Overseas ‘Friends’ of BJP no ‘friend’ of India

Campaign by OFBJP against Labour candidates threatens to reduce number of Indian origin MPs in UK at a time when the number of MPs with Pakistani origin is set to go up

Indian High Commission in London
Indian High Commission in London

Ashis Ray

The Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) in the United Kingdom was founded in 1992.

Its members and supporters, many of an RSS orientation, have allegedly unlawfully bankrolled BJP over the years, before the government of Narendra Modi legalised donations from foreign nationals – for most such benefactors are British nationals - under the dubious electoral bond scheme.

In September, the opposition Labour party in Britain passed a motion at their annual party conference condemning “the recent actions of the Government of India to revoke Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution and the special status” enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, the resolution called on the party to “clearly and vocally support the Kashmir people’s right to self-determination”.

It was a Labour government which drafted and enacted the Indian Independence Act in the House of Commons, from which flowed India’s freedom, partition and creation of Pakistan. This law left a loophole by assigning rights to princely rulers to decide whether their states would join India, Pakistan or neither. Therefore, the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir’s decision to accede to India was unchallengeable under the legislation. Yet, Labour have harboured second thoughts; and in circumstances in which they have become heavily beholden to the Pakistani origin voters, these, if anything, have intensified.

The abrogation of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status is India’s internal matter and consequently no outsider can claim any locus standi on it. Indeed, it is for the Indian system, including the Supreme Court, to decide on its validity. Equally, though, in a democratic world anybody can comment on the move, just as much as India has a licence to reply to it.

The right to self-determination in the state, divided between India and Pakistan, can be deemed to be an international issue, since it was referred to the United Nations Security Council, which adopted resolutions on it. At the same time, since Pakistan agreed at Shimla in 1972 to resolving the dispute bilaterally, no third party has any role to play in this process.

Labour’s utterances on Kashmir is not new. In fact, in their general election manifesto released in mid-November they reiterate “The (ruling) Conservatives have failed to play a constructive role in resolving the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises, including Kashmir…”. Yet, such stances have historically been dealt with diplomatically and effectively by the Indian High Commission.

However, since the advent of the presence regime at Raisina Hill, the interactions, previously handled with finesse, have become somewhat confrontational.

Yash Sinha, who was the Indian High Commissioner in London until last year, is said to have approached Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry quite aggressively, to the extent of threatening a breakdown in Indo-British relations if the party did not mend their ways.

After the provocative resolution in September, the present incumbent Ruchi Ghanashyam reportedly cancelled the reception the Indian High Commissioner ritually hosts at the party conference. This constituted a copybook diplomatic rebuff.

But the apparent inaction of the Mission on the OFBJP — unmistakably identified with the ruling party at the centre in India — canvassing against Labour candidates in some 40 seats, where Indian origin voters can potentially tilt the outcome, is bewildering. Moreover, what if the elections throw up a Labour-led coalition government?

In the modern era, the first MP of Indian descent in the House of Commons — Keith Vaz — was elected in 1987. By the time such a lawmaker of Pakistani extraction made his debut in the chamber — Mohammad Sarwar — in 1997, the British Indian group had expanded to four: Ashok Kumar, Piara Singh Khabra and Marsha Singh. Yet, the British Pakistani contingent are now set to significantly steal a march over their rivals when the snap general election is held, and the results declared on December 12.

A greater number of Pakistani origin MPs would — as has been noticeable so far — translate to an increase in influence and therefore, enhanced Pakistani impact on British politics as compared to an Indian effect.

Already, the first cabinet minister of subcontinental heritage was Baroness Sayeeda Warsi; Sajid Javid has occupied two of the most important cabinet posts – home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer; and Sadiq Khan is a directly elected Mayor of London — Europe’s biggest electorate.

Besides, the MPs of Pakistani background support Islamabad’s contention on the Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir; whereas their Indian counterparts are either disunited or abstain from endorsing New Delhi’s view.

So, with the British Pakistani community in the UK making a concerted effort to make their presence felt in British affairs, the priority for India should surely be to encourage an enlargement in British Indian MPs. The OFBJP anti-Labour offensive — if successful — would accomplish just the opposite. It is also divisive. A majority of Gujarati speaking voters may be in favour; but Sikhs are by and large not.

As it is, British Indians will be one MP down, since Vaz has been replaced by a candidate who is not an Indian. And if for instance Valerie Vaz, Seema Malhotra, Tanmanjit Singh Dhesi or Preet Kaur Gill are unseated by the OFBJP rhetoric, the tally of British Indian MPs would deplete further, where the quantity of British Pakistani MPs is poised for another escalation.

Has the Indian High Commission done anything to rein in the misguided OFBJP, whose battering ram tactics are clearly counter-productive? There is no evidence to indicate it has.

In any case, in the past three years there has been growing confusion as to whether India House in London represents the country or the ruling party.

Certainly, if a High Commissioner is dictated by the BJP and RSS’ unsophisticated methods and thoughtlessly lowers the dignity of her office by sweeping the pavement in front of the chancery for a photo op, one is left wondering about the state of Indian diplomacy.

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