Significance of Indian diaspora

UK General Elections 2024

By Prof. (Dr.) D.K. Giri

(Secy Gen, Assn for Democratic Socialism)

The 4th July UK Parliament election is significant from several dimensions which may have strong impact on India and UK relations. The British Labour Party is expecting to seize power from the Conservatives after suffering four consecutive defeats. It is far ahead of the Conservative Party in the opinion polls. But even in the United Kingdom, poll predictions have gone dramatically wrong. From Indian point of view, the Diaspora has become for the first time hyperactive with Hindus of Indian origin having their own manifesto. Also, the incumbent government is led by Rishi Sunak, a first non-