There is a gnawing sense of urgency as the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union draws near: the outcome will affect one and all at various levels, and it is now clear that Indians and other minorities may hold the balance because there seems to be equal support for the In and Out campaigns among white voters.
The acrimonious campaign has seen friends turn foes and vice-versa among leading politicians, but in the Indian community, the opinion seems to be overwhelmingly in favour of UK remaining in the EU, a position in line with that of the Indian government, as articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his November visit.
Priti Patel, minister of state for employment in the David Cameron government, is the only major lawmaker of Indian origin in the Brexit camp. Patel has stuck to her long-held Eurosceptic position, earning her grudging respect from critics even if her arguments are often laughed at.
A new British Election Study survey reveals the crucial position of the Indian and other minority communities, categorised in official discourse as the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities.
It found that opinion among the majority of white voters is absolutely neck and neck in favour of the Remain in EU (41.85%) and Brexit (41.79%) camps. But opinion among BAME communities, including Indians, is clearly 2 to 1 in favour of remaining.
The voter turnout among BAME communities is traditionally lower than that of whites, but given their crucial position, there is an added urgency to ensure that members of these communities register and turn out to vote. The Remain camp is pulling all stops to encourage the BAME voters to turn out in large numbers.
Hugo Swire, Foreign Office minister responsible for India and the Commonwealth, has been urging the Asian media in Britain to spread awareness about the referendum and highlight its importance to high-achieving young professionals who need the opportunities and access that membership of the EU brings.
Conservative MP Alok Sharma, who is co-ordinating the cross-party campaign group ‘British Indians for IN’, told HT: “In the past few weeks I have been speaking at events across the country and there is very strong support for the UK remaining in the European Union within the British Indian community. Our community is hugely successful and understands very clearly the significant economic risks we would all face if we voted to leave the EU”.
“The argument that somehow both the UK and India would benefit economically and increase bi-lateral trade and investment if the UK left the EU is simply misguided.In my role as the Prime Minister’s Infrastructure Envoy to India, I speak regularly to Indian corporates which see the UK as a gateway into a market of 500 million people in the EU”.
“Indian companies have informed me that some decisions on future investments into the UK have been deferred until the outcome of the referendum is known and, if we vote to leave the EU, I believe there is a big risk that India companies will think twice before investing in the UK”.
Noting that both FICCI and CII had made clear statements about the risks for the UK of leaving the EU and the knock on effects for Indian companies and Indian investment in the UK, Sharma said: “Not a single Commonwealth leader has come out in favour of the UK leaving the EU. Frankly, anyone arguing that the UK and India will benefit from the UK’s exit of the EU is either economically illiterate or grossly misleading voters”.
A Channel 4 debate on the referendum in the multicultural town of Leicester – also known as ‘Little India’ – reinforced the survey’s findings that BAME communities are 2 to 1 in favour of remaining.
But it also revealed some support for Brexit from immigrants, on the ground that remaining in the EU led to uncontrolled immigration from east European countries. An Indian origin estate agent said he was for Brexit because increasing numbers of east European migrants pushed down wages and put strain on public resources such as schools and hospitals.
“Indian immigrants talking against immigration – that is duplicity or double standards so typical of our community,” said Rajeev Mehta, a leading hotelier in Harrow, who insists that Britain should remain in the EU. He is happy employing “very hard-working” east Europeans who, according to him, do not depend on Britain’s generous social security system.
Agrees Jaffer Kapasi, a Mumbai-origin business leader who moved to Leicester in the early 1970s when Idi Amin expelled Asians and is now Uganda’s consul-general in the Midlands: “I believe we should remain in the EU because we are stronger in and better off. Many Indian companies have invested in the UK so that they can access the EU market”.
Sunil Chopra, Labour councillor and former mayor of the London borough of Southwark, is firmly in the Remain camp: “I am worried that if UK goes outside the EU, it will have impact on jobs and businesses not only for the Indian diaspora but for everyone”.
It may well be the case that a known devil is better than an unknown angel, and Britain narrowly votes to remain in the EU, particularly since no one – not even the Brexit camp – knows for sure what the future holds if the vote is to exit the EU.
Will the millions of pounds spent to produce data-laden handouts and booklets to support rival camps make a difference? It is clear that many are still unconvinced, either way, a month before the referendum, and some can’t wait for the “neverendum” of personality clashes and complex economic arguments to be over with.