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'Difference' As An Advantage: Lessons From London's First Muslim Mayor

11/05/2016 8:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Jack Taylor via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 09: London Mayor Sadiq Khan makes his way to work after leaving his home in Tooting on May 9, 2016 in London, England. Mr Khan begins his first day at his City Hall office after winning the race to become London's Mayor with 56.8% of the vote. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

A few hours before I started writing this piece, Sadiq Khan was named London's first Muslim mayor. The campaign was ugly, uglier than usual, with race and religion as its pivot (no brainer). However, despite the controversy, Khan addressed his people by stating at the outset that he was going to be "a mayor for all Londoners."

Khan's history is interesting to note: he grew up the son of a Pakistani taxi driver, struggling to make ends meet in the UK with eight children living in a government-subsidized home. Khan has lived just "a few miles away" from London, as he stated in his speech. Despite that, it becomes important for people like him to constantly reiterate their identifying values, especially when all news articles have characterized him as a "Muslim", over and above his profession or party affiliations. A local government expert, Tony Travers, noted that, "the majority of people who voted for him will not have been Muslims." Then why is it that people like Khan need to prove their loyalty time and again?

[W]hen it's someone that you have more in un-common with, it's easier to highlight differences rather than struggle with similarities, or even try to get to know them.

The answer is simpler than expected. People find solidarity in liked-ness. This is something that each one of us experience on a day-to-day basis. When you enter a new school or workplace, the easiest ways to connect with someone or initiate conversation are by fishing for common factors such as place of upbringing, religion, ethnicity and even caste. Therefore, when it's someone you have more in un-common with, it's easier to highlight differences rather than struggle with similarities, or even try to get to know them.

That's probably what's happening with Khan too. Even though he grew up within the UK, has a British accent and is even in the government, his race and religion distinguish him from the majority, which makes him stand out. However, standing out isn't necessarily a bad thing. Khan used his struggles positively and convinced one of the greatest cities in the world that it can be multi-cultural and appreciative of difference by voting for him. This victory is symbolic for London, not because it voted for a Muslim, but because it saw beyond that first brush of un-similarity, or what I call "first affiliation".

Back in India, despite being slightly on the lower end of development and educated responsiveness, as a community, the same issues mar us as well. What London has done today is something many of us hope, India can do too.

This victory is symbolic for London, not because it voted for a Muslim, but because it saw beyond that first brush of un-similarity, or what I call "first affiliation".

The key, in my opinion, is within. It's easy to choose someone based on that first affiliation, especially when constituencies are large and candidates are less accessible. However, if each individual makes it a point to hear someone out, listen to their policies, evaluate their contributions--that is when society will truly be meritorious. To clarify, merit here does not mean the absence of difference and evaluation without having consideration for socio-economic differences. Merit is the ability of that candidate to use his difference and turn it into an advantage, the way Khan has done today. Within the Indian context, it is when a candidate accepts the privilege of reservation or a struggling background, for instance, and shows the community how they channeled that in terms of benefiting the community, rather than using the first affiliation as a sole winning game. It is about using experience to drive policy and change, instead of using difference as a tool to further divide the populace.

Today, for instance, if a Jat woman is standing for a post within a university election, people will either identify with her based on gender or caste, because that is how first affiliations work. Even my first characterization was based on these affiliations! And it isn't a wrong thing. The wrong thing is to choose her just because she's that. The right thing to do is to evaluate her work, assess her policies based on her different experience, consider her contribution to society and then pick her, moving past that first affiliation.

Be selfish. Be wise. Go beyond that first affiliation and choose merit, not theatrics.

However, we should always remember that this is a two-way street. It can only be a successful and implementable ideal when candidates at least try proving their worth and voters at least try listening to policies. A candidate won't waste his/her campaign money explaining something to people who aren't interested. As an audience, it's very easy to brush someone off because they have a funny accent or look different from you. What's tougher is to actually give a damn, listen and eventually pick a leader for you. In other words, it's the art of being selfish and picking someone who can make your life easier. Secret ballot politics is probably one of the few and easier socially justified avenues for being selfish. At the end of the day, screaming your religion or your ethnicity won't churn the economy--it's going to be about policies and implementation. This is something that people often skip, but is actually the crux of the point.

This of course, is easier said than done. It's an ideal and let's face it, not many ideals are actually implementable. Politics is a funny game, where drama, masala and chutzpah blended with first affiliations may get you by till election day. However, as the voting body on the receiving end of all this, remember that morning will come after the show's over and a choice based on TRP puts you at a disadvantage, because eventually it's your daily life that'll be affected. Be selfish. Be wise. Go beyond that first affiliation and choose merit, not theatrics.

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