“Indian politics is now turning up on the streets of the UK,” says Kuldeep,* a British Sikh from west London. He says it is “toxic”, “awful”, and evidence that “sectarianism” is affecting British politics.
He is talking amid an election campaign in which the UK arm of Indian PM Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pledged to campaign for the Tories against Labour in more than 40 seats.
It was sparked by a motion backed at Labour’s annual conference in September calling for the people of Kashmir to be given the right to determine their own future. Modi had stripped the disputed territory of its semi-autonomous status and put it into lockdown.
Labour’s move was seen by some, including the Overseas Friends of the BJP (UK), as “anti-Indian”. The party has now been forced into a climbdown amid pleas from its own British Asian MPs.
Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi has talked of “foreign interference” in the UK election and warned against dividing communities.
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But does the Kashmir episode speak to a wider infiltration of Modi-style “Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism) and Islamophobia in British political debate?
Messages are circulating among “all sorts of people in all sorts of chats” on WhatsApp in a way that was “not at all” seen in previous elections, according to Kuldeep.
Although there is no way of knowing the scale of the messaging, WhatsApp’s encrypted service has been used effectively by Modi’s government in India to push propaganda to large groups of voters, and group chats are popular among British Indians.
They include accusations that Labour is “against India”, and include far-right style suggestions that the party is in some way responsible for grooming scandals across the UK, which have often involved mainly Pakistani-origin men.
Behind that, voters speak of Labour being “captured” by Muslims. Islamophobic hate crimes are on the rise under Modi in India.
The situation has been exacerbated by selection rows, including Jeremy Corbyn’s ally Claudia Webbe being parachuted into outgoing MP Keith Vaz’s heavily Asian, and Hindu, Leicester East seat.
Again, WhatsApp messages have circulated describing it as a “slap in the face” for “Indians/Hindus and Sikhs” and urging voters to back the local Tory candidate.
Labour Friends of India, meanwhile, has criticised the party for selecting just one British Indian candidate in a seat the party is actually deemed likely to win.
A Labour problem?
The first ever election poll of Britain’s 1.5m-strong British Indian community this week showed Labour’s support declining 12 points from the 2017 general election to 34%, although the party remained ahead of the Tories on 24%.
India Inc, which commissioned the Optimus survey, said the British Indian vote could prove decisive in what may well be a tight election. There are 15 constituencies, out of a total 650, in which Asians constitute more than 40% of the population, 46 where they number more than 20%, and 122 more than 10%.
Bharat Shah is one British Hindu who had already switched from voting Labour in 2010 and 2015 to the Tories in 2017 – partly driven by his support for Brexit, but also because of a perception that Corbyn favours Muslims.
Speaking about the upcoming election, he says he will be “forced to vote Conservative” in Milton Keynes North, now a marginal seat.
“I am quite liberal and on my traditional values I would vote Labour,” he says.
“But Labour – I think it’s been taken over by [the] very hardcore radical left. Labour has also been taken over by – I shouldn’t be saying it – but people who wear their religion as their identity.
“Labour has been captured by very radical Muslims and the like.”
Certainly the feeling of nationalism is greater among Indian communities than it has been in the past
Leela, who is also British Hindu, has always voted Tory but believes fellow members of the community are “cheesed off” at Labour’s position on Kashmir, describing the party’s policy row-back as “a victory”
“Lots of people we know said they will not vote Labour this time,” she says, speaking from Blackpool North.
“I think they [Labour] don’t care – they only want Pakistani votes.”
A Labour source close to the Indian community talks of an “ongoing decline” with those voters, saying the party has “taken the Indian community for granted” while the Tories have stepped up their efforts.
The Kashmir episode “further degenerated” the relationship, but it also comes against the backdrop of Modi.
“Certainly the feeling of nationalism is greater among Indian communities than it has been in the past, and hence they are more sensitive around issues that pertain to India,” the source says.
“There’s definitely an element of that.
“I think it’s important that we don’t import these south Asian politics into Britain, and politics that divide the community.
