How (Not) to Woo De­sis

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Sudeshna Sen

Sud­denly, Lon­don’s al­most 500,000 Bri­tish Asians are in the lime­light. As Lon­don’s may­oral cam­paign gets close to the polls, Con­ser­va­tive can­di­date Zac Gold­smith’s cam­paign team has been send­ing fliers to vot­ers in suburbs with In­dian-sound­ing names, mak­ing more than di­vi­sive points.

The Pa­tels in the vot­ers’ list are be­ing told how close Gold­smith is to Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, and that if they vote that ‘Pak­istani ex­trem­ist’ Sadiq Khan, their fam­ily jewellery will be taxed. Sikhs are be­ing told some gar­ble about the Golden Tem­ple and how it should stay in Sikh hands. In­ci­den­tally, Team Gold­smith has even re­leased on YouTube a mul­ti­lin­gual song -- Jeete Ga! (goo.gl/0RcSZe) — in Hindi, Urdu, Pun­jabi, Ben­gali, Man­darin and Tamil.

Lon­don’s cos­mopoli­tan In­di­ans are livid. Gold­smith had ear­lier ac­cused Labour Party can­di­date from Toot­ing Sadiq Khan for be­ing ‘ex­trem­ist’, even though Khan’s track record as a Mus­lim of Pak­istani de­scent is dis­tinctly mod­er­ate. Gold­smith’s racist cam­paign — which most at­tribute to his Aus­tralian cam­paign man­ager Lyn­ton Crosby who ran the Con­ser­va­tive cam­paign in the last elec­tions -- has back­fired in nu­mer­ous ways. Racist, di­vi­sive, pa­tro­n­is­ing, and an own-goal are just a few of the de­scrip­tions.

More im­por­tantly, the at­tempt to di­vide Sikhs, Gu­jaratis, Tamils, Hin­dus and Mus­lims has hit a very raw nerve. It isn’t that long ago when such com­mu­nal ten­sions spilt over into overt and covert en­mity be­tween the com­mu­nity that has to live, largely, la­belled as ‘Bri­tish Asians’.

Some an­a­lysts think that given Crosby’s hits for run­ning dirty tricks cam­paigns, this one might ac­tu­ally work -- at least among the older gen­er­a­tion of In­dian set­tlers. Oth­ers be­lieve that the botched-up at­tempt to in­cite com­mu­nal ha­tred will back­fire.

Of course, much of the scorn that’s be­ing poured on Gold­smith’s cam­paign man­agers is be­cause the Bri­tish just don’t get our names — or pri­or­i­ties — right. They’ve sent the ‘Golden Tem­ple for Sikhs’ fliers to non-Sikhs. ‘We Love Modi’ fliers to Mus­lims with Gu­jarati sound­ing sur­names.

And that whole thing about fam­ily jewellery is tick­ing ev­ery­one off. First of all, it im­plies that all mid­dle-class In­di­ans are sit­ting on hoards of gold. And sec­ond, alert­ing crim­i­nals that all of us are sit­ting on piles of gold makes us tar­gets. As one young voter pointed out, ‘Why would Lon­don­ers be both­ered about the do­mes­tic pol­i­tics of an­other na­tion? Or rather, an­other four other na­tions — In­dia, Bangladesh, Pak­istan and Sri Lanka?’

At the ba­sic level, peo­ple are an­noyed be­cause this is a crass and racist cam­paign, tar­get­ing spe­cific com­mu­ni­ties. At a deeper level, what Crosby doesn’t re­alise, but Gold­smith prob­a­bly does — he’s on record say­ing he doesn’t like this cam­paign — is that Bri­tish Asians, as they’re called, have to live to­gether in an un­easy truce among them­selves.

On the sub­con­ti­nent, the re­la­tions be­tween the coun­tries have never been re­laxed. And it is not that long ago that ten­sions be­tween Pak­ista­nis and In­di­ans, Hin­dus and Sikhs, et al spilled over into overt vi­o­lence in Bri­tain. No­body wants a re­turn to those times. And that’s pre­cisely why an­a­lysts be­lieve that the fear-mon­ger­ing might just work.

On the other hand, Gold­smith’s cam­paign has missed a cru­cial fac­tor. Bri­tish Asians have spent years over­com­ing those racial stereo­types. But they are still as thin-skinned about in­sults as folks back home. What we feel about Naren­dra Modi, or our fam­ily jewellery, is our busi­ness. And no White, Jewish, rich kid is go­ing to tell us how to feel.

I don’t live in a swing con­stituency or a sub­urb. So I have not been priv­i­leged to re­ceive th­ese fliers. But I know ex­actly how I’d feel: out­raged that some­one who should be stick­ing to mak­ing the Tube work and run­ning bus lanes dares to tell me how I should re­late to Modi.

Yes, Khan is of Pak­istani de­scent, and that makes him some­what sus­pect among Hin­dus. We know that. But it’s within the home. How can a gora have the gall to point out cracks in our sys­tem?

Crosby’s track record of fear-mon­ger­ing and dirty cam­paign­ing has re­peat­edly worked. But he’s never han­dled the del­i­cate sen­si­tiv­i­ties of de­sis. Given that Khan is shown con­sis­tently ahead in most polls, this cam­paign might get Zac Gold­smith some votes. But at the cost of alien­at­ing de­sis, even among his own party.

Mere paas Mo hai, guv'nor: Gold­smith

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