Stardust Keith Vaz with Abhishek Bachchan in Leicester
No Love Lost For Labour
Indians are seen as politically apathetic, to vote or participate

Neela hai Aasman” is the first Hindi campaign song in the UK’s election history, launched by the Conservative Party in the run-up to the general election on May 7. With the UK heading towards a long haul of coalition politics, the 1.4 million Indian diaspora, the single-largest migrant group to vote, has become an extremely crucial votebank for all parties.

No wonder then, be it Prime Minister David Cameron, hea­ding the Conservatives, or Ed Miliband, leading Labour, have been visiting gurudwaras and temples, wearing saffron headscarves and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even Nigel Farage of ukip, known to be anti-immigration, has softened his stand by making an exception for Indians and Australians.

The campaign this year has been a bit lacklustre with a clear indication that a majority for any party looks unlikely. Given the tight competition, the campaign has been mostly door-to-door. Bollywood stardust has only been a sprinkle. Abhishek Bachchan lent support to Labour MP Keith Vaz in his constituency in Leicester. As the two went through the streets of the city in open-top cars, thousands of Bollywood fans thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of Bachchan Jr. Cameron too pulled a Bollywood trick for his campaign. In the Tory campaign song, apart from clips of the prime minister’s engagement with the Indian community in the UK and at the Golden Temple, there was a clip of him with Amitabh Bachchan at the unveiling of Gandhi’s statue at Westminster. In fact, Cameron is the first British PM to visit the Golden Temple and the one to introduce a Baisakhi celebration at 10, Downing Street. Now, of course, one can look forward to dhols and mithais on result day in constituencies where Indian-origin candidates win.

In fact, it’s worth noting that weeks before the elections, a BBC Asian Network/ICM poll of 500 Asian people found that 24 per cent people were still undecided about which party they would vote for. And of those who had decided, 39 per cent said they may change their minds before May 7!

There has been a general view that Indians are apathetic about politics, about voting and entering politics. Although there has been a slow rise in the number of Indian-origin MPs entering the House of Commons, given the integration and success of the community, more is expected.

The youth vote Labour because their parents did. The problem is that they either vote Labour or not at all.

Kaavya Kaushik, 24, is one of the youngest Indian-origin candida­tes in the fray and is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Southall against sitting MP Virendra Sharma. She is aware of the lack of Indian participation in mainstream politics. “Partially it’s because Asian parents don’t put any emphasis on politics and partially Asians are apathetic towards politics. They want their children to go on to become doctors, engineers. Choosing politics comes at a much later age. But as the system works here you have to get into it at an early age to be able to become a candidate,” she emphasises.The Indian vote has traditionally been a stronghold of Labour. Although Conservatives and Lib Dems have been trying to woo them, they have not met with great success. But there is a gradual shift. The third and fourth generation of educated, professional Indians are a confident lot who want their voices to be mainstream. But this change will be slow. During her campaign, Kaavya was left dismayed that the youth mostly want to vote for Labour because their parents did. “Labour has taken the community for granted and as a result done very little for the community, which is pushing the youth away from the electoral process itself,” she says. This disenchantment and yet not wanting to hear out other parties, she reasons, “becomes a cyclical issue, so they either vote Labour or don’t vote at all”.

Barry Gardiner, a Labour MP from Brent East (which has a large Indian population), notices an increase in the number of young Indian women getting involved in politics. Gardiner wants to see more representation from India and specifically Gujarat, but he cautions, “If we want normalisation, we have to stop ghettoisation. For instance, I want to see white MPs of Welsh origin representing Bangla­deshi or Pakistani communities. Political parties should be sensitive to this because otherwise it does no good to anyone.”

Tory Amandeep Singh, the first Sikh to contest from N Ireland

Kaavya adds, “There are too many divisions within our community—religious, state of origin and age. It also needs to be understood that the age to enter politics needs to be downed by two decades.” In fact, Jalandhar-born Tory Aman­deep Singh Bhogal (31), the first Sikh and only British Indian contesting from Northern Ireland (Upper Bann constituency), had joined the party at 15. Like Kaavya, he agrees the political process is long term and “a lot of people leave midway”.

“The Indian community is undecided,” says Vaz, “because they are taking on the character of the British.”

There are other reasons for the apathy. While Labour has had a strong hold over Asians, there have been no great positive chan­ges. So the young Indians are no longer ready to follow Labour en bloc. The Conser­vatives have also had a very bad image of being an anti-immigration, anti-ethnic minority. These have made Ind­i­ans unsure. “Under Cameron, that mood has totally changed. For far too long, Labour has played votebank politics of identity,” says Bhogal. In fact, this year Labour has a separate manifesto for ethnic minorities, to which Bhogal retorts: “I believe today’s Ind­ian aspirations are the same as (that of) the white neighbour.”Vaz, the longest-serving Indian-origin Labour MP, agrees. “The Indian community now has strong opinions in what they want to see,” he says. “They remain undecided because they are taking on the personality and character of the British.”

Many Indian bankers and professionals have been tilting towards the Conservatives and the government’s decrease in income tax and Labour’s caste legislation debacle have played a role in this gradual change.

Parmjit Dhanda, former Labour minister and author of My Political Race, who has for long discussed the need for the Indian diaspora to have a higher representation in Parliament, believes, “There are invisible barriers. Our institutions do have prejudices, and glass ceilings need to be broken to close this gap.” While he appreciates there are some Indian-origin MPs, “but behind that person there isn’t a phalanx of similar people from diverse communities backing them.”

Cameron may reiterate that the first Asian or ethnic minority prime minister will be a Conservative, it is not so simple and political parties and the Indian diaspora need to work on it.

By Nabanita Sircar in London