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UK poll: Unease over ‘India’ record of Indian-origin MPs

The 10 Indian-origin MPs in Britain’s last Parliament are for all purposes UK citizens, but given their origins and links to India, there is an expectation that they have a greater understanding of India’s interests.

world Updated: Jun 07, 2017 16:10 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Labour candidate from Feltham and Heston, Seema Malhotra.
Labour candidate from Feltham and Heston, Seema Malhotra.(HT Photo)

There were 10 Indian-origin MPs in Britain’s last Parliament, but there is increasing unease in the community over the low participation by most of them on issues related to India, amid mixed views on whether they should “defend” India in parliament or not.

The 10 MPs (five each from Conservative and Labour parties) are for all purposes British MPs, but given their origins and links to India – even if via third countries in Africa – there is an expectation that they have a greater understanding of India’s interests.

The contingent includes MPs elected from constituencies with “large” and “small” electorates of Indian origin — Keith Vaz, Virendra Sharma and Seema Malhotra (large), and Rishi Sunak, Lisa Nandy and Priti Patel (small).

An analysis of parliamentary records since the May 2015 election shows that except for Keith Vaz and Virendra Sharma (both Labour), India figured low in their engagements. Alok Sharma was Minister for Asia, which led to his making the most contribution on India.

The most disappointing occasion from India’s perspective was the January 19 debate on Jammu and Kashmir, when over 20 MPs came down heavily on India’s record there, but the only Indian-origin MP present and defending the country was Virendra Sharma.

“The so-called Indian origin MPs are expected to have a better understanding of the ground situation, and ensure that vested interests do not distort Britain’s relations with India. But perhaps many of them have to prove they are not Indian and feel they don’t owe India anything,” a senior community leader said.

“We often find British, non-white MPs more forthcoming and understanding of Indian positions”, the Leicester-based leader added.

In constituencies with large number of Indian-origin voters, candidates for the June 8 election are being queried about the lack of engagement with Indian issues in Parliament. The 10 sitting MPs are comfortably placed and are likely to be re-elected.

However, Dibyesh Anand, professor of politics at the University of Westminster, said the fact that many Indian-origin MPs focus on domestic matters and the concerns that affect their constituents, it should not be a matter of surprise or concern that they do not “defend” India’s interests in Parliament.

“In fact, expecting them to defend India’s interest when Indian government may be pursuing policies that are seen as majoritarian or Hindu nationalist in recent years will be expecting them to betray the values of British democracy. The MPs represent Britain and not India,” he said.

Sunil Chopra, councillor and former mayor of Southwark, said: “Perhaps they don’t want to upset some voters in their constituencies, and don’t defend India openly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should also reach out to them on his global tours and convince them of the new India story.”

Community leaders say the ‘India’ record of the 10 MPs is in sharp contrast to the pro-active group of MPs of Pakistan origin. Compared to sharp reaction faced by the latter within the community and back home, there is said to be “no fear” of facing anger or reaction from the Indian community for the former group.

None of the 10 Indian-origin MPs signed an early day motion in March moved by Bob Blackman (Conservative), criticising Pakistan’s plan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as its fifth province. Blackman was also the only MP apart from Sharma speaking for India in the January 19 debate on Jammu and Kashmir.

Blackman told Hindustan Times: “One notices that the pro-Pakistan lobby in the UK is extremely effective and they make sure their MPs turn up in their support via all possible parliamentary contributions.

“The debate on Jammu and Kashmir was a classic example. It was just me and one other MP speaking in support of India. Hardly anyone speaking on the day spoke of the human rights violations by Pakistan and ignored the series of violations by them over the years.”

The Conservative party has fielded 13 Indian-origin candidates in the forthcoming elections; Labour has 14.

Given their nominations in constituencies considered “safe” or “marginal”, the Indian-origin group in the next Parliament is likely to increase from the current 10, which, from the British perspective of encouraging minority participation in politics, would be a new record.