Lord Dholakia is the highest-ranking Indian politician in the west and combines a unique ability to grow organisations with helping the less fortunate. He talks with Rani Singh about his steady rise up the political ladder
Lord Dholakia, OBE, DL, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords since 2004, Frontbench Spokesman on Home Affairs, is the seniormost Indian in any political party in any of the western democracies on either side of the Atlantic. He has held that distinction for decades.
There has been evidence of Lord Dholakia’s leadership qualities throughout his career. Born in Tanzania, where his father worked with the East African Railways, Lord Dholakia came to the UK in 1956 to study chemistry in Brighton. Concerned about social issues, he was the first Liberal to be elected onto Brighton Council, covering an area best known for its bright lights and popular seafront. “What most people didn’t see was the poverty that existed in Brighton,” says Lord Dholakia. “This shouldn’t be happening.”
As a young man, he remembers walking along Westminster Bridge, admiring the Palace of Westminster, hardly thinking that one day he would step inside. But his diligent work ethic and courage have propelled him straight to the top. He lives by his own advice: “Be very honest, don’t lead people up the garden path and be humble.”
After setting up the Brighton Liberal Party he was elected Chairman and created a nucleus of mainly young people who were able to take Liberal Party politics forward.
The young politician was rapidly formulating his policies. “In 1966 Roy Jenkins addressed a meeting I attended,” he reminisces, “and his comments about equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, affected me profoundly and encouraged my political engagement with race related issues.” The late Roy Jenkins was at that time a Labour Minister.
Married with two daughters, these issues became incredibly important to him.
Appointed to the Sussex Police Authority and to the Board of Governors of HM Prison Lewes, the Peer was able to observe the treatment of inmates and develop a number of policies to help them.
“In those days you simply bunched people into prison and they became more criminal by the time they came out. In that prison, I was able to introduce a writer, an artist and a poet in residence and you saw the untapped resources of a great many people serving sentences.”
Lord Dholakia was invited by the National Liberal Party to devise policies concerning race and community relations, rights and liberty issues, immigration, asylum and sentencing. “I was delighted to be able to change policy for the betterment of people.”
The Home Secretary to the British Government then invited Lord Dholakia onto the Police Complaints Authority “I investigated some major cases such as the shooting of IRA suspects,” he explains. “I always say to the police, ‘you police us but we need somebody to police you.’”
Because of his special attention to criminal justice and to prisons, Lord Dholakia was invited to join the council of the prestigious Howard League for Penal Reform in 1992 and he is a member of the Editorial Board of the Howard Journal of Criminology.
Elevation to the Peerage came as a complete surprise. He was busy writing Party manifestos, assisting candidates and being on the Federal Policy Committee of the Party. The Rt. Hon. Paddy Ashdown, then Liberal Democrat Party Leader, suddenly told the then assistant Liberal Democrat Whip, Mr Dholakia, in 1997, that he was going to recommend his name to the Prime Minister and to Her Majesty the Queen for elevation into the House of Lords. Roy Jenkins, now a Baron, was supporting the nomination.
“Paddy Ashdown told me that he liked the way I had changed the political process in this country. Three days later the announcement came in. Within three weeks of being appointed here, I was appointed to the Liberal Democrat Whip’s office.”
Later, the Rt. Hon. Charles Kennedy became Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. “We were flying to India as guests of the Indian government and at 33,000 feet Charles Kennedy came round to me and my wife, Ann and said: ‘Right Navnit, you are going to fight [the election] as the President of the Liberal Democrat Party.’ ”
Lord Dholakia remembers how in those days people were very uncomfortable about race, colour and immigration.
“The amount of discrimination in this country was considerable,” he recollects. “But then I was appearing on Newsnight, Question Time, etc, and people would [start to] see that Asian and black people can contribute well in this country. If you give people an opportunity then they prove they can do it.”
His Lordship says that talking about wider themes, such as criminal justice and civil liberties, rather than just restricting himself to issues affecting minorities, reflects wider out into the community.
He says: “People say, ‘Ah, we can advance this far, because this man has gone this far. We can do the same thing.’ To me there’s a joy in making sure other people have role models to follow. In my time I didn’t have any role models.”
Lord Dholakia was elected President of the Liberal Democrats in 1999 and served two terms. No political party in any western country has, before or after, elected a non-white person to such high office. When the Peer joined the Liberals, there were only five MPs and during his Presidency the number rose from 40 to around 65. “I like the process of democracy and the other thing I like is that I can contribute to that process to make it better,” he says.
The Deputy Lieutenant for the County of West Sussex (appointed in 1999), and Lady Dholakia are invited to visit by the leaders of countries all over the world, but the first thing he wants to see isn’t the grandeur or pomp of his host city, but the prisons.
“I use prisons as a barometer of the country’s civilised values,” he explains. “Its how they treat their most unfortunate people. If you have a good, sound prison, if there are rehabilitation and medical models working and if prisoners do satisfying activities, then the culture of that country will be sufficiently good enough for you to admire it.” In 2003, Lord Dholakia was the first ever westerner to be invited by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to receive the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award from the President of India. This prize is recommended by India’s Ministry of Overseas Affairs for “meritorious contribution” in a chosen field or profession. Other recipients of the PBS award include the Prime Minister of Mauritius and the President of Guyana.Because Lord Dholakia is such a good friend to people, he inspires fierce loyalty all over the world. After helping out Julius Nyerere at a busy Africa House breakfast in 1956, the future President of Tanzania became a lifelong friend and his government invited the Peer to give the tribute speech when President Nyerere passed away.
He is also actively involved in bridging business between Britain and India. “I’m delighted there is a stable government [in India],” he says.
“Large numbers of Indian companies now own British firms, and the British government is attracting Indian investment. India is attracting British investment and I want to make sure that that link continues. Business resources can be used for eliminating poverty and for running projects. I’m involved with charities which do that.”
Lord Dholakia does an enormous amount of work with his charities, arguably more than some members of the British Royal family. He is President, Patron, Vice-President, Trustee and Council Member of over 100 charities and organisations, including the Children In Need Institute, which helps poor mothers and children in India and The Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba Memorial Trust. He has also served on the Council of the Save the Children Fund.
For nearly 25 years he was Head of the Commission for Racial Equality. He is the President of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) and chairs its Race Issues Advisory Committee. He is a Vice President of the Mental Health Foundation, Vice Chairman of the Policy Research Institute on Aging and Ethnicity and serves on the House of Lords Appointment Commission. His overarching concerns are, “people’s right to live with equality, their right to the elimination of poverty, and to live to their fullest potential.”
Despite achieving the highest titles and most prestigious accolades, Lord Dholakia, at 72, is still pushing forward and helping to change the way in which governments operate. “You don’t look back. You say ‘that’s enough. Now I must do something different.’ And the more I do, the more excited I become!”