Thursday, September 16, 2010

Former British PM Blair credits Indian Vellani with shaping 'my approach to politics'

One Indian student's criticism of 70s India's state-controlled economy had a profound influence on the politics of Tony Blair, architect of Britain's progressive New Labour movement and the only Labour leader ever to have led his party to three consecutive general election victories on the strength of its Third Way policies.

Blair credits Anmol Vellani, whom he knew at St John's College Oxford, with shaping "my approach to politics". Some might say Vellani -- who studied philosophy at the universities of Poona, Oxford and Cambridge and taught at Elphinstone College, Mumbai -- underlined for Blair how not to run a country by tempering his enthusiasm for "state" control and regulating his distaste for "capitalism, which only cared about profit".

In his bestselling biography `A Journey', Blair writes, "Anmol, perhaps because of his experience of India... shook his head... the state too can be a vested interest. It's not the same as the public interest you know, not in practice at least."

Blair goes on to say he stubbornly argued "but, it should be", upon which, Anmol, a veteran of India's experiments with state control, "laughed at my innocence" and countered: "Should be and is, are two very different things, my friend."

On Tuesday, nine days after publication of Blair's memoirs, Vellani told TOI he was unaware that he had been described as one of just four people who were crucial "political influences... who, at a moment when my mind was open, willing and eager to learn, shaped the structure of my thinking for the years to come". The others were a Ugandan and two Australians.

Vellani demurred when asked if he were flattered that he helped make the future, three-term prime minister the politician he became. "I wouldn't put it quite like that, there are many international decisions he took that I don't agree with."

But Vellani, who has variously been actor, theatre director and now heads an independent philanthropic organization, Indian Foundation for Art, said he was "amazed" at Tony's memory. "It was a very short conversation." He added wryly, "because of Tony I have come to the conclusion that having an elephantine memory is a trait of many high achievers".

At university, he recalled, Blair seemed to like to "pick people's brains" and was a "nice curious friendly bloke, unlike many of the other, more stuck-up English boys in college".

He said he lost touch with Blair after university and didn't realize his views on India's state-run system would ever be so profound an influence.

Blair, who was the first G8 leader publicly to support India's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, informally expanded the G8 by inviting India to meetings.

Last year, Blair, who was Labour's longest-serving prime minister, was awarded the Party's Fenner Brockway medal for his contribution to UK-India relations. The medal is named for Brockway, a journalist and politician who advocated independence for India in the 1920s and even suffered parliamentary suspension for demanding a debate on India during Prime Minister's Question Time.