| Kunzru: On watch
London, June 27: Four high-flyers of Indian origin are among 80 young people in Britain picked as possessing the potential for future greatness by the Observer newspaper.
They are Shami Chakrabarti, 35, director of Liberty, the human rights group; Sunder Katwala, 30, general secretary of the Left-wing Fabian Society; author Hari Kunzru, 35; and barrister Rabinder Singh, 40, QC. Those who know the British Asian community better might have improved and indeed extended the Observer’s list.
Jasbir Singh Sachar, who has published the Who’s Who of Asians in Britain for 30 years, commented today: “It is sometimes possible to spot future greatness.
“The symptoms can be there from an early age. Political leaders in the Labour and Tory parties were active at university. We picked up Keith Vaz (former Labour Europe minister) when he was young but he did not keep it up very well.”
The four Indians on the Observer list share their moment of glory today with the 18-year-old England footballer, Wayne Rooney, who has been dubbed “the new Pele” with characteristic understatement by British tabloids on the strength of his performances in the Euro 2004.
Although not exactly unknown in their fields, none of the four people of Indian origin identified by the Observer is a household name yet. It is often the case that being picked for future greatness is akin to being given the kiss of death. But the Observer cannot be blamed for trying a circulation boosting stunt on a Sunday when genuine news exclusives are hard to come by.
“In 1979, this newspaper published a list of 80 young people The Observer predicted would define the country’s culture, politics and economics for a generation,” the paper says. “Many went on to become household names. Now, 25 years on, we’ve decided to repeat the exercise. After months of nominations and hours of debate, here’s our new selection of 80 prodigiously talented young people — scientists, DJs, novelists, architects, politicians — who we believe will shape our lives in the early 21st century.”
Explaining how the list was drawn up, the Observer says that four months ago it set out to discover “the next generation of movers and shaker”.
“First, we consulted specialists and editors on The Observer,” it adds. “Then, we spoke to professionals working in disciplines as diverse as science, sport, fashion and film-making. Hundreds of names were discussed. Some nominations were universally agreed upon; others were suggested, debated and then discarded.”
Of the Indians, it says that Shami Chakrabarti, who became director of Liberty 10 months ago, “has sought to communicate her belief that human rights are not merely the business of lawyers, but central to a healthy society’s values and sense of self-identity. Trained at the London School of Economics before being called to the Bar, Chakrabarti worked for five and a half years at the Home Office.”
The paper goes on: “She combines a commitment to human rights with an appreciation of the difficulty of the decisions sometimes faced by governments. ‘It’s too easy in this job to feel like a professional teenager, pointing out what’s wrong, what I’m against,’ she says. She cites ‘being a mother’ as one reason why she cares so much about human rights, and adds that motherhood has given her a greater confidence. ‘I’m not sure I’d have put myself forward for this job if it hadn’t been for that sense of empowerment.’
“Appalled by widespread beliefs that human rights are somehow at odds with child protection — or indeed, counter-terrorism — she is determined to persuade us that, on the contrary, they are vital to both. Beyond that, she says, she has ‘no grand plan. But persuading people of that is an awesome task, and also a privilege’.”
On Sunder Katwala, the Observer argues he is “powerfully placed to influence the next generation of progressive politics. With his wide range of experience — commissioning editor for politics and economics at Macmillan, the first research director of the Foreign Policy Centre, and a regular Observer leader writer — and his unique perspective on British identity (Indian father, Irish mother), he is a thinker to watch.”
Hari Kunzru, the Observer says, “hit the headlines when he was said to have received over £1 million for the rights to his first novel, The Impressionist (he didn’t). It seemed to be the Zadie Smith story all over again: talented, hyped, Asian author (Oxford rather than Cambridge, but the obligatory first), with a knack for hitting headlines (he refused the Llewellyn Rhys prize as it was sponsored by the Mail on Sunday). And, like Smith’s, his talent will outlast the hype. Interested in culture and identity, he is an author of charm, wit and immense skill.”
The fourth Indian is Rabinder Singh, who has been working in the same legal chambers in London as Cherie Booth, the Prime Minister’s wife.
“Cherie Booth QC may not have been best pleased when her colleague, Rabinder Singh, was retained by CND to argue that the Iraq war was illegal,” remarks the Observer. “One of the co-founders of Matrix, the human rights chamber, Singh is the first Asian to become a QC, and the first to replace the wig with a turban. Whatever his headgear, an impressive career is a certainty.”