a Goan father and a Tamil mother. Rehman Chishti, who was born in Pakistan’s Muzaffarabad, is a sitting Conservative MP.
It isn’t just South Asians who want to become the prime minister. There are others from minority backgrounds too: Kemi Badenoch, a former minister, is of Nigerian origin. Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak as Chancellor, came to the United Kingdom when he was 11 years old as a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
So far, South Asian candidates have attracted the most attention, and it is easy to see why. Sunak, Patel and Javid were among the most high-profile members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet and it is entirely possible that Sunak will be the next prime minister. (It is still early days as the race may morph into something quite different when the views of Conservative members in the shires are taken into account.)
Apart from the clear difference between India’s ruling party and the UK’s, what does the diverse nature of the race tell us? Well, two things seem obvious.
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Mark of a mature democracy
The fact is that, contrary to what we may think from the outside (after Brexit especially), Britain has actually grown more inclusive, less racist and more willing to share power with its minorities. In many countries where South Asians have a share in power (Canada, for instance), they are valued for their ability to deliver ethnic votes. This does not matter so much in Britain. Nobody promoted Sunak on the grounds that Punjabis would be more likely to vote Conservative if one of their members became a minister. Likewise, Priti Patel is not necessarily a huge heroine for Gujaratis everywhere.
It is a mark of a mature democracy when politicians are valued for their ability and not for their ethnicity. In India, all too often we make appointments not on merit alone but out of a desire to placate communities or sheer tokenism: A minority minister here or a vice president there.
The second thing the rise of people like Sunak tells us is how South Asians tend to succeed no matter how hostile the environment is. Sunak and Patel’s families did not come to the UK directly from India. They came via East Africa. Very few South Asians left Africa because they wanted to. They were usually made to feel unwelcome or actively driven out (by Idi Amin in Uganda in 1972, for instance). Most of them came to the UK with next to nothing.
In his campaign video, Sunak tells the story of his grandmother who came to the UK and struggled and saved to bring her family over. One of those family members was his mother, who came to Britain when she was 15 and studied hard to become a pharmacist. She married Sunak’s father, a doctor, and the two of them saved, in the manner of all Indian parents, to send Rishi to a good school.
Similarly, Priti Patel’s parents ran a convenience store in Kampala (Uganda) before coming to the UK to run a newsagent’s shop. She went to a state school (a comprehensive), was not a high flier like Sunak (who went to Oxford), but worked hard to establish herself as a successful politician. Sajid Javid (like Sadiq Khan, the current Mayor of London), is the son of a Punjabi bus driver who migrated to the UK in the 1960s. For at least a decade after she came to Britain, Javid’s mother spoke no English. And yet he rose to one of the highest offices in the land.
When we talk about Indian success stories abroad, we usually focus on millionaire businesspersons or tech-whiz kids. The UK experience shows us that, given a level-playing field, all South Asians and especially Indians can excel in politics as well.
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Recognise the genius at home
The lesson for us in India is obvious: Run a more inclusive society. Don’t judge people by religion or ethnicity. Value individuals for their merit and create greater equality of opportunity.
One of the tragedies of today’s India is that when it comes to politics, we are just not able to offer the kind of opportunities that our people deserve. To get anywhere in politics, you have to be born into the right family or you need to play the identity politics of region, religion or caste.
As the UK experience shows us, our democracy is the loser because Indian politics refuses to recognise, let alone encourage, the natural genius of our people.
If Sunak’s family had not gone to England and come to India from Africa, what would be the highest post Rishi could ever get? Chief economic advisor, probably.
In the UK, in contrast, he is in the running to become the prime minister.
To all the fields where Indians do better abroad than they do at home, we can now add politics.
The author is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)