The 2010 general election in Britain saw a record eight Members of Parliament of Indian origin enter the House of Commons. S Kalyana Ramanathan talks to some of them on the eve of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit
The times are not “a’changing”. They have changed. These 8 MPs, four from each of the two largest parties in Britain ,represent the new face of Westminster. They may be nowhere close to the top table either in Westminster or in their own party, but they are achievers in their own right. They are Members of Parliament of Indian origin in a country that ruled India a little over six decades ago.
Virendra Sharma, 63,
Labour, Ealing, Southall
It has been a long and arduous political journey for Sharma, who was born in India and migrated to the UK. The first stirrings of political ambition go back to as early as the seventies, a few years after he arrived in the UK. But he entered the House of Commons as an MP only in 2007, when a sitting Labour MP passed away, giving him a chance to contest the by-election. Unlike the other Indian origin MPs, Sharma comes from a family that had strong political leanings. His father, Lekh Raj Sharma, was a household name on Punjab’s political scene.
Sharma started out in the UK as a bus conductor. He then worked for the metro rail as a booking clerk. But he then went to the London School of Economics for higher studies and held a series of government jobs before becoming the Councillor for Ealing and later Mayor. Does he have any regrets about getting the Parliament seat rather late in life? “Journeys are always different,” he smiles philosophically. “Some arrive early, some late.”
Keith Vaz, 53,
A lawyer by profession —many remember his protest against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the late 80s—Vaz argues that the movement for change in Westminster is too slow, but “we’re getting there”. He represents a constituency that has the most number of people of Indian origin, which partly explains his outrage at the present government’s plans to cap the number of non-EU immigrants coming into the UK.
Priti Patel, 38,
“I am very traditional in the British sense...like allegiance to the Queen etc, ” she says. Her parents ran a post office when Patel was growing up. “I literally grew up in the shop, under the till.” This background explains her strong support for the small businesses, which along with industries and agriculture provide nearly 83 per cent of employment in her constituency, while the national average is around 60 per cent.
Sitting at the Portcullis House cafeteria sipping English breakfast tea, she tells me that her boss and Prime Minister David Cameron is an agent of change within the party— “I am an MP not because of my gender. (Even then) there are 40 women MPs from the Tory party. That is a very powerful message,” she says.
Alok Sharma, 42,
The journey from voter to member of Parliament took less than seven years. That, he says, is because of the democratic way his party selects nominees to contest elections. “The Conservative party is completely colour blind,” he says.
Paul Uppal, 43,
At home its one big family under one roof. He takes pride in saying that he lives with his parents. His 13-year old son, he says, is obsessed with India, and is trying to learn to speak in Punjabi and Hindi to communicate better with his grandparents.
Like his party colleague Alok Sharma, Uppal’s seven-year journey has taken him from being a “politically inclined voter” to someone who now sits in Westminster representing the interests of thousands of voters in his constituency.
“Some take 20 years, some less. Its just luck,” he says dismissing his recent success in the election to being in the right place at the right time. Sure, he wants to play a bigger role in his party. “I am the new boy. You have to be patient about it. What do you say in India? Sabar karo?
Valerie Vaz, 55,
A lawyer by profession, she says her quest for equality and justice drew her into politics. She believes the gender bias in Westminster is changing now. “The first real push for women MPs came in 1997.” Now there are five Asian women MPs in Westminster.
Her constituency Walsall South, is an Asian microcosm with ethnic minorities from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh making up nearly a fourth of the total population. The current population consists of third and fourth generation Asians.
Her last visit to India was some three years ago. But now, having asserted her position politically, she is hoping to network better with her counterparts in India and Pakistan.
Shailesh Vara, 49,
At the Conservative Party Conference in 2000, he was awarded the rising star of the party award with his party colleague Lord Alexander of Weedon (the lawyer who defended author Jeffrey Archer in his libel case against the Daily Star in 1987) describing him as a “future Tory party leader.”
Marsha Singh, 55,
Among the MPs of Indian origin, only Labour member Keith Vaz from Leicester East has more Parliamentary experience than Singh. He was a member of select committee for Home Affairs between 1997 and 2005 and for International Development between 2005 and 2010.