“But with the internet and so on – social media – we live in a very hyperconnected world and so it’s slightly hard to tackle.”
An age-old tension?
Eviane Leidig, a researcher at Centre for Research on Extremism in Oslo who has studied Hindu nationalism and connections between the radical right in India, the UK and the US, says communal tensions have existed in Britain “for decades”.
“But it hasn’t been so visible. The circulation of these WhatsApp images – previously these types of incidences have been quite closed and not so visible, but the fact they are now circulating so much on social media is a new phenomenon,” she adds.
Meanwhile Hindu nationalist narratives have become “mainstreamed and legitimised”, and are “now sort of acceptable among the diaspora”.
And there are links between Indians around the world and the Modi government, which Leidig says has tapped into the IT skills and money of the diaspora for fundraising and social media operations abroad and within India.
“That’s why Hindutva has become such a global phenomenon,” she added, “because you have the diaspora overseas helping to fulfil its circulation online.”
Leidig cannot say whether some of the political messaging circulating in the UK actually originates from India, or the BJP.
“But I would not be surprised at all if it is global in scope,” she added.
“I don’t think this is necessarily new, but I think it’s how anti-Muslim or Islamophobic sentiments from south Asia have carried on and been replicated and reproduced among the diaspora.
“It’s becoming more visible and more legitimate to say these things publicly now.
“A lot of these things happen behind closed doors, or in mandirs, or at BJP meetings, but now it’s become legitimised.”
Should we be worried?
One Labour candidate in a West Midlands seat with a significant south Asian population says the nationalist agenda has not really come up on the doorstep – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a concern.
They say: “It hasn’t got the traction, unless you are really into Indian politics and you’re a BJP supporter or a Congress supporter, and that’s generally the older population and only some elements of it.
“It’s not going to hit most south Asians – it’s not going to hit the more professional, qualified group that you would think.
“But it’s concerning in itself in terms of what’s been put out.”
Her view is backed by Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think-tank.
Katwala warns that not only is it unethical to divide communities for votes, but says it may actually be counter-productive – such as when Tory Zac Goldsmith warned British Indians that voting for Sadiq Khan in the 2016 London mayoral election could put their family jewellery at risk.
“When it turns into an identity issue where you say the Tories are the pro-Indian party because Labour are the anti-Indian party because they are the pro-Pakistani party, those are dangerous and divisive and sectarian things,” he said.
“The parties should beware false friends offering to deliver them votes on that basis.
“Partly because I don’t think those votes are going to be there in the same way, but also partly as an ethical principle – the parties need to be saying: ‘We want votes from every group,’ so they should be careful about the basis on which they appeal to voters.
“I think the Conservatives can make progress with British Indian voters on a number of reasons. They could say: ‘We’re the pro-business party, or the entrepreneurial party,’ or: ‘Watch out for Jeremy Corbyn’s tax plans.’
“Or they could play on India and Pakistan being teams in British politics – that’s a sort of Belfast-style politics to bring to English cities.
“I think we need political leaders to try and push back against that, not to try and adopt it if there might be a few votes in it.”
Katwala questions whether older British Indians are ditching Labour for more humdrum reasons, such as tax policy, and then bringing up the India-Pakistan issue because it “becomes quite an attractive message to put on the charge sheet”.
But he says the idea of Indian politics being played out in a British election likely makes little sense to most younger British south Asian voters.
“I think if you can make Modi translate across generations, then you are on to something,” he admitted. “But if you can’t, then you are in a noisy community elders kind of space.”
Labour’s Preet Kaur Gill, who is defending her Birmingham Edgbaston seat on December 12, calls for the party to reject any attempt to play sides.
“We will not have anybody pit one ethnic group against another because that is not the kind of politics we want in the Labour Party, and it is not the kind of politics we want in Britain,” she said.
“Going forward, we know that our human rights based foreign policy is really important and the relationship between the UK, India and Pakistan is vital to find positive steps going forward.”