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Trade, immigration, desi politicians: The India angle to UK’s ‘Brexit elections’

The India connect to the UK mid-term election is most visible in efforts by the three major parties to woo the British Indian community: visits to temples and gurdwaras, with leaders participating in rituals and dressed in ethnic attire

world Updated: Jun 08, 2017 16:10 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
UK elections,Brexit,UK politics
The United Kingdom goes to polls on Thursday.(AFP FILE)

The focus of Thursday’s mid-term election in the United Kingdom is supposed to be Brexit – the decision to leave the European Union – but it connects with India and the 1.5 million-strong Indian community here at various levels.

The shape that Brexit takes under the new government is of much interest to nearly 800 Indian companies that use United Kingdom as their base to operate across the European Union and beyond. The UK’s membership of the EU gives them several benefits that they may lose; some have already postponed expansion and other plans, or partly relocated in the EU.

The election’s India connect is also at the level of bilateral relations.

Prime Minister Theresa May has shown much enthusiasm for a free trade agreement with India after Brexit; her first visit outside the EU after taking over as prime minister was to India.

India is one of the key markets that Britain hopes will compensate for the loss of access to the European Single Market after Brexit. New Delhi remains watchful on this but much ground needs to be covered and a lot will depend on the shape of the new government in London — for example, a majority conservative government or a minority Labour government, which may not have the same vision of Brexit as the former.

The India connect is evident in the manifestos of the three main parties. The Conservative Party is likely to continue the ‘woo-Indian-trade-and-money-but-bear-down-on-Indians’ line; it has promised new visa curbs likely to hit Indian students, professionals and Indian spouses of UK nationals the most.

The party’s manifesto makes no mention of India, unlike the significant references in its 2015 manifesto that was part of former leader David Cameron’s focus on India. It included reiterating support for India’s bid for permanent representation in the UN Security Council.

The only indirect reference to India in the Conservative manifesto is in relation to trade: “We will strengthen our close links with our Commonwealth allies, continuing our mission together to promote democratic values around the world and build on our existing economic relationships to further our common trading interests.”

“Open and free trade is key to international prosperity, stability and security – it is an essential component of an economy that works for everyone. We believe the UK must seize the unique opportunities it has to forge a new set of trade and investment relationships around the world, building a global, outward-looking Britain,” it said.

Labour’s manifesto also does not mention India — as in the 2015 version — but has committed itself to an independent inquiry into Britain’s role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star if it comes to power. The issue blew up in January 2014 when declassified files indicated some British help before the operation; the demand is to release other files on Britain’s role.

The Liberal Democrats Party – the third major mainstream party – also makes no mention about India, but reiterated its commitment to “outlaw caste discrimination” in Britain, which has sharply divided the Indian community in recent years. The government is currently holding a consultation on the issue.

The India connect with the election is most visible in the efforts by all three parties to woo the British Indian community, which is influential in several constituencies in London and the Midlands. The efforts include visits to temples and gurdwaras, with leaders participating in rituals and dressed in appropriate attire.

The community has traditionally favoured Labour, but has considerably moved to the Tories since the 2010 elections, particularly the young aspirational second and third generation of immigrants who are uneasy with Labour’s social welfare and other policies.

All the three parties have fielded candidates of Indian origin — Labour 14, Conservative 13 and Liberal Democrats 14. The last parliament had the highest number of Indian-origin MPs in British history — 10 — with five each from Conservative and Labour.

However, it remains a matter of concern in Indian quarters that most of the 10 MPs have negligible engagement with Indian issues in parliament. The expectation is that they have a better understanding of New Delhi’s interests and realities in India, but have rarely stood up on its behalf during debates.

The most disappointing occasion from India’s perspective was the January 19 debate on Jammu and Kashmir in the House of Commons, when over 20 MPs came down heavily on India’s record there, but the only Indian-origin MP present and defending New Delhi was Virendra Sharma (Labour).

Sharma faced uneasy moments during a campaign event in Ealing Southall when he was cornered into apologising for alleging that Pakistan sponsored terrorism during the debate. The constituency includes considerable number of voters of Pakistan origin.

The Conservative Party uses images and video footage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in campaign literature targeted at the Indian community, which is not always appreciated in the community. It also released a slick video with a Hindi song titled Theresa Ke Saath with lyrics seeking votes for May.

The Conservative Party is closer to the influential Hindu-Sikh lobby on outlawing caste discrimination in Britain. As May told Hindustan Times, “I recognise the sensitivity on the caste issue; there is a consultation taking place.”

“There was wording put into the relevant legislation in the House of Lords by Labour and Liberal Democrats working together on that, but I realise how sensitive this issue is. I will look into it carefully when the consultation returns,” she added.

First Published: Jun 07, 2017 08:27 IST