Joshua Neicho: Why do Hindu Indian Londoners vote Conservative?

Joshua Neicho: Why do Hindu Indian Londoners vote Conservative?

At one level, it just didn’t happen. Despite excited predictions that Hindu Indian Londoners would desert Labour at December’s general election and deliver parliamentary gains for the Conservatives, no seats in the capital with a high proportion of such voters changed hands on 12 December.

There had been headlines about a “digital storm” of online campaigning – much of it emanating from abroad – fuelling Hindu nationalist sentiments aligned with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and portraying Labour under Jeremy Corbyn as favouring Muslims and hostile interests of India’s neighbour Pakistan.

Yet although there were large swings towards the Tories in seats in London and elsewhere with the country’s largest percentages of Hindus of Indian descent, politics academic Professor Chris Hanretty cautions against drawing any wider conclusions about those voters’ party preferences. And pollster Joe Twyman of Deltapoll has found no statistical evidence for post-election claims by Hindu rights and pro-BJP activists that their efforts had defining effects on outcomes, with Labour-to-Tory swings in, for example, the Ilford North, Brentford & Isleworth and Harrow West seats, each of which have sizeable Indian Hindu populations, actually being smaller than the national average rather than greater.

For Twyman, such assertions are merely “part of the political game”. Yet nobody disputes that such a game is being played, or that political feelings on certain issues within some parts of London’s South Asian population are running high, with potentially difficult implications for community relations.

What factors are at play among Hindu Indian Londoners that have shaped how they have voted in recent elections and might vote in the coming contests for Mayor and London Assembly seats? It is clear that in some localities, including in parliamentary constituencies such as Brent North and Harrow East, which the 2011 census found were 32 per cent and 28 per cent Hindu respectively, the Conservatives have been making ground for some time. Sunder Katwala of non-partisan thinktank British Future identifies “one end of the sociology of Asian London” where the Tories have found favour “among British Indians of the right socio-economic background and the right political views”.

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Significant cohorts of Hindu Conservative councillors have been elected to Harrow Council for around two decades, and Harrow East’s MP since 2010, Bob Blackman, has led the way in embracing community causes, controversially so in some eyes. He has been a prominent opponent of attempts to introduce UK legislation to prevent discrimination based on caste, claiming that it is “divisive and unnecessary” and distressing to most UK Hindus.

Recently, at national level, Labour has made itself unpopular among Indian Britons due to its stance on Kashmir, the Himalayan territory that is the subject of a long ongoing and tense dispute between India and Pakistan. Last August, the BJP revoked an article of the Indian constitution which had given the area certain special rights for 70 years. At Labour’s conference a few weeks later, a motion proposed that Kashmir should be awarded the right of self-determination, adding to perceptions of Corbyn being pro-Pakistan and was carried. A barrage of anti-Labour messaging on WhatsApp and other social media ensued.

The evidence suggests this was not the equivalent of Russia-style subversion by the BJP, though Labour’s Navin Shah, who is the London Assembly Member for Brent & Harrow, believes it was initiated by BJP supporters in London with links to Conservative Party figures. He cites an international dimension, describing such activity as “very extensive, happening at all levels here and in India. There’s clearly a right-wing agenda doing a lot of damage to community relations”.

The strength of anti-Labour feeling has also been felt by newly-elected Ilford South MP Sam Tarry, who says he “got the hairdryer treatment” on the campaign trail because some voters had “really bought into the idea the Labour Party is a ‘pro-Muslim, terrorist party’”. This was, perhaps, ironic given that his Conservative rival Ali Azeem is a Muslim. But Tarry adds: “It’s quite clear the Conservative Party through their channels have pushed quite a divisive propaganda war”. In neighbouring East Ham, Stephen Timms was surprised to hear via a constituent that worshippers at one Hindu temple had been instructed not to vote Labour.

Has Labour brought its problems on itself? Tarry says he supports the broad principles of the conference motion on Kashmir, saying “my starting point is human rights”, but he admits it wasn’t politically astute to bring it forward at conference when an election was expected imminently. The content and tone of the resulting debate riled Indian Labour figures. Shah asked why an allegation that 10,000 women had been gang-raped went unchallenged. Brent Council cabinet member Shama Tatler, no admirer of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pinpoints some Indian voters’ sense that the motion was deliberately provocative.

In seats like Brent North and Harrow East, open preaching in temples in support of the Conservatives and numerous pavement conversations in heavily Hindu wards may have amplified the social media bombardment. At a local level, Labour may have made further unforced errors. Shah slams Labour’s unsuccessful general election candidate for Harrow East, Pamela Fitzpatrick, saying she did not understand Gujarati community concerns and relied on an influx of Momentum campaigners “who had no idea about the local population”

In fairness to Fitzpatrick, a Harrow councillor, she told volunteers at a canvassing session to simply take note if residents raised Kashmir on the doorstep, and flag this to the person with the clipboard. But one Harrow East councillor said there was annoyance at Fitzpatrick’s perceived ingratitude for help she was given and behaving as if she knew it all. A Harrow East CLP meeting last month dismayed local councillors, with one activist claiming the failed Labour challenge had been “a shining light in the national campaign” because of the amount of canvassing that had taken place.

