Priti Patel: From Uganda to British Cabinet

Letter from New Delhi

The first Indian origin Cabinet minister in Britain, Priti Patel, is the daughter of an immigrant who migrated to the UK before dictator Idi Amin expelled the Indians settled there.

A ‘dukawalla’ or a shopkeeper, Sushil Patel, now 64, set up a post office in rural Norfolk and later established corner shops in London and south-east England.

Priti fled to Britain with her parents when dictator Idi Amin persecuted the Indian community and ordered them out within 90 days. “My parents were kicked out of Uganda,’” she said in an interview. “They came to the UK with nothing, worked hard and set up a successful shop business. There was a desire to work hard and to be successful so you didn’t have to rely on anybody else. Coming from a country where you’re persecuted means that you want to work hard and to contribute to the society where you end up.”

Surprisingly, her father joined the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) even stood as a candidate from this party in 2013. But when the ghost of Idi Amin was raised, the Uganda Indian stepped down after 90 minutes!

Priti was inspired by Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and, more recently, by Michelle Obama who has become the first lady of United States. Now Priti is the first Indian origin woman to sit in the British cabinet.

Born in 1972, Priti attended a comprehensive school in Watford before studying economics at Keele University and then obtained her postgraduate degree at the University of Essex. In July 2004, Patel married Alex Sawyer. They have a son, Freddie, born in August 2008.

As the Conservative’s first woman Asian MP in 2010, Priti was elected from Witham in May 2010. In November 2013, the Prime Minister appointed Priti as the first ever UK Indian Diaspora Champion. In November 2013, she visited India with her Prime Minister to promote Indo-British bilateral relations. She addressed the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas meeting in Ahmedabad this January. After the recent general elections, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed her as the Minister of Employment, a challenging portfolio considering the slow growth of the British economy in recent years.

Following the Indian general elections last year, she took BBC to task for one-sided coverage of Narendra Modi and created a storm. She knows a lot about the media because she worked for former foreign minister William Hague in his press office, dealing with media relations in London. Later, she joined a leading PR agency to promote major tobacco and liquor companies and this created flak for her in the parliament.

“When I hear ‘sir’, ‘your honour’ or ‘right honourable’, I want them to be followed by a British Asian name,” she said recently, “One day I want to hear that title ‘Prime Minister’ followed by a British Asian name.” To date, every single British Prime Minister has been white, and you can count the number of Asian cabinet ministers on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps Priti could do some day turn the tide. .

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi


* Published in print edition on 15 May  2015

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