UK election 2019: Why some British-Indians think democracy is dead

In May I celebrated my 50th year in the United Kingdom. I wasn’t born here, but Britain is my home and I’m fiercely patriotic. My father arrived before I was born and, like many before him, scraped enough money working in a factory to bring his family over. He was a Labour Party man through and through, as were most Indian immigrants of the 1960s, and he couldn’t stand the Conservatives. We kept in touch with India and our relatives, and I grew up in this schizophrenic existence of being Indian at home and British at school.

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It was the same for most Indians I grew up with, and politically Labour was the only party for their parents. Today’s elections have shown how that is no longer the case. In this general election something has shifted, and I believe it can be pinned down to one thing: democracy. The lack of it, to be precise. 

When words cost a thing 

A few months ago, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to keep an election promise. He promised his BJP supporters he would make Kashmir more democratic by abolishing what he saw as practices which affected non-Kashmiris. For example, people who are not Kashmiris cannot buy homes in the state. Whatever you may think about the way he announced it, the way he enforced it, Modi listened to his people. 

In the UK, meanwhile, the Labour Party decided to condemn the move and criticise it at its annual party conference a few weeks ago. This set off a chain of events which, I believe, had an impact in these polls. Pro-Modi Indians set up a WhatsApp group and used social media urging nationalist Hindus in the UK not to vote Labour.

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They argued that Indians knew what they were voting for and that Modi was explicit that he would carry out reforms in the disputed region. It was, according to one person I spoke to, a key reason why Modi won such a majority. Their language, while inflammatory, spread and got people talking and despite the outcry from moderate Indians, in the privacy of a booth anything can happen. That was certainly my experience as I talked to Hindu-Indians in Leicester. 

To make matters worse for their city, those same Labour voters felt their party betrayed them for a second time. A long-term MP, who happened to be Asian, had to step down after a sex and drug scandal. His supporters felt that Labour imposed its choice without the democratic right to stand their own Indian candidates. After years of believing that Britain and Labour were democratic, they told me they realised that in Modi’s India democracy was alive and well because it had a head of state who kept his promise.

In never-ending voting

But the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats do not get away from the charge of being anti-democratic either. These were the ‘Brexit elections’. Three years ago, Britain voted 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union. Whether I agreed or not, the nation had spoken, and that result had to be respected and carried out.
Like millions, I believed that Britain, the mother of all parliaments and democracies would be true and carry out its people’s directed mandate. Three years on, all I have seen are hopeless politicians, Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems obfuscate, backtrack and lie to the British people. 

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The Conservatives were split over the issue and many resigned. Now the Tories have a half-hearted plan to Brexit. The Labour Party sat on a fence saying whatever it took to win. The Liberal Democrats, which had no chance of victory, wanted us to vote again and again until we got the ‘right’ result. And the results show just that.

Most people think that Indians voted en masse to remain. Well, they were wrong. Indians are successful businessmen and women. Grant Thornton, a global independent firm of tax auditors, demonstrated this when it found that 842 Indian companies operated in the UK in 2019, employing almost 105,000 people. This, they argue, gives Indians a right to shape democracy. Or at least to be listened. But do we?

By Barnie Choudhury, a former award-winning BBC journalist and professor of professional practice at the University of Buckingham. 

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