AN IN­DIAN IN IRE­LAND

LEO VARAD­KAR, THE CHARIS­MATIC YOUNG POLITI­CIAN OF IN­DIAN DE­SCENT, IS SET TO MAKE HISTORY AS IRE­LAND’S NEXT PM

India Today - - INSIDE - By Mar­garet Ward

Leo Varad­kar, a politi­cian of In­dian de­scent, is all set to be Ire­land’s new premier

Two of my brothers were dec­o­rated as free­dom fight­ers, and my sis­ters took part in the lib­er­a­tion of Goa,” says Dr Ashok Varad­kar. “Pol­i­tics is not that new in our house.” We’re stand­ing in a hud­dle of peo­ple around Leo Varad­kar af­ter one of the lead­er­ship hus­tings in a pro­vin­cial in­sti­tute of tech­nol­ogy, and his fa­ther Ashok is grin­ning with pride. He moved to Ire­land af­ter meet­ing his Ir­ish wife Miriam when they were both work­ing in the UK. Now, his son is just days away from be­com­ing Taoiseach (prime min­is­ter) of Ashok’s adopted home­land.

Varad­kar is ex­pected to take up of­fice on June 13, but he has been eye­ing this po­si­tion for a long time. “When he was 10 years old, he used to sit in front of the tele­vi­sion dur­ing elec­tions,” says Varad­kar se­nior. “He would know who won and what votes they got. Not just in Ire­land but all over the world!”

The coun­try Varad­kar will soon be run­ning has bounced back from the fi­nan­cial crash of 2008, but now faces a new and se­ri­ous chal­lenge from the with­drawal of its near­est neigh­bour from the Euro­pean Union. Brexit poses par­tic­u­lar prob­lems for Ire­land—both prac­ti­cal and po­lit­i­cal—as it shares a land bor­der with North­ern Ire­land, which is part of the UK. It has also emerged that one of those in­volved in last week’s at­tack in Lon­don lived in Dublin for a time and mar­ried there, a wake-up call for the coun­try which had felt re­moved from this kind of ter­ror­ism. Ire­land’s open­ness to mi­gra­tion dur­ing the Celtic Tiger era in the 1990s and early 2000s has cre­ated a more multi-cul­tural so­ci­ety, with all the ben­e­fits and chal­lenges that this presents.

In­dian mi­gra­tion to Ire­land— mostly fo­cused on the med­i­cal and IT sec­tors—is longer es­tab­lished, though the community is still small com­pared to the UK. To out­siders it seems re­mark­able that a gay man of In­dian de­scent could break through the Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem to be­come prime min­is­ter, but in Ire­land it’s the gen­er­a­tional shift that puts a 38-year-old into Govern­ment Build­ings that’s mak­ing the news.

“He’s seen as hav­ing buck­ets of charisma,” says long-time ob­server Lise Hand of the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent. “Then there’s his in­tel­lect; peo­ple know he’s very smart. You don’t get too many rock­stars in Ir­ish pol­i­tics and he’s the clos­est we have.” That rock­star qual­ity saw most of the cab­i­net and the Fine Gael party’s Teach­taí Dála (MPs) row in be­hind him in his bid to suc­ceed Enda Kenny, when he an­nounced he was step­ping down as Taoiseach and party leader. “He’s the right man for the times,” says Frances Fitzger­ald, jus­tice min­is­ter and deputy prime min­is­ter. “This is a once-in-a-generation op­por­tu­nity.”

Close up, Varad­kar is qui­etly spo­ken, lis­tens care­fully and doesn’t al­ways give the ob­vi­ous an­swer. Asked if he’s proud that some­one of halfIn­dian an­ces­try is about to be­come prime min­is­ter, he tells in­dia today that he prefers pride to “come from achieve­ments and what you do for peo­ple, rather than from your eth­nic, gen­der or any other el­e­ment of your iden­tity. That said I’m very glad I have my In­dian her­itage. It’s shaped my world­view. Grow­ing up, I had that aware­ness of other coun­tries, other na­tion­al­i­ties, other re­li­gions.”

