SINGAPORE: If you thought that the UK was already dealing with a complicated political environment post Brexit, British politics just got messier.
This time, the central player in the drama is the overseas wing of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
THE BJP’S FRIENDS IN BRITAIN
Coordinated by the BJP’s foreign affairs department in New Delhi, the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) is a network to connect overseas Indians with the BJP back in India.
The OFBJP has played a key role in the ruling party’s landslide election victories in India in 2014 and 2019 by rallying Indians living abroad to lend their skills, time and financial support to the BJP’s campaigns.
Founded in 1992, the OFBJP has been around for over two decades, first starting out in the US, where it has more than 12 chapters across the country. It has since grown to about 40 chapters around the world, including Singapore.
TAKING SIDES IN THE UK
But its UK chapter has recently been in the news for getting directly involved in electioneering during a particularly sensitive period as Brits head to the polls come Dec 12.
On Nov 5, in interviews with the media, the president of the OFBJP’s UK chapter Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat declared that his group will be campaigning for the Conservative Party, or Tories, in 48 seats for the upcoming elections.
“We have a team in each constituency which is going round with the Tory candidate leafleting, speaking to people and persuading them to vote Tory. The teams are organised by the BJP and Friends of India Society International (FISI),” the OFBJP UK president said.
He added that his group had recently invited 300 members of the Indian community to a campaign meeting with Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Blackman from Harrow East to pledge their support.
It is rather unusual for any political entity or its proxy to declare that it is taking sides in the elections of another country. It is even more concerning that it is doing so in the first place.
What underpins this newfound interest of the OFBJP, which has thus far focused on providing domestic political support in India to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the affairs of the UK?
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THE ISSUE OF KASHMIR
Let’s rewind a little to August, when India stripped Jammu and Kashmir of their independent status.
Under India’s Constitution, Jammu and Kashmir had some autonomy - its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make its own laws. The Muslim-majority Kashmir also remained a disputed region between India and Pakistan and a source of concern to successive Indian governments given violent separatist groups.
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The BJP government’s decision to revoke the region’s special autonomous status and annex it as a union territory controlled by the federal government – effectively according it a lower status than all other states in India which have their own state governments – has been followed by a military lockdown, the detention of key Kashmir political leaders, violent protests and an appeal from Pakistan for international intervention.
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Internationally, the Labour Party in the UK has stood out for its strong public stance on the issue.
At its party conference on Sep 26, Labour passed an emergency motion on Kashmir, calling for humanitarian and international observers to be let into the region.
In the motion, Labour alleged that the “enforced disappearance of civilians, the state-endorsed sexual violence of women by armed forces, and the overall prevalence of human rights violations in the region,” as well as “the house arrest, imprisonment of mainstream politicians and activists and restrictions on journalistic freedom” had to be denounced.
The party’s strong stand was the turning point in its fallout with the British Indian community. “Until December 2018 the majority of Indians supported Labour … Kashmir was the flashpoint,” Shekhawat explained.
MAKING HINDU NATIONALISM AN ISSUE
The OFBJP’s response has since focused on rallying support among British Indians against the Labour Party in the upcoming elections as it aims to create a unified voting bloc. Shekhawat has publicly said: “If the entire Indian community in the UK votes Tory, we will see a swing of around 40 seats to the Tories. This will swing the actual election result.”
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The OFBJP’s key strategy has been to drum up its familiar brand of Hindu nationalism among voters of Indian origin in the UK.
“We have met 37 groups so far and organised meetings in all the possible temples,” Shekhawat declared.
With both Kashmir and Pakistan being Muslim-majority societies, efforts to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments to rally the ground have gained traction.
WhatsApp messages have been circulating among Hindu voters in the UK alleging that Labour supports Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and is anti-India as well as anti-Hindu. Videos of far-right anti-Muslim activists in the UK have also been sent as part of these messages, seeking to exploit the tensions between the two British religious communities.
Though it is not apparent if the OFBJP is directly behind these messages, it should be noted that the vast majority of OFBJP rank members are reportedly also members of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the overseas wing of the Hindu right-wing nationalist organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS is widely recognised as the parent organisation of the BJP.
It is not just anti-Muslim sentiments being stoked. The OFBJP has also gone on to single out several Labour MPs, some of whom are from other minority religious groups. Labour MP Tanmanjeet Dhesi, a Sikh, is one such example.
Shekhawat has issued a rallying call: “Not a single Hindu will vote for Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi this time.”
“Hindu voters think he is working closely with the Pakistani community. He is always seen with Pakistanis and goes to the Pakistan high commission. He is a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Britain-Pakistan Trade and Tourism and was vice-chair of the APPG Kashmir group. Why is that?”
He explicitly mentioned that the OFBJP is specifically targeting to oust six-Indian origin Labour MPs, some of whom it has accused as sympathetic to the Khalistani (Sikh separatist) movement in the Indian state of Punjab. Naming them, Shekhawat said: “We are working with the Tory candidates in Keith Vaz’s ex seat, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi’s seat, Preet Gill’s seat, Lisa Nandy’s seat, Seema Malhotra’s and Valerie Vaz’s seats.”
“We are not supporting them because some of them have a Khalistani tag, they are not doing anything for us or looking at India as a sovereign nation. Some of them have signed letters against India.”
IDENTITY POLITICS AND "EXTERNAL INTERFERENCE"
The rise of Hindu-nationalist ideology – and its manifestation in British politics – no doubt risks adding to the various fault lines already present in a country torn apart by the fallout from Brexit.
For now, the hardliners will surely celebrate a small win as Labour seems to have backtracked from its position.
Labour chairman Ian Lavery in a letter clarified that the Kashmir issue remained a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan that his party will not interfere in.
The crux, however, is another point made by Lavery. Acknowledging that Labour’s earlier motion on the matter had offended British Indians, Lavery also wrote that “Labour is opposed to external interference in the political affairs of any other country.”
It remains to be seen whether Labour’s U-turn will lead the OFBJP to tone down on its communal rhetoric, or embolden it to further ratchet up its agenda in the UK and beyond.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.