It would have been called “minority appeasement” in India but the image of former Labour leader Ed Miliband sporting a ‘tilak’ and holding a pooja thali during ‘arti’ in a London temple symbolised the ways in which India and British Indians were wooed during 2015.
Miliband was at London’s Swaminarayan Temple, campaigning before the May elections that went horribly wrong for his party. British leaders are prone to wearing desi clothes on such occasions, but Miliband took it further –not without reason.
The British Indian community has traditionally backed Labour but recent years have seen this support base increasingly moving towards the Conservatives, whose leader David Cameron has been wooing the community for over a decade.
At stake during the May election was the influential 610,000-strong British Indian vote in at least 170 constituencies, particularly in London, Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester. The polls saw the highest number of British Indian MPs – 10 – with Priti Patel given a higher profile in the David Cameron government.
But the May election was not the only event that brought India and Indians into the headlines. In March, Cameron won points over Labour by presiding over the inauguration of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in parliament square, and later in the year extended an unprecedented welcome to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The grapevine has it Modi was to inaugurate the Gandhi statue, but a team of Labour MPs reportedly travelled to New Delhi and pleaded with him not to do so, since it would help Cameron and his party in the May election. In the end, it was finance minister Arun Jaitley who inaugurated Gandhi’s second statue in London after the one in Tavistock Square.
As 2015 unfolded, Modi’s visit in November further raised the British Indian community’s profile. The visit attracted much criticism in British news media, given Modi’s record of omissions and commissions, but it also helped raise Cameron’s stature in the community.
Besides symbols and events that indicated warmth in India-UK relations during the visit, the highlight was the diaspora event at Wembley Stadium that drew more than 60,000 people – unprecedented for any political event in Britain.
As several British MPs and others gaped at the “Olympic-style” setting, there was unanimity that none of them – including Cameron – had ever addressed or seen such a political rally in Britain, where they usually address gatherings of hundreds or at best a thousand or two.
“You could be forgiven for thinking it was actually Modi introducing a foreign dignitary (Cameron) to the London audience. Cameron spoke first, but no one was any doubt who was the hero of the show,” a senior British Indian MP told HT.