NRIs to play crucial role in UK’s general elections


London: The outcome of the British general elections on May 6 is still a gamble. Hence Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to wait tills the last possible moment to call the election because he hoped for some last-minute improvement in his party’s standing with the electorate.

Despite this tactical maneuver, latest poll surveys continue to give the Conser-vatives an edge that would give party leader David Cameron a slim parliamentary majority. If the Conservative lead slips between now and polling day, the UK electorate could have a hung parliament in which the Liberal Democrats, the so-called Third Force, could have a decisive say.

Inevitably, the Liberal Democrats have encouraged such a speculation, including the projection of their spokesman on economy, Vince Cable, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a “Lib-Dem supported” Labour government.

NRIs in the UK have always taken a keen interest in national British politics. During the last (2005) elections, the NRI turnout was 67 percent, compared with the national average of 61.4 percent. The turnout among voters of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin was even higher.

If the gap between the two main parties continues to remain so close, NRIs and other South Asians, including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who represent more than 40 percent of voters in some 25 constituencies, could play a crucial role in deciding who forms the next government.

Research on South Asian voters has been carried out by Prof. Muhmmad Anwar of Warwick University, who argues that the UK’s ethnic minorities are still “massively undervalued and under-represented.” But, at the same time, as Anwar notes, this ethnic minority vote will be more important than ever in deciding the election outcome.

Among Britian’s South Asian-origin MPs, the vast majority are NRIs belonging to the ruling Labour Party. They include the late Ashok Kumar, Marsha Singh, Parmjit Dhanda, Keith Vaz and the late Piara Singh Khabra, MP for Ealing Southall, who has since been replaced by Virendra Sharma.

Some of these NRI MPs, such as Dhanda and Sharma, enjoy only slim majorities that could be swept away if, for example, there is a 10 percent swing towards the Conservatives on the day of the election. Others like Keith Vaz, who represents Leicester East and is considered a good constituency MP close to his voters, can be reasonably sure of being re-elected.

Pakistani-origin MPs Khalid Mahmood, Mohammed Sarwar and Shahid Malik have also fought and won seats on behalf of the Labour Party.

The one exception to this stable of South Asian Labour MPs is Shailesh Vara, who fought and won the North Cambridgeshire seat on behalf of the Conservatives.

If NRIs, whether MPs or voters, could play a decisive role in deciding the outcome of the election, so too could the personalities of the leaders of the two main parties.

This is because in the public mind, Labour and the Conservatives are close to each other on major policy issues.

Both want a fairer political system, including a clampdown on MPs expenses, in which the voters have a greater say. Both are reaching out to minorities and the underprivileged, whether they are women, gays, blacks or Asians.

Both want Britian to stay in the European Union and NATO. The Conservatives are seen as being closer to big businesses, but the Labour Party argues that its tax reforms, along with the recent improvement in the country’s economy, mean it is much better equipped to promote economic growth in future.

Gordon Brown (59) inevitably wants to take credit for the country’s modest economic recovery, not just because he is the Labour Party leader, but because of his past record as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who understands the nuances of the world economy. It is Brown who famously declared that the UK was longer vulnerable to the economic “boom and bust” policies of the past, although he has proved to be mistaken on that.
Along with his economic credentials, Brown has been at pains to promote himself as a people’s politician.

Hence his statement on March 30, announcing the formal start of the month-long election campaign: “I come from an ordinary middle-class family in an ordinary town and I know where I come from, and I will never forget the values ‘doing the right thing, doing your duty, taking responsibility, working hard’ that is what my parents instilled in me.” This election message had a double meaning because it was meant to also deliberately highlight how Brown was different from the elitist Eton and Oxford background of Conservative leader David Cameron.
For his part Cameron, 43,  has fought back against Labour’s attempts to project him as a posh snob, interested only in the plums of office for himself and like-minded cronies.
“Let’s win this election for the good of the country that we love,” he declared this week, emphasizing that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for change. “Let’s fight for what we believe in. Let’s take the case to the people of this country, about hope, optimism and change.”

Until last year, Cameron was seen as somewhat aloof, even distant. But the loss last February of his handicapped son, Ivan, touched the heart strings of the British public and his ratings shot up. He has also been helped by the way his wife, Samantha, has galvanized herself to campaign for her husband, just as Brown’s wife, Sarah, has repeatedly come out in the public to stand by her husband’s side.

From India’s perspective, the British general election is important because it comes at a time when Delhi’s relations with Washington appear to be cooler than before. President Barack Obama is seen as being uncomfortably close to Pakistan and much too accommodating to Islama-bad’s world view of the so-called threat to its interests allegedly posed by India.

Britain under a Labour government, however, has been pro-India. Whether for ideological reasons, or because Labour politicians see India as a rising economic star that could and will be good for the UK, London has been on Delhi’s side.

In statement after statement, including the issue of India joining the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member, the British government has been batting for India.

UK foreign policy, where India is concerned, is not likely to change if the Conservatives win. But from India’s point of view, Brown is at least a known entity, even though his Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, scored a black mark by addressing senior Indian politicians by their first names. (“Hi Pranab” being just one example).

The Conservatives could still win brownie points with Delhi in one respect. Under Brown, the UK government policy on travel and visas  for India has become stricter and much more expensive. The election may be a month away, but Cameron could do himself a power of good with his NRI constituents and New Delhi by promising to relax the rules for entry visas.

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