Richard North, 07/12/2019  

I tolerated about 20 minutes of the BBC Leaders' debate before switching it off. The format, as always – with carefully selected "ordinary" members of the public asking the questions – was crass. The arguments were formulaic, while Johnson and Corbyn simply talked past each other. I can't say there was more heat than light. There was neither heat nor light.

Reading diverse reports, however, has done nothing but make me grateful that I didn't sit through the whole thing, even to hear the expected cross-over accusations on racism, with Corbyn taking flak on his antisemitism while Johnson and his party are variously accused of Islamophobia.

Johnson defended himself by saying that any Tories guilty of Islamophobia or racism were "out first bounce", then going into attack mode by denouncing Corbyn's unwillingness to stand up for Jewish people in the Labour party and put an arm round them as "a failure of leadership".

In such sensitive areas, though, one wonders why both parties don't move more decisively to root out behaviours which open them up to accusations of racism, especially when political parties tend to be quick to take action when votes might be at stake.

But this very reluctance to act (on both sides) might give a clue that there are deeper agendas being played out, where there might be electoral advantages in maintaining carefully nurtured façades of hostility towards certain racial groups, especially if there are large numbers of votes to be garnered.

And the thing is that there most definitely are advantages to be gained from cultivating certain attitudes. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives can entirely plead innocence if they allow racist views to prevail within their parties, even if they deny that these are tolerated.

In the case of the Conservatives, for instance, one can point to a Times of India article as recently as last month, telling us that the British Indian vote "could swing up to 40 seats and affect the outcome of the election".

Nor is this an academic proposition as the UK group that styles itself as the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), is for the first time in its history extending open support to the Conservatives, the group had identified 48 Labour-Conservative marginal seats as potential targets for the Indian electorate.

OFBJP UK president, Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat, gives three reasons for extending support to the Tories. Firstly, some Labour MPs joined the violent protests outside India House on 15 August and 3 September over the Indian action in revoking part of the constitution in Indian occupied Kashmir and Jammu.

Secondly, no Labour MPs spoke in favour of India in the House of Commons on Kashmir, and thirdly because of a Labour motion on Kashmir passed at their party conference.

This was even picked up by Sky News on 7 November and then by The Times in London, which ran a feature on 10 November, headlined: "Labour’s Kashmir stance drives Indians into arms of Tories", noting that an estimated 900,000 Hindu and Sikh voters of British-Indian origin could play a "decisive role" in the coming election.

In fact, there are estimated to be about 1.5 million voters of Indian origin in the UK, against about 1.1 million mainly Moslem Pakistanis, of which one million hail from the Mirpur region in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Following in the wake of The Times was Open Democracy which on 13 November reported on "The anti-Labour plot to polarise Hindus over Kashmir". It thus informed us that "a campaign for the hearts and minds of British Hindus is pushing them to the Tories – and it's dividing British Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims".

Huffpost also ran a story on this issue, coming in on 23 November, with a headline: "How 'Toxic' South Asian Nationalist Politics Is Rearing Its Head In The UK Election".

This source referred to WhatsApp memes which were accusing Labour of being "anti-Indian" and enabling grooming gangs, asking whether they could affect the election result.

To this, the answer seems to be strongly in the affirmative, with each party playing the race card, not least in the number of ethnic minority candidates being fielded, to the extent that the Independent was recently reporting that the UK was "on course" for a record number standing in the election.

Within that, the split in the South Asian communities is clear, as Labour has selected only one Indian-heritage candidate to fight the party’s 39 safe seats and 100 target seats.

But then, this is hardly surprising. As a rule, the Pakistani communities tend to vote as a bloc, and traditionally support Labour, returning Labour MPs in the constituencies where they tend to concentrate – as noted yesterday in a long article in the Diplomat magazine, an online publication based in Washington DC, covering politics, society, and culture in the Asia-Pacific region.

The magazine remarks that tensions between India and Pakistan have skyrocketed over India's action in Jammu and Kashmir in August and the ensuing lockdown in the region, provoking extreme reactions within Pakistan. And, with Brexit-hit Britain's third general election since the beginning of 2015 approaching, the divisions of the subcontinent on the issue of Kashmir have found their way into British domestic politics.

Pakistan, of course, with its strongly Moslem culture, is fundamentally opposed to the Israeli state, which it refuses to recognise. On the other hand, there is a close affinity between the Hindu and Jewish communities in the UK, which occasionally act in concert. And, with Israel selling arms to India, Pakistan has adopted a distinctly anti-Jewish stance, a sentiment which spills over into the UK Pakistani communities.

Thus, in the UK, we have two electorally important Asian communities, polarised on religious grounds, with tensions stoked up over Kashmir, which is being reflected in UK politics, where the Indians are increasingly supporting the Conservatives while the Pakistanis support Labour.

Each community, respectively, could be characterised as Islamophobic and antisemitic and, given their pivotal roles in the coming election, it would be surprising if some of their attitudes did not rub off on the political parties that they support. In fact, for each party to enhance and maintain that support, it would seem necessary for them to reflect the values of the communities that are giving that support.

Despite even CNN reporting the issue, there has been scant attention paid to it in the UK legacy media as a whole, although the Guardian yesterday had Shami Chakrabarti, shadow attorney general, trying to redress the balance by writing that, "British Hindus voting for Labour are not 'traitors' to India".

Pleading that there is "no room in UK politics for the hatred being promoted by a group tied to the BJP, India's ruling party" – i.e., the OFBJP – this rather qualifies as being too little, too late. The damage is already done – the polarisation has already occurred.

With that, we seem to have imported factors which further complicate our politics, and may be driving some of its more unsavoury aspects. Yet, despite their importance – with the potential to decide the election – they are not getting the media attention that they should. But then, with each political party seeking to play the race card, I doubt that the politicians want the media to take too much notice of what is going on.

But, if these factors are resistant to normal campaign influences, and we have issues such as Kashmir having a disproportionate effect on the outcome of our election, this is something that should very much concern us all.

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