Sunday, July 25, 2010

The changing face of Westminster

S Kalyana Ramanathan / July 24, 2010

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,
Labour, Leicester East
The first and longest serving MP of Indian origin (the family traces its roots to Goa, but Vaz was born in Aden, Yemen ) in Parliament, Vaz made it to Westminster way back in 1987

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,
Conservative, Witham
Patel may be the new kid on the block, but she believes this early start is an opportunity to further her political career. Her mother is from Vadodara (then Baroda), but she has no links to India now – in fact the last time she visited was in 2003.

“I am very traditional in the British 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,
Conservative, Reading
Like his colleague in the Labour camp Keith Vaz, Sharma too visits India regularly. Born in Agra, Sharma moved to the UK when he was 5. A chartered accountant by training, he says his interest in politics was nurtured when he was barely 10 or 11, delivering leaflets for the Tory party. His father too was politically active. Between 1999 and 2003 he worked in Germany in the banking sector. Returning to the UK, he got back into active politics, partly on the urging of his Swedish wife.

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,
Conservative, Wolverhampton South West
Multicultural Uppal traces his ethnicity to India, but his grandparents lived in Kenya and his parents moved from there to the UK. “My culture is very important to me. But I consider myself both Indian and British.”

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,
Labour, Walsall South
Valerie Vaz, despite being Leicester East MP Keith Vaz’s elder sister, had to wait for her chance to enter Westminster until the 2010 elections. This is not to say she was politically dormant until then. Between 1986 and 1990 she was a Councillor in the London Borough of Ealing and was Deputy Leader in 1988-1989. She stood as a Parliamentary Candidate from Twickenham in 1987 and in the European elections in 1999 from the East Midlands.

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,
Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire
Ugandan-born Vara too is a lawyer by profession. His parents moved to the UK when he was 4. The 2010 election victory gave him his second term in Westminster. Considered a prominent person within his party, he served as Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, from November 2006 , speaking for the Conservative Party on Parliamentary matters from the Commons Front Bench. This made him the first MP from an ethnic minority background from the Tory party to become a shadow minister. Following the 2010 General Election, he was appointed as a Government Whip.

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,
Labour, Bradford West
Born in Punjab , he has been a Member of Parliament since 1997, winning four consecutive elections and maintaining his majority with impressive consistency with the exception of 2005, when he won with a lower majority. In 2010, he regained most of the votes lost in 2005, making him one of the longest serving MPs of Indian origin in Westminster.

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.

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