Many Ir­ish peo­ple are only vaguely aware that he’s of In­dian de­scent.

“VARAD­KAR IS THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE TIMES. THIS IS A ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION OP­POR­TU­NITY,” SAYS IRE­LAND’S DEPUTY PM

Leo is de­fined pri­mar­ily by his Leo-like straight-talk­ing, and he’s one of the few peo­ple in Ire­land known to al­most ev­ery­one by his first name alone. His de­ci­sion to come out as a gay man on national ra­dio in 2015, just be­fore Ire­land passed a ref­er­en­dum on same sex mar­riage, led to an out­pour­ing of sup­port, af­fec­tion and grat­i­tude. “It was a sign we’d reached a turn­ing point when Leo came out,” says Hand. “It’s the only time re­ally that his eth­nic or sex­ual iden­tity was to the fore­front. But we’ve pro­cessed it now, we’ve moved on.”

That said, there was a quiet pride in Ire­land last Friday that Varad­kar’s iden­tity was not an is­sue, and he him­self ref­er­enced his back­ground in his victory speech. “I think if my elec­tion as leader of Fine Gael today has shown any­thing, it is that prej­u­dice has no hold in this Repub­lic,” he said. “When my fa­ther trav­elled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ire­land, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to be­come its leader.”

Varad­kar joined Young Fine Gael at the age of 17, and later man­aged to com­bine be­ing on his lo­cal coun­cil with his med­i­cal stud­ies, in­clud­ing an elec­tive spent at King Ed­ward Hos­pi­tal in Mum­bai. He en­tered the Dail (lower house) in 2007. Varad­kar took part in a failed heave against Kenny in 2010, but was for­given quickly in a way oth­ers were not, and be­came min­is­ter for trans­port, tourism and sport in 2011 when a Fine Gael/ Labour govern­ment ousted the Fianna Fáil party af­ter the eco­nomic crash.

He be­came a reg­u­lar on the agen­daset­ting early ra­dio pro­gramme Morn­ing Ire­land, of­ten going out to bat for the govern­ment on sticky wick­ets. Al­though he some­times an­noyed party col­leagues with his blunt speak­ing or solo runs (sug­gest­ing that un­em­ployed for­eign na­tion­als be given in­cen­tives to go back home or that Ire­land might need a sec­ond bailout), they could also see that he was putting the boot in to the op­po­si­tion, par­tic­u­larly Sinn Féin and the hard Left, and con­nect­ing with the pub­lic.

He be­came min­is­ter for health in 2014, and while a cen­tral plank of the govern­ment’s pro­gramme—univer­sal health in­sur­ance—was dropped, he did man­age to bring in free GP care for un­der 6s and over 70s. “Leo has great cal­i­bre, great po­ten­tial,” says Ni­nan Thomas from Kot­tayam in Ker­ala, one of thou­sands of In­di­ans work­ing in the Ir­ish health ser­vice. “I don’t know that he was a great health min­is­ter though. That great wait­ing list is still there and no one seems to be able to fix it.” There’s been some crit­i­cism that he didn’t stick it out at the health min­istry af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, and re­ports that he turned it down in favour of so­cial pro­tec­tion, which gave him more time to mount a lead­er­ship cam­paign.

No doubt Varad­kar is ul­tra com­pet­i­tive and wants to lead a drive to­wards suc­cess at ev­ery level, say­ing he wants a new so­cial con­tract with the Ir­ish peo­ple cen­tred around con­tri­bu­tion, and promis­ing to re­duce taxes for mid­dle earn­ers. Asked what he thought Ire­land could learn from In­dia, he cited the value In­dian par­ents put on ed­u­ca­tion and their urge for their chil­dren to ex­cel.

