How PM Modi Helped Determine the Outcome of a British Election
PM Narendra Modi helped determine a poll in Britain but in a way that shows just how controversial he has become.
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Narendra Modi made a surprise campaign appearance this week in a Parliamentary by-election in the north of England. Not in person - but on a leaflet. And not extolling his statesmanship and international standing - but by presenting him more as an ogre.
The party that issued that leaflet - the Labour Party, which is in opposition at the national level but was defending the seat where the by-election was held - won the contest. But only just. The result was announced on Friday morning - the margin of victory was 323 votes out of more than 30,000 cast.
With a majority that thin, every little drop of political advantage can be crucial. India's Prime Minister has helped determine the outcome of an election on the other side of the world, but in a manner which underlines just how globally controversial he has become.
Battle for an Unknown Seat Goes Global
Batley and Spen, the seat being contested, is one of the forgotten post-industrial corners of northern England. Most British people will never have been there, never have heard of the place, and couldn't even begin to find it on a map. I'm an exception - I grew up next door.
The one time Batley gained national attention was for a tragedy - during the Brexit referendum campaign five years ago, the then local MP, Labour's Jo Cox, was stabbed and shot by a neo-Nazi extremist. The murder - the first of a sitting MP for almost 30 years - shocked the nation. Labour's candidate in this by-election was Jo Cox's sister.
The constituency is unusual in that as much as a quarter of the local population is of South Asian origin: Muslim families whose roots lie in Gujarat, Punjab and Mirpur. The initial migrants came, half-a-century and more ago, to work in the local woollen mills, now all closed.
Batley has weathered the collapse of manufacturing industry better than some other former mill towns, and relations between communities are OK, just about. But there's very little integration. It's striking how white and Asian communities live side-by-side, but largely keep to themselves.
British Muslims Likely to be More Loyal to the Labour Party
British Muslims in areas such as Batley tend be more loyal to the Labour Party than the white working class. In political terms, they have nowhere else to go. But in this by-election there was a 'spoiler' - George Galloway, a former Labour MP who leads the newly established Workers Party and focuses on winning Muslim votes and expressing that community's sense of wound.
Galloway was never going to win - but he had the potential to take sufficient Asian votes away from Labour to allow a Conservative victory. In the end, he gained more than 20% of the vote, which suggests that most local Muslims supported him.
To stem the haemorrhage of its Asian support base, the Labour Party produced a leaflet with a photo of Narendra Modi shaking hands with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson. 'Don't risk a Tory [Conservative] MP who is not on your side', the leaflet proclaimed.
'The risk of voting for anyone but Labour is clear: a prime minister who is silent on human rights abuses in Kashmir'. The leaflet also accused Boris Johnson's Conservatives of Islamophobia.
Rare for UK Elections to Feature Foreign Leaders
It's rare for British election literature to feature foreign leaders, and rarer still for them to be depicted so negatively. It did strike a chord in Batley. Visiting the constituency during the campaign, I was startled when my taxi driver, a Gujarati, casually described Mr Modi as 'a mass killer' - a reference to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The campaign hand-out was also an attempt to defuse the argument that Labour has failed to stand up for the rights of Kashmiris, an issue which - along with the Palestinians' plight - has a lot of resonance among British Muslims.
The leaflet was a local initiative and attracted condemnation from many in the party. Labour Friends of India condemned the move and urged that the literature be withdrawn. Some warned that such a divisive campaign message, and the demeaning of India's leader, could lose Hindu votes. One Labour MP, Navendu Mishra, tweeted caustically that 'racism is alive & well within Labour ... Labour will not win by playing divide and rule politics against our communities'.
It's not a good look for the Labour Party: negative campaign propaganda, aimed at just one segment of the constituency, divisive in message and drawing a key international figure into a no-holds-barred local election campaign. And it didn't halt the slide of local Muslim voters to rival candidates.
But Labour managed against the odds to win a fractious and ill-tempered by-election contest - which some within the party will see as a vindication of their campaign strategy.
(Andrew Whitehead is former Editor of BBC World Service. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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