Democracies can be strengthened by equal representation in Parliament
Something unprecedented happened in Britain last week. The Houses of Parliament welcomed their first ever Sikh woman and first ever turbaned Sikh man as MPs. Rishi Sunak, another MP, did his swearing in ceremony with the Bhagwad Gita, only the second time that has happened. Since the national elections two weeks ago, there are now 12 MPs of Indian origin in the UK Parliament — a new high.
Some Indians might dismiss this as irrelevant. Others will say it’s just ‘vote bank’ politics. But such opinions miss the point. The UK Parliament now reflects the country’s racial and religious diversity better than most western countries. And this happened without any quotas or reservations.
This is a watershed moment for British politics: The proportion of non-white MPs is now the highest it has ever been. This matters not just because more British Indians are in parliament. It matter because it shows how far Britain has gone in accepting and reflecting the racial and religious diversity of the country.
But so what, you ask? Believe it or not but this makes Britain a stronger country. Democracy isn’t just an outcome, an end-point or a state of affairs, it is also a process. It isn’t just a vote every few years, it is an exercise in listening to people, reflecting their concerns and representing their voices. The more people feel listened to, the more trust they have in the country and its institutions.
Moreover, Britain’s new Hindu, Sikh and Muslim MPs can also raise important issues that otherwise get overlooked. For example, many Hindus still have problems getting proper burial facilities for deceased relatives (open air funeral pyres are still banned). The new Sikh MPs are likely to raise concern about rising hate-crime against Sikhs, and so on.
For British Indians, seeing MPs swear on the Gita also means their faith is put on the same level as others. And why not? Why shouldn’t the Gita or Guru Granth Sahib be treated equally to the Bible or Quran?
The tragedy of India is that the world’s most diverse nation is among the world’s most unrepresentative parliaments. The number of women MPs, less than 12% of the total, is an international embarrassment: India ranks 103rd out of 140 countries. Even Saudi Arabia’s parliament has 20% women and they only allowed women to vote in 2015. Yes, Saudi Arabia!
There are 17 Muslim MPs in the British Parliament out of 650, also a new high. There are three times as many Indians Muslims as a proportion of the population, but only 23 Muslim MPs. This is pitifully low.
This is among the most diverse countries in the world. The huge range of languages, cultures, religions and practices that live on in this ancient land are what make it so unique and powerful. The fathers and mothers of the Constitution put quotas and reservations in place precisely because they understood this.
And yet, proportional representation of women, Dalits, Muslims and Christians, is too often treated as annoyance. As a necessary evil. Sometimes even worse. When KR Narayanan became the President of India in 1997, VHP president Ashok Singhal claimed he was a “distinctly anti-Hindu” Dalit, and his rise was a “larger conspiracy of the Church to make Rashtrapati Bhavan a bastion of Christianity”. I checked, and it turns out the Rashtrapati Bhavan is still an overwhelmingly Hindu body.
I won’t even get into the barriers and patronising attitudes that women face because it would take up a whole book. But as Swati Chaturvedi summed up on The Wire recently, “when it comes to politics in India, sexism is the norm.”
I’m not saying Britain is perfect. Racism still looms large in the national political debate and Britain is yet to come to terms with its violent and unequal past. And women still make up only 32% of MPs. But by embracing its new identity as a multicultural nation, it is at least changing faster than most.
Equal representation isn’t just a moral good for society, it is essential to maintain trust and stability. It makes the country more secure. For an ancient, culturally-rich and diverse country like India, this task is even more important.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal