Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan or Dr A.P. J. Abdul Kalam and others were unanimously chosen to be the President of India on the basis of their outstanding achievements, stature and erudition.
Choices which are strictly merit based enhance the standing of the incumbents. When will we learn to choose the leaders of the country who occupy the premier posts of the Republic and of government solely on the basis of unequivocal merit over all other narrow considerations?
We are living through uplifting times. After Leicester’s Ola of appreciation rippled across the world, Sadiq Khan’s comfortable election as Mayor of London is yet another welcome breath of fresh air. Similarly, after composing with Iran and making peace with Cuba, President Barack Obama is to be the first American President to visit Hiroshima in Japan this month after it was devastated by a US nuclear bomb on 6 August 1945 killing 140,000 people. He is also to visit Vietnam. All these are strong symbols of building bridges and human kinship, of shedding hangovers of the past in a world undermined by strife and rifts. These path breaking events carry potent messages of hope in a world divided by violent wars, inequalities, intolerance and xenophobia.
Sadiq Khan’s success is above all a victory of the voters of London who demonstrated sound judgment to separate the wheat from the chaff. They overwhelmingly voted for Labour’s Sadiq Khan despite an ugly, acrimonious and shameful Tory campaign based on fear and suspicion spiked by unfounded below the belt accusations linking him to Islamic extremists for crossing swords with them in a debating forum. At the age of 45, he thus made British political history by becoming the first Muslim mayor of the city of London and of a major western capital. His victory is therefore a victory of reason over division and mistrust, of open-mindedness over parochial discourse and bigotry. It ended eight years of the Tory Party control over City Hall. The victory also boosted Labour after the party’s defeat in Scotland.
Sadiq Khan’s triumph could not have been more emphatic. He obtained a strong endorsement by 57% of the polls against 43% obtained by the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith. The voting system gives the Mayor of London a huge personal mandate from, in this case, more than 1.1 million voters, unmatched even by the Prime Minister who is elected in a constituency by some 35,000 voters.
Everything separated the two candidates. Sadiq Khan was born in London in a working class British Pakistani family living in a council estate, his father working as a bus driver. A law graduate and solicitor defending human rights, he rose from being a Labour Councillor in London from 1994 to become a Member of Parliament (MP) from London in 2005 to a Minister of State in 2008 holding various portfolios in the government of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He has also written a book ‘Fairness not Favours: How to re-connect with British Muslims’. In contrast, Zac Goldsmith is the son of billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith and an MP from London since 2010.
Regrettably the Conservative campaign was focused on using scaremongering tactics, dog whistle issues, insidious innuendos and stereotypes based on Sadiq Khan’s origin and religion to frighten the London voters. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon even pointedly averred during the campaign that he was unfit to be Mayor. This condemnable smear campaign backfired. According to the 2011 census, people of Pakistani descent represent 2.7 % of the London population while the white population is 59.8%. The Muslim population in London has increased to 12.4% whereas the Christian population stood at 48.4%. It is therefore mainstream Londoners who have overwhelmingly voted for Sadiq Khan.
Merit above all
The Londoners’ choice of Sadiq Khan as Mayor also carries lessons for our own democracy. For a true government of the people to be possible, new doors of democracy have to be continually opened to perpetually broaden the democratic space, deepen good governance and ensure that society becomes more just, merit based, inclusive and free of corruption. Artificial walls put up to restrict democracy such as favouring ethnicity, faith or dynastic politics over merit or political leaders not stepping down after being trounced at the polls or bent on holding office beyond two mandates, have to be razed. It is thus unacceptable that the highest posts of our Republic are first determined on the basis of community or caste.
In India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan or Dr A.P. J. Abdul Kalam and others were unanimously chosen to be the President of India on the basis of their outstanding achievements, stature and erudition. Choices which are strictly merit based enhance the standing of the incumbents. When will we learn to choose the leaders of the country who occupy the premier posts of the Republic and of government solely on the basis of unequivocal merit over all other narrow considerations?
By voting for Sadiq Khan, cosmopolitan London has broken taboos and narrow outlooks. It has also sent a potent positive message to the world in the larger context of growing inroads made by anti-immigration parties fuelled by an anti-Muslim rhetoric and the contrived amalgam being made in some quarters in Europe and the western world between terrorist attacks in Europe and migrants who are principally from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner to become the Republican nominee for the US presidential elections scheduled on 8 November 2016 has in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks last November rabidly called for a ‘total and complete shutdown’ on all Muslims entering the United States.
In a context where the world seems to be bedevilled by bigotry and xenophobic fears, Sadiq Khan’s victory has also demonstrated that sectarian rhetoric cannot win elections such as the mayoral or the general elections in which the multitude and vox populi have a say. It can only have a limited impact in specific localities inhabited by reactionaries. It can certainly not be a recipe for victory.
London primarily voted for Sadiq Khan because he connected with mainstream Londoners through his qualities of leadership, his track record, his campaign manifesto and above all his inspiring story. People want their leaders to be inspiring, clean, and unambiguous in their resolve to take on even the most daunting challenges and ills of society such as extremism or crime head on. Sadiq Khan has systematically denounced Islamist extremism and has averred that he has spent his entire life fighting extremism and radicalization. He now wants to work with government to combat this scourge. This stance fits the bill of the growing view that the onus to lead the battle to track and eradicate radicalism and extremism from their midst lies squarely with the Muslim community who have sought and been provided with a safe haven for themselves and their families in Europe, the US and other countries and are now citizens of these countries.
His message to youngsters is that it’s compatible being British, being western and being Muslim. Sadiq Khan was even at the receiving end of a fatwa when fighting for equality in relation to same sex marriage.
As Mayor, he has pledged to the relief of commuters to freeze the stiff fares on the capital’s transport network for four years and build more affordable housing and has also promised to champion business and cut taxes on enterprise. He defines his plan of work in his mayoral ‘Manifesto for all Londoners’ as follows:
‘My vision for London is a simple one – I want all Londoners to have the same opportunities that our city gave me: a home they can afford, a high-skilled job with decent pay, an affordable and modern transport system and a safe, clean and healthy environment.’
Sadiq Khan’s victory also highlights the inspiring story of the recently much maligned migrant. From modest beginnings, he has in one generation through hard work, determination, perseverance and commitment to his country of birth climbed the various echelons of a rich professional and political career to become Minister of State and now Mayor of one of the most important capitals of the world endorsed by a huge public mandate.
His story in fact reflects the success story of so many citizens of migrant descent who so positively contribute in all walks of life of their adopted country as employees, cadres or highly rated professionals or prominent captains of industry. Throughout the chequered history of humanity, waves of migrants from diverse origins fleeing war or economic downturns in search of better opportunities have played determinant roles in the advancement of their country of adoption. In search of a better life, the compelling evidence is that migrants and their descendants normally bring growth and value to their adopted country through their industriousness, professional skills or entrepreneurship.
Above all, the election of Sadiq Khan is therefore a game changer. It writes a new chapter in progressive democratic thinking in a globalized world made up more and more of multicultural societies evidencing a growing trend whereby the most challenging jobs are being indiscriminately entrusted purely on merit to those with the best talents and proven qualities of leadership. Our common quest for a better world order would not have it any other way. Sadiq Khan’s mandate as Mayor will therefore be under constant scrutiny. For so many good reasons which will determine our shared future, it is imperative that he succeeds and validates with the goodwill and support of his constituency, the pledge that that yes, he Khan.