Interview: Nikesh Pandit
Alexandra Thomas meets the Fitzwilliam post-grad running for the Conservatives in Castle Ward
by Alexandra Thomas
Sunday 29th April 2012, 17:37 BST
‘Start the term with UNLIMITED gin and tonic’, read the advert for a Conservative Association event last week. If there are two types of Conservative at Cambridge, however, it is to the ‘Politics’ rather than the ‘Port’ camp that Nikesh Pandit clearly belongs.
In thick-rimmed glasses, desert boots and a tailored jacket, the society’s Secretary cuts a fine figure leaning at Fitz’s bar. Bottle of wine in hand, he waves away my tenner as we sit down to discuss his bid for your vote in the local elections this Thursday.
Nikesh, 24, is a Fitz postgrad running for the Conservatives in Castle Ward. He is a Criminology Masters student, and a trained barrister. Quite why it’s the Conservatives he’s standing for in the election, however, is not immediately obvious.
Since becoming Secretary last year, he has set up a remarkable ‘Social Action’ programme at CUCA. Members are now involved in meal-time volunteering at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. They’ve also helped out at the Cambridge City Food Bank, which provides emergency supplies for the depressingly high number of local residents on the brink of desperation. A cynic would perhaps ask whether the better strategy might be a quick man-to-man at the next CUCA event with a tipsy Cabinet minister responsible for their plight, but I suppress the thought. The more students can get involved in voluntary work, the better.
‘Politics shouldn’t be just a talking shop; it’s about action,’ he says forcefully, departing from his normal mild manner. He certainly practises what he preaches. A glance at his campaign website later tells me some of things he modestly failed to mention: volunteering while at bar school for the London Innocence Project, a non-profit organisation helping those who believe they’ve been wrongly convicted; door-knocking for Barack Obama while doing a semester in North Carolina.
He’s keen to ‘dispel the idea we’re all toffs in top hats’, he explains, tapping his own. I kid. He’s frustrated by the stereotypes surrounding CUCA, and the Conservative Party more generally. Smiling, he claims that there’s ‘barely a cigarette paper between New Labour and one-nation conservatism’. Intrigued, I ask why he plumped for the latter.
Hard work, he replies. For Nikesh, the party is committed to the principle like no other, and it is a ‘fundamentally conservative principle’. He speaks with admiration of Prime Ministers like Heath, Major and Thatcher who rose from humble origins. The influence of his family here is clear. Both his mother and father once juggled study at night-school with their day-jobs in a school and a petrol station respectively.
It is hard work that Nikesh promises as a councillor, and it’s on crime and transport that he’s determined to deliver for students above all. Violent crime in Castle rose an astonishing 50 per cent in the last three months of 2011, he tells me. Hipkin ‘condemns, but doesn’t deliver’. Nikesh proposes an immediate review of all street lighting and other crime-aggravating factors, with a ‘shifting of priorities’ so that police patrols and CCTV are focused on hotspots.
It is hard not to raise an eyebrow at his aim to make Cambridge ‘the most cycle-friendly city in Europe’, but his recognition that finding bike parking spaces is a ‘complete nightmare’ is surely to be welcomed. Converting car spaces into cycle spaces requires collaboration by City councillors with the Conservative-run County Council, something Nikesh claims his blue rosette means he’s much better placed to deliver than his opponents. He also backs plans for a new rail station at the Science Park north of Cambridge, on which he accuses the other parties of ‘wavering’.
On his website, Nikesh makes a further promise to ‘use the platform to continue the fight for social justice’ that he has kickstarted at CUCA. His lack of support for the student and city Living Wage campaigns is disappointing, though the view that ‘our priority should be reducing costs for students and residents in an age of austerity’ is understandable.
How he intends to fulfil his commitment to ‘increasing social mobility’ and ‘enhancing living standards’, however, is not entirely clear. It’s a big ask of a single councillor, not least at a time of crippling cutbacks. One suggestion is for Cambridge and another council to share a single Chief Executive, using the six-figure salary to freeze or cut council tax instead. He also supports cutting councillors’ allowances, and pledges to never claim for food or drink.
Cuts bring us nicely on to the current government. I don’t ask if he sees a parallel between the reforming efforts of the ‘modernisers’ in CUCA and those of the Cameroons in the national party after 2005, knowing he’d reject any such presumptuous comparisons. But what does he make of the coalition?
‘It’s screwed up on a lot of things’, he replies solemnly. Nonetheless, he thinks it’s ‘generally moving in the right direction’ on the deficit, and on welfare, educational and constitutional reform. Like a true Cameroon, he touches on his support for liberal policies like gay marriage, the raised personal tax allowance and a comparatively high foreign aid budget.
Surprisingly – though perhaps less so given many of his teenage years were in Munich - he claims to be ‘incredibly pro-European, and proud of it’. Endemic Tory Euroscepticism is a ‘cop-out’. He insists we must fight for our interests within, not sulk on the periphery like a ‘bitchy cousin’. In an era when the EU is routinely disparaged and its leaders dismissed as federalist ideologues, it serves as a timely reminder that we neglect our relationship with our former foes and largest trading partners at our peril.
Our bottle of wine finished and the bar beginning to empty, we hurtle back from Europe to Cambridge. As Nikesh observes, one must always remember the golden rule: ‘all politics is local politics’. Spad-in-the-making he is not. He stresses that he’s in it for the long haul, lamenting the way the allure of the national means ‘competent, able people neglect local politics’. One can only imagine he’ll be praying this Thursday that competent, able students buried in their books won’t do the same.
(Castle Ward includes the following colleges: Churchill, Clare, Fitzwilliam, Gonville and Caius, Lucy Cavendish, Magdalene, Murray Edwards, St Edmund's, St John's, Trinity Hall, Trinity)