Why citing Narendra Modi backfired in London mayoral elections

It’s a matter of great satisfaction to many Londoners and others that an attempt at divisive politics has been given the boot by ‘the world’s greatest city’


It was not a surprise at all when Londoners queued up in record numbers—a 45.6% turnout—to vote Labour Party lawmaker Sadiq Khan as their mayor, making Khan the highest ranking Muslim politician in Europe. Photo: Reuters
It was not a surprise at all when Londoners queued up in record numbers—a 45.6% turnout—to vote Labour Party lawmaker Sadiq Khan as their mayor, making Khan the highest ranking Muslim politician in Europe. Photo: Reuters

If India prides itself on its diversity credentials, London wears them on its sleeve. London per square mile is more full of people of varied races, nationalities, languages and religions than any other city. At its best, the British capital is about harmony, which goes well beyond tolerance.

Fittingly, it sets the trend for a lot of politics elsewhere. It was, therefore, not a surprise at all when Londoners queued up in record numbers—a 45.6% turnout—to vote Labour Party lawmaker Sadiq Khan as their mayor, making Khan the highest ranking Muslim politician in Europe. As the experience with previous mayors Ken Livingstone (Red Ken) and Boris Johnson shows, it is a job that carries a high international profile. It is an influential role, sometimes rivaling that of the British prime minister.

No, what was surprising was how low the mayoral campaign sank after the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith allegedly sought to pander to identity and religious politics that most Londoners reject in their daily lives.

At one level, this was a classic London face-off. Khan, the son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver from crowded south London, versus Goldsmith, the son of the billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith—educated at Eton College, the world’s most expensive school—once the liberal face of the Conservative party, married into the Rothschild family. Working class versus very old money.

At another level, there was something distinctly discomfiting about the race. Goldsmith and Prime Minister David Cameron made an open attempt to woo the British-Indian community while highlighting Khan’s religion and associating him—wrongly as it turns out—with Muslim extremists.

Goldsmith’s most controversial campaign tool, criticized even by senior Tory colleagues, was a leaflet extolling his alleged connection with the ‘British Indian community’, which is code for ‘Hindus living in the Greater London area’.

Now, there’s nothing wrong at all with lumping your lot with people of a particular religion—except that Goldsmith seemingly couches this move. Goldsmith says he stands up for ‘British Indians’ while contrasting himself with Khan and his Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (never mind the fact that Khan takes a dim view of Corbyn’s evangelical socialism), who he said were “risking London’s future”.

How so? Well, the very first point in this widely reported leaflet mentions the fact that Goldsmith “welcomed Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi to London last year alongside Prime Minister David Cameron”. What risky and dangerous things did Khan do? “Khan supported Corbyn, who wanted to BAN (his caps) Modi from visiting the UK.”

Prime Minister Cameron, too, dashed off a similar letter to voters explaining why he supported Goldsmith. He, too, mentioned Modi. He said “Jeremy Corbyn’s candidate Sadiq Khan” was “dangerous”.

So, presumably guilty-by-association, Sadiq Khan has a view on Modi? The short answer, and the only clue: “Khan did not attend the ‘UK welcomes Modi’ event at Wembley last year.” Presumably Corbyn has a view on Modi? He does indeed: having signed an early day motion in the British parliament some years ago criticizing Modi over the 2002 Hindu-Muslim rioting in Gujarat, one of Corbyn’s first acts after being elected to lead Labour in 2014 was to call on Modi when he visited the UK in November 2015. The two men reportedly talked about the falling numbers of Indian students in the UK, poverty and climate change.

Modi aside, Goldsmith also promised to “focus on protecting your families (sic) home from burglary”, work to strengthen London’s friendship with India and spoke of his record celebrating Diwali, Navratri and Janmashtami. Also, Londoners were told that Goldsmith had “spent time” in Rajasthan, Dehradun and Delhi.

He made similar pledges to Sri Lankan Tamils, to protect “Tamil households… targeted for burglary due to families owning gold and valuable family heirlooms”.

And what would his Muslim rival from Labour do? “His party supports a wealth tax on family jewellery.” Read alongside Goldsmith’s promise to protect the family home from burglary, this looked like an attempt at racial profiling.

Many South Asians keep some of their savings in the form of gold jewellery, and many keep them at the ‘family home.’ Burglars know this and tend to target Indian-origin family homes during Diwali and other Hindu festivals, when presumably women take out the gold jewellery from wherever they are hidden, which makes them briefly more accessible to burglars (also because everyone’s out in the evenings).

Was there really a need for Goldsmith to get so down and dirty in the campaign? Modi and gold jewellery seemed such alien topics in London’s mayoral election.

To my mind, the reason Goldsmith went so hard after the ‘British Indian’ vote is that such a strategy worked for the Conservative party in the 2015 general election.

The Tories made a late dash for Hindu and Sikh votes in the 2015 general election and the strategy succeeded. Although, in general, Asians, blacks and ethnic minorities remain solid Labour supporters, the Tories gained by winning Hindu and Sikh votes in constituencies where their votes made the difference between winning and losing.

According to a survey by British Future, an independent think tank on “identity and integration, migration and opportunity”, 49% of both Hindus and Sikhs voted for Tories and 41% for Labour. However, 64% of Muslims voted Labour against 25% who supported the Tories. This is across Britain.

It is possible that in the London election, too, Hindus and Sikhs supported Goldsmith, but those figures aren’t out yet. There is a lot of commentary on how Goldsmith is a liberal at heart (after all, sister Jemima was married to Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan), and how Tory candidates become cogs in the wheel of the party’s ruthless campaign machinery. Yet, it was Goldsmith who wrote an opinion piece in the Mail On Sunday a week before the polls. It was published alongside a photograph of a mangled bus from the 2005 terrorist bombing of London. The headline ran: On Thursday, are we really going to hand the world’s greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?

It’s a matter of great satisfaction to many Londoners and others that an attempt at divisive politics has been given the boot by “the world’s greatest city”. Invoking Modi didn’t work for Zac Goldsmith. Much safer to talk about transport, as the bus driver’s son did.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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