NEW DELHI: Too little, too late? This is the question political observers are asking as Britain’s Labour party moved into damage control to assuage the feelings of British-Indians, most of them being from the Hindu community and many of them belonging to the diaspora organisation known as Overseas Friends of the BJP UK (OFBJP) (UK). The latter has erupted over the party’s stance on the status of Jammu and Kashmir, post the revocation of Article 370.
At the annual Labour conference in September, the party had stated that there was a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the ‘disputed territory’. It added that Kashmiris needed to be given the right of ‘self-determination’ and that ‘international monitors’ needed to be allowed into the region.
Such sentiments clearly bore the imprint of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who has made no secret of his anti-India stance – he tweeted the same sentiments on his official Twitter handle last month. But now in what is being seen as a repudiation of Corbyn’s stance, the party’s recent statement says, ‘the Labour party will not take a pro-Indian or pro-Pakistan stance on Kashmir.’
So, what has caused this seeming change of heart? Electoral compulsion is the most likely answer. Currently, there are approximately 900,000 Hindu and Sikh voters of British-Indian origin who could play a decisive role in as many as 40 constituencies. The threat by these organisations to actively campaign in other constituencies where the margin of the candidates is slender, could make a difference in an election which is likely to deliver a fractured mandate. But will this be enough? We have to wait and see.
For the long-time political observer though nothing substantial has changed within the Labour party with regard to Kashmir. The late Labour MP Gerald Kaufman had stated to an Indian diplomat that for his party, Kashmir remains the ‘unfinished agenda of Partition.’
This is a belief that Corbyn seems to hold on to as well in his four-decade-long political career. Corbyn is believed to be anti-Semitic, a sympathiser of Hamas, a supporter of Iran, Russia and the Assad regime in Syria, and consistently against India on Kashmir. In short, he seems to be anti-U.S., anti-Israel – given the controversy over the recent anti-Semitic remarks he made recently – and much more favourable to Pakistan than India.
Corbyn’s bias can be seen electorally. In the 2017 snap polls called by then British PM Theresa May, 12 British Pakistanis won elections to become members of the House of Commons. From those 12 nine were from Labour and just three were from the Conservative party.
Fast forward to today and you will find the Labour Friends of India (LFI), a support group of the Labour party, bemoaning the lack of Indian-origin candidates for the polls. The LFI pointed out that in constituencies which had a sizable Indian majority, many Indian-origin candidates had been pulled out with the result that today only one candidate of Indian heritage has been selected in a safe Labour seat and no Indian heritage candidate in a target seat. This more than anything reveals the party’s priorities.
It is clear then that UK-India ties, already losing steam over the ongoing Brexit imbroglio, are not likely to pick up under a Labour government under Corbyn. The key questions then, from an India perspective, are there any likely alternative candidates to Corbyn, can the Labour party be worked upon to shed its attitude on the Kashmir, and finally, would India be better off under a Boris Johnson government?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic no. Corbyn holds the unique distinction of being thoroughly unpopular with many of his Cabinet members, with some left-leaning sections of the British media but very popular with party workers. No other Labour candidate has managed to pull in as many new party workers into the Labour party as Corbyn has. So Corbyn is here to stay and – despite some apologies and fine words – the party’s stance on Jammu and Kashmir is likely to remain unchanged.
It is also very likely that he could win. Talks of a proposed alliance between Boris Johnson’s Conservative party and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party are crumbling over seat-sharing and pressure is growing on Corbyn to form a ‘Remain’ alliance with the Liberal Democrats and the Green parties. The Daily Telegraph estimated that 46 seats in 2017 could have switched from the Tories to the ‘Liberal Alliance’ ensuring Corbyn’s victory. So far Corbyn has not agreed publicly on such an alliance – the main reason being that the Labour party is also deeply divided on Remain – but he could well do so and capitalise further on Boris’s confusion.
As to the second question, the answer is also no. The best chance India had was under the prime ministership of Tony Blair who advocated a ‘New Labour’ which Indian diplomats believed for a while would encapsulate New Delhi’s concerns but that turned out to be a damp squib. The Labour Party is still governed by senior ideologues – Corbyn is one of them – who have not allowed even reformist PMs with thumping majorities like Tony Blair to effect change. Also, it makes political sense both for Labour and Conservative parties to keep the Kashmir pot boiling – witness the lack of government response to repeated demonstrations outside the Indian High Commission in London.
There is another reason too for British leaders not to crack down on British Pakistanis on the issue of Kashmir – the fear of rising homegrown terrorism. As former UK national security adviser Mark Lyall Grant pointed out in an interview to The Guardian, ‘60-70% of British Pakistanis have origins in the Mirpur district in Kashmir. Therefore, there is a risk of radicalisation in this country of British Kashmiris. We all know that diasporas tend to be more radical than communities left behind and I do not see why this should be any different.’
Given these factors and you realise that whether Labour or Conservative, very little is likely to change the British government’s attitude to Kashmir in the future. Electoral compulsions may force the UK to hear the voices of British Indians for a time but that is all. The fact that Corbyn has not retracted his Kashmir statements even after the party’s official statement says it all. The UK will continue to ‘prick’ India with the Kashmir ‘thorn’ even as it reaches out to New Delhi for free trade and investment.