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June 23, 1999


Euro MP of Indian origin to work for pro-Third-World tariffs

Priya Srinivasan in Bombay

Bashir Khanbhai, of Indian origin, member of European Parliament Asked to describe his role as a truly international citizen and businessman, Bashir Khanbhai, 54, the first person of Indian origin to be elected to the European Parliament, had this to say: "I'm proud to be British, of Indian origin. I'm proud to be batting for Britain in the European Union to secure benefits for Britain and I don't see how that excludes benefits for the European Union and even India finally. I'm aggressively proactive when it comes to trade and commerce because that's what spawns jobs."

Khanbhai is on a visit to India and chose the occasion to interact with the Bombay media on June 22 and share his view of the world. More of that shortly.

Email this report to a friend Khanbhai was elected to represent Britain's Conservative Party in the Eurpean Union a week ago. The Conservative Party, according to Khanbhai, put its candidates through a rigorous selection interview as opposed to the Labour and Liberal Parties which simply nominated their candidates.

"The selection panel and candidates were all white and I was up against heavyweights like former cabinet ministers. It is to the credit of the British people that I was selected showing a complete lack of ethnic bias," states Khanbhai.

He is at ease answering questions on nuclear waste and fox hunting, making one wonder whether his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural upbringing has made him versatile.

The Khanbhai family, originally from India's Kathiawad region in Gujarat, migrated to Tanzania in East Africa about 150 years ago.

Today, they are a household name in Tanzania with a presence in industries as diverse as wholesale and retail pharmaceuticals, research and development in pharmaceutical product formulations, plastics and tourism. The last two areas were ventured into by Bashir Khanbhai himself.

"I always knew I finally wanted to be in politics," he says. "But at 24, nobody would have taken me seriously. Moreover, I would have been manipulated and had no say in anything. So I waited 30 years to do what I actually wanted to."

Those 30 years were fruitfully spent developing the family's business interests apart from acquiring a formidable academic grounding which included a basic degree in pharmacy, topped with a masters in politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford. After which he became a member of the Standing Committee of the Oxford Union.

"I took a special interest in developmental economics, being from a developing country like Tanzania," explains Khanbhai."Now, when I work towards a free trade regime, I'm in a position to understand the issues relating to developing countries, I have taken a special interest in the issue of tarriffs and I want to bring these issues to the table and work aggressively towards a free trade regime that benefits everyone eventually," he explains.

Not surprisingly, he is hugely appreciative of India's bold steps towards a liberalised economy. "India has moved away from a difficult situation -- one of being a closed economy to an open one and the world recognises this. The world also acknowledges India as a huge market. Look at Britain's exports to India, they've gone up from 1.7 billion pounds in 1993 to three billion pounds today."

He is however quick to point out the bureaucratic hurdles that keep British companies from investing in India. "India has the potential to attract investment in research and development, especially in the infotech and pharma industries. Look at what Dr Reddy has done or look at Microsoft which has been quick to spot the IT skills here, but when I try to push for investments in India, I'm confronted with questions about bureaucratic delays by British businessmen, how do I answer them?" he asks.

He says India's strength in skilled manpower will see it emerge successful in the era of intellectual property rights and the free trade regime.

On the issue of investments in India, he points to several factors which dissuade investors. Red tape. Paucity of infrastructural support, especially in the power sector and so on.

In the larger context, he likens India's move towards a liberalised economic regime to the European Union where there has been a distinct shift from socialist leanings to a centre-right governance, both political and economic. "The earlier socialist parliament was obsessed with the European Union. Now, we want to look beyond the EU and work aggressively towards improving trade and commerce."

From politics through developmental economics, the free trade regime to the evolution of the World Trade Organisation, Khanbhai seeks "to get rid of unnecessary legislation and red tape". Like the law ruling out the usage of pint mugs to serve beer in the UK. "I want anyone who wants to trade with the EU to pick up the phone and talk to us because above all I believe in creating jobs for people and that will come from trade and commerce. Political rhetoric does not create jobs for people, it only creates politicians."

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