Ascent of the South Asians

In the run-up to Britain’s December general election, Ashis Ray pinpoints key figures from the subcontinentpoised to retain orwin seats in the next parliament

More than 100 candidates of South Asian origin, not to mention a few of Chinese extraction, will contest the snap British general election scheduled to take place on 12 December. This constitutes a record and reflects a steadily increasing interest and involvement in public life among descendants of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

Conspicuously, one man missing from the fray will be Keith Vaz, of Goan origin, who became the first Asian in the modern era to enter the House of Commons, which he did in in 1987, carving a niche for himself by continuously being an MP for an impressive 32 years. He was once also a minister of state for Europe in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government and, notably, distinguished himself as chair of the home affairs select committee. Unfortunately, alleged indiscretions caught up with him, causing him to step down and not seek re-election.

Vaz represented Leicester East, which boasts the highest Indian origin – mainly Gujarati – electorate in Britain. Now he been replaced by a non-Asian, Claudia Webbe, who, though born in Leicester, has latterly been active as a councillor in London’s Islington borough, from where Labour’s current leader Jeremy Corbyn is elected. She is a member of the party’s powerful executive committee, and identified as quite left-wing.

During Vaz’s tenure, Leicester East steadily became a Labour stronghold. However, in this election the Overseas Friends of BJP – an RSS front – are urging Indians not to vote for Labour, except in Ealing Southall in the western suburbs of London, where Virendra Sharma, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for India, is the MP. In effect, Labour in Leicester East will be opposed by Bhupen Dave, a person of Gujarati origin, fighting the seat for the Conservative Party, with the BJP and RSS activists in the United Kingdom throwing their weight behind him.

On the sensitive topic of Kashmir, Labour has given the impression of being pro-Pakistan

Otherwise, prominent South Asian faces are likely to retain their seats. These include Priti Patel, of East African Indian descent, who has speedily risen from first-time MP in 2010 to home secretary. Similarly, Sajid Javid, who is of Pakistani extraction, has become chancellor of the exchequer, not to mention Alok Sharma, of Indian background, who is secretary of state for international development, and Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the treasury or minister of state for finance. All are Conservatives.

Amongst other MPs who have, over the years, demonstrated durability or caught the eye are Shailesh Vara (Conservative), who has been in parliament, including as a junior minister, since 2005; Valerie Vaz, Keith’s sister and a shadow leader of the Commons; Seema Malhotra and Lisa Nandy, both tipped to be ministers in the event of a Labour government; Preet Gill, from Birmingham Edgbaston, the first Sikh woman to make it to the Commons; Tanmanjit Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh to feature in the Commons, and British Bangladeshi Rushanara Ali – all belonging to Labour.

Historically, the Labour Party, generally more sympathetic to migrants, was the natural choice of settlers from the subcontinent. Indian origin Hindus, though, with their new-found prosperity, have been slowly drifting towards others parties, particularly the Conservatives, which, under David Cameron’s premiership, emerged as the most pro-India party, though this has not been sustained under successors Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

And lately Labour’s radically socialist pronouncements may have scared a section of free market oriented British Indians. Of course, Sikhs by and large remain loyal to Labour, which under Corbyn is ambivalent on, if not supportive of, Khalistan.

On the sensitive topic of Kashmir, Labour has, in the post-Michael Foot period, given the impression of being pro-Pakistan. Following recent steps taken by the Indian government vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir, it has adopted a harder line. This has displeased India. At the same time, such situations have in the past been tackled with persuasive diplomacy, and are arguably best handled in this manner.

Correspondingly, British Pakistanis have rallied behind Labour. They do not merely provide a backbone of support in constituencies where they are dominant, but have been acknowledged by a rapid absorption of parliamentary candidates from thecommunity. This surge continues in the selection of nominees in the ongoing campaign, and is bound to result in a further boost in the number of Pakistani origin MPs in the upcoming House. A number of safe Labour seats up and down the country, especially in the north of England, feature British Pakistani contestants.

In the Conservative party, too, British Pakistanis have made inroads, with Saqib Bhatti, for instance, put up in the cast iron seat of Meriden. By comparison, the Conservative-held seat of South West Hertfordshire has been given to Gagan Mohindra, who is of Indian descent, but he is up against the incumbent,the heavyweight David Gauke, who was a Conservative cabinet minister but, as a remainer on Brexit, fell out with Boris Johnson to now stand as an independent.

Labour has opted for Nav Mishra in Stockport, which voted to remain in the Brexit referendum. But the retiring Labour MP, Ann Coffey, who held the seat for 27 years, has urged voters to support the Liberal Democrat candidate Wendy Meikle. The Lib Dems is a merger of the original Liberal party and Social Democrats, who split from Labour, then in the clutches of the hard left, in the 1980s. The Liberals, who provided the first Indian origin MP in Dadabhai Naoroji in the 19th century has in recent decades been relatively apathetic to Asian aspirations, while the Scottish National Party, which is slated to win the largest number of seats in Scotland, does not have a single Asian candidate.

Combined with Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan lawmakers, the tally of MPs of South Asian background is likely to exceed 35 out of 640 in the incoming House. But it could be a tough fight for Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s niece, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, in the hip but marginal seat of Hampstead and Kilburn in north-west London.

Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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