What could be common between Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London, and Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister? On the other side, what is it that is similar between Zachariah ‘Zac’ Goldsmith (Khan’s rival) and Rahul Gandhi?
If Modi’s father ran a tea shop, Khan’s dad was a London bus driver. Flip over the candidates, and once again the similarities are striking. Modi’s opponent was the affluent, well-shone, Gandhi, while Khan faced the millionaire Goldsmith, whose Hollywood looks and fabled millions were the stuff of envy.
These parallels are important for they tell us a lot about what people are looking for when they vote. Privately, most of them might admire a rich, handsome candidate, but come election time, they usually trust a person closer to average; someone whose life might intersect theirs. In today’s world, to win an election, fair and square, it is pure toxic to be rich.
On the policy front, there was very little to distinguish between Goldsmith and Khan. They both campaigned for better transport, better housing, and cleaner air. If Khan won by a unanimous verdict, in excess of 30,000 votes, it is because of perceptions. People believed what he said because they saw him as an ordinary chap, much like the average British citizen.
Goldsmith lost points here because he let his guard down. Instead of ‘de-classing’ himself, he openly hung out with the super rich. That this made such a difference was because Lord Michael Ashcroft’s recent biography of David Cameron laid out the debauched and drunken lifestyle of Britain’s self-indulgent upper crust. Suddenly, being rich and powerful became a political handicap. As Goldsmith was hardly prepared for this, he soon found himself on the ropes.
Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography of Cameron, entitled Call me Dave, revolted the ordinary person. This book listed what the British prime minister did in his younger days along with David Osborne, the chancellor, and ex-mayor Boris Johnson. Not only did all of this make for dirty reading but it also hurt Goldsmith bad; these gentlemen were his most prominent supporters. To fill in the details, back in the day, they were chartered members of the Bullingdon Club — a fraternity meant for rich Etonian males in Oxford. Apparently, the ‘Bullers’, as these young men were called, engaged in many misogynist and mindless rituals, such as burning a 50 pound note in front of a homeless person.
There was more. Rarely did ‘Buller’ drinking binges leave pubs intact, making owners of these establishments wary of letting such ‘posh’ people in. They were often fooled at the start for the ‘Bullers’ looked so polished in their regulation, blue-trimmed, 3,500 Pound suits, but at the end, very often, the police had to be called in. After Ashcroft detailed these pranks, some involving animals, the British upper class looked like a load of trash. That the ‘posh’ lot could do all this, without even their shins getting kicked, was a horrifying thought.
Goldsmith could hardly wriggle his way out of this. Cameron, Osborne and Johnson were not only one time ‘Bullers’ but were currently Goldsmith’s fulltime supporters. If there was any doubt left about how the posh set behaved, it was finally sealed and delivered when Cameron taunted Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition leader, for his ill-fitting suits and untidy ties. This was above the top, low snobbery. Now it no longer mattered if Khan was a Muslim or a Buddhist; he was, any day, preferable to the ‘posh’ Goldsmith and company.
From that time on, Goldsmith’s best friends became his worst enemies. People forgot his steady hand environmentalism and his otherwise good record as member of parliament. Soon other recipe malfunctions popped up. Did Goldsmith earlier classify himself as ‘non-domiciled’ to evade taxes? Did he really believe in non-polluting vehicles given the kind of lifestyle he led? Worse, he had some scary pre-election jitters, much like Gandhi, and muffed easy questions put by the press.
First, Goldsmith made a grand confession to Indian-origin voters that he loved Bollywood, but failed to name a single Hindi film. Nor did he measure up to being a real Londoner on two vital points — sport and the Underground. Goldsmith tried hard, but could not name the local football team, or the tube station one should get off at for the London Museum. When the same reporter asked Goldsmith’s rival similar questions, Khan came out top of the class: He knew all the answers pat.
It is not as if London is in the Labour Party’s back pocket either. Khan’s immediate predecessor, Boris Johnson (a ‘Buller’) is a diehard conservative. Impressively, Khan gained territory by taking hitherto conservative constituencies, like Ealing and Hillingdon, or Merton and Wendsworth. London may have 12% Muslim voters, but that still leaves 88% on the other side. It is tempting to conclude that Khan won because Londoners are secular; that sure makes for good headlines. Actually, London voted him as mayor because he was unspectacular and quietly upright. This bonding sentiment overtook religious divisions by a mile; so sick were the British of upper-class ways.
Khan is lucky: He is neither rich nor gifted with knee-weakening good looks. It is precisely these qualities that worked against the flamboyant, multi-millionaire Goldsmith. Politics today is weighted in favour of the underdog, the outsider. This was as true of Modi in 2014, as it is now of Khan. When Modi put on upper-class airs, it worked on him like an instant poison potion. Arvind Kejriwal came in from the outside and swept the capital.
Democracy is now taking on Biblical overtones and all political aspirants better take heed: “The meek and the plain and the frayed white collar shall inherit the earth.”
Dipankar Gupta is an eminent sociologist and taught at JNU for nearly three decades
The views expressed are personal