How (Not) to Woo Desis
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