Kenton West Labour councillor Ajay Maru says that within the Hindu community, “the dust doesn’t seem to have settled” over the conference motion. To try and mend bridges, Maru has had frank words with his old friend Valji Vekaria of the SKLPC community in Northolt – who banned Labour members from attending after the Kashmir motion – assuring him that Indian councillors “put every effort in” to making their voice heard. He then went with Shah to Kenton Temple to speak to the trustees and the temple committee, two members of which are Tory councillors.

Shah thinks Barry Gardiner suffered in Brent North – although he did retain his seat – because he carried the can for the Labour leadership. But Satish K Sharma, general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, upbraids both Gardiner and Southall MP Virendra Sharma for, in his view, not speaking against misleading claims about Kashmir and for previously refusing to engage with evidence that, he says, defeated arguments behind anti-caste legislation.

Satish Sharma adds: “Were my community more politically engaged, we would be pursuing allegations of systemic Hinduphobia in Labour”. Councillor Tatler thinks media reports about the few Indian Labour candidates nationally, with Jas Athwal suspended in Ilford South, and Keith Vaz succeeded by Claudia Webbe in Leicester East, resonated in Brent. “Representation was the issue peddled around here,” she says. In Harrow West, the UK’s fourth most Hindu seat in the last census, which saw a below average swing to the Tories, Gareth Thomas MP says he managed criticism of Labour by pointing to his personal record.

Allegations of Conservative involvement in divisive campaigning aimed at Hindu voters also encompass Leicester-based Operation Dharmic Vote, which is active in London too. Its founder Mukesh Naker is a Conservative member who has previously been behind leaflets attacking anti-caste discrimination legislation. The Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think tank dedicated to formulating responses to polarisation, says the output of hyper-partisan pro-Conservative social media accounts suggests a level of co-ordinated grassroots mobilisation. Vinod Tikoo, who volunteered his support for a campaign called British Hindu and Indian Votes Matter, paints a multi-layered picture. “There were lots of things happening. Conservative Friends of India produced some material, BHIVM produced social media messages and there were people doing their own local variations of the content as well. Our key message as BHIVM was against Labour’s policies under Corbyn”.

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How big an issue was Kashmir really? Omar Khan of Runnymede Trust is sceptical about its importance, because foreign policy is rarely decisive in general elections, and because those motivated by Kashmir had probably voted Conservative in 2015 and 2017 anyway. Vice-President of Lib Dems for Race Equality Kishan Devani – a Conservative until 2017 – says, “Many of my generation disengage from the nationalistic agenda. We’ve never sat down and talked about Kashmir”

Some campaigners say it was hardly raised on the doorstep, though Thomas reports that “in the first three weeks it came up in every session”. He speculates that it might have “tipped [voters] over the edge”. For fund manager Alpesh Patel, British Indians’ support for Modi’s Kashmir policy is about Indian national identity and secularism, not a religious question – a diametrically opposite position from that of British Indian protesters who accuse Modi of destroying the secular constitution.

It is instructive to hear the views of young people who are motivated by questions of India’s identity. Manoj Kerai, a young novelist and charity sector worker living in Wembley, is scathing about right-wing media and Hindu communal organisations. He campaigned for Labour last year, but also points to the better prospects for Muslims in India than for Hindus in Pakistan and the benefits he says Modi has brought for Gujarati Muslims. Waltham Forest Conservative and LGBT activist Munish Chopra-Evans says he “sees no evidence of a hard right takeover of the British Indian community”, attributing that view to “a nexus of media and academia”. He says too that left-wingers often overlook the plight of the [Hindu] Kashmiri Pandits.

Is the shift of Hindu voters to the Tories permanent? There’s a growing cohort of Indians at the top of the party, with rising stars Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman joining Priti Patel and Alok Sharma in Cabinet last week. Aspiration is famously key in Indian communities, who are also regarded as one of the most integrated migrant groups. Many may have naturally gravitated towards the Conservatives: Vinod Tikoo, for example, says he was a Labour supporter until around 2012. The Britain Thinks post-2015 election survey found the Tories already had an eight point lead over Labour among Hindus and Sikhs. Labour politicians representing major centres of Indian population like Gareth Thomas think Corbyn has accelerated the trend.

Yet the estrangement of some Hindu voters from Labour is just one dimension of the issues exercising Indians in the capital. In recent weeks, Indians from many different backgrounds have taken to the streets with activists from the South Asian Left against the anti-Muslim discrimination of the BJP’s Indian Citizenship Act (CAA). And at last month’s Brent Council by-elections, it was all about local issues on the doorstep, says Barnhill Conservative candidate Kanta Mistry.

As for the London elections, Sadiq Khan’s approach to community relations – an issue close to his heart – is perceived as being very different from Labour’s nationally. However, some thought him a little slow off the mark in condemning violence during protests about Kashmir outside the Indian High Commission last year. And in 2016 vanquished Tory mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith did better than Boris Johnson had in electoral wards with significant Hindu populations, whether in spite of or because of his widely-condemned attempts to woo Hindu voters with tall tales that Khan had plans to tax their jewellery.

Khan’s Conservative rival Shaun Bailey has been obliged to say he’s “super sorry if I caused any kind of offence” with his 2005 remarks that celebrating Hindu and Muslim festivals robs Britain of its sense of community. But, at a more local level, some Labour figures fret about the possibility of unapologetic Corbynite Aghileh Djafari-Marbini being selected as Labour’s London Assembly candidate for Brent & Harrow. In London, the complex perils of community politics are never far away.

Photographs by Joshua Neicho.

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Categories: Analysis

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