But not ev­ery­one is a fan of Varad­kar’s poli­cies. “I’d be con­cerned he is going to move the party to the Right,” says David Fitzger­ald, a party coun­cil­lor. “I don’t like this talk of his about be­ing the party for peo­ple who get up early in the morn­ing. What about the peo­ple who don’t get up early be­cause they’ve never had any op­por­tu­ni­ties?”

Varad­kar also plans to bring for­ward a ref­er­en­dum to lib­er­alise Ire­land’s abor­tion laws (al­though it will be in lim­ited cir­cum­stances), bor­row more for in­vest­ment in Ire­land’s over­loaded in­fra­struc­ture and in­tro­duce a univer­sal pen­sion scheme.

All of this will de­pend on main­tain­ing

VARAD­KAR PLANS A REF­ER­EN­DUM TO LIB­ER­ALISE IRE­LAND’S ABOR­TION LAWS, BOR­ROW MORE TO IN­VEST IN IN­FRA­STRUC­TURE AND LAUNCH A UNIVER­SAL PEN­SION SCHEME. THIS RE­QUIRES MAIN­TAIN­ING ECO­NOMIC GROWTH, THE BIG­GEST CHAL­LENGE TO WHICH IS BREXIT

eco­nomic growth, and the big­gest chal­lenge to that is Brexit. The UK is Ire­land’s largest mar­ket, and avoid­ing a hard bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land will be crit­i­cal, not just for eco­nomic rea­sons but to sus­tain the peace process in North­ern Ire­land.

He will also need to de­velop good re­la­tions with the French pres­i­dent, Ger­man chan­cel­lor and the British prime min­is­ter. Varad­kar has said he favours a pol­icy of en­gage­ment with US pres­i­dent Donald Trump. US for­eign direct in­vest­ment is a key el­e­ment of the Ir­ish econ­omy and Ire­land has much to lose from Trump’s pro­tec­tion­ist pro­pos­als if he man­ages to im­ple­ment them.

The In­dian community is all cel­e­bra­tory about Varad­kar’s rise. Crick­eter Simi Singh from Mo­hali, who got his first cap for Ire­land last month, says: “It sends a great mes­sage about Ire­land be­ing equal and multi-cul­tural, and I hopes it will help gays in ru­ral In­dia too.” Ni­laKan­thi Ford of the Ire­land In­dia Busi­ness As­so­ci­a­tion be­lieves it will make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to trade re­la­tions. “It’s al­ways a bug­bear that China gets such a big pro­file com­pared to In­dia, but he’s got his head around the po­ten­tial,” she says. “He doesn’t just turn up to things, he in­sists on be­ing well-briefed, and he’s a very good diplo­mat. And he un­der­stands cricket!”

In­dia is very much on Varad­kar’s radar. He has vis­ited as a min­is­ter and also met Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi when he came to Ire­land. He told in­dia today he hopes to visit in his first year in of­fice. He’s un­likely to bring part­ner Matthew Bar­rett along though, say­ing he has a day job as a doc­tor and won’t be com­ing to most state events, and that mar­riage is not on the agenda for now. When he does make it to Delhi, there had bet­ter be jalebis on the ban­quet ta­ble as, ac­cord­ing to Leo, they’re his favourite In­dian food.

Mar­garet Ward is a jour­nal­ist and broad­caster based

in Dublin. Fol­low her on twit­ter @mward­journo

IN­DIA IS HIGH ON VARAD­KAR’S RADAR. HE SAYS HE HOPES TO PAY A VISIT IN HIS FIRST YEAR IN OF­FICE

BRIAN LAWLESS/GETTY IM­AGES

MAN OF THE MO­MENT

Leo Varad­kar cel­e­brates as he is named Ire­land’s new PM af­ter count­ing of votes for the lead­er­ship of the Fine Gael party in Dublin

HOME RUN Leo Varad­kar with par­ents Ashok (right) and Miriam Varad­kar in Dublin

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