Kamala Harris’s acceptance of the vice presidential nomination is part of a trend — politicians with links to India are achieving positions of power in the West. Harris, who now has a far from implausible route to becoming the next but two US president, is half-Jamaican and half-Indian.
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, arrived in Berkeley in 1958, nine years after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto studied there. But whereas ZAB returned (via Oxford) to win power at home, Gopalan married a Jamaican economics student and civil rights leader, Donald Harris. Her choice of partner was consistent with her family’s political traditions: back in India, Gopalan’s mother, Rajam, was an outspoken community organiser and husband, P.V. Gopalan, a progressive Indian diplomat involved in resettling some of those who fled the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan.
While Americans assess Harris, Brits are getting used to having three government ministers with an Indian heritage. As chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has won praise for his liberal distribution of cash to counter Covid-19. Dishy Rishi, as he has become known, is within the globalised elite, having studied at Oxford and Stanford before marrying the daughter of an Indian billionaire.
Another senior minister, hard right Home Secretary Priti Patel, went to less glamorous universities but she also completed postgraduate studies. Like Sunak, her family moved from India to East Africa before reaching the UK. The trio of Indian-origin heavy hitters is completed by Business Minister Alok Sharma who moved to the UK from Agra at the age of five.
By comparison, British Pakistanis have the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and just one junior minister — Lord Tariq Ahmed in the Foreign Office.
Indian and Pakistani diplomats in London like it when they have a minister with links to their country in power. Conspiracy theories abound. They wonder whether it is a coincidence that Priti Patel’s new immigration policy favours applicants with PhDs in science and technology — something achieved by many more Indians than Pakistanis. The merging of the British Department for International Development into the Foreign Office could also have negative consequences for Pakistan. With the aid budget now controlled by diplomats, the UK is likely to demand more quid pro quos from Pakistan in return for funds.
But why are British Indians wielding more power than British Pakistanis? There are many explanations. British Indians such as Sunak and Patel, who reached the UK from East Africa enjoy two advantages: generally these families reached the UK not only relatively early but also with several generations worth of trading, education and worldliness behind them. Many Pakistanis by contrast came from undeveloped rural areas such as Mirpur where they picked up little experience of the outside world and even less education. While many British Indians now aspire to be accountants, many British Pakistanis have lower expectations, often ending up in relatively menial jobs; 15.4 per cent of British Indians are in higher managerial and professional occupations compared with 6.6pc of British Pakistanis.
Researchers in the UK are compiling increasing amounts of data about how different ethnic and religious groups are faring in the country and drawing tentative conclusions as to what is happening. It is now clear, for example, that Chinese and Indian pupils tend to make the most progress in primary school, with Indian pupils from lower socioeconomic backgrounds making the fastest progress. Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people do well between the ages of 11 and 16 but then their results taper off between the ages of 16 and 18. One study suggests that effect is especially marked in places where pupils are living in areas with a high concentration of their ethnic group.
It is hard to reach firm conclusions but it does seem clear that socioeconomic outcomes are shaped not just by ethnicity but also other factors. Some research looking at religion as well suggests that, all other things being equal, British Hindus fare better than British Muslims. It is striking that, within the British Indian community, Sikhs and Muslims remain almost twice as likely to be unemployed as Hindus. Having said that, Indian Muslims generally enjoy better outcomes than Pakistani Muslims, a finding which is consistent with research that suggests that factors such as gender are more important than someone’s faith.
Taken as a whole, the research suggests that for more people with Pakistani heritage to break through to positions of power in Western countries, there will need to be broader social changes affecting their community. No doubt Rishi, Patel, Sharma and Harris think they climbed to the top through their own efforts. To some extent they did, but they are also the product of socioeconomic trends beyond their control.
The writer is a British journalist. His book The Bhutto Dynasty will be published later this year. Views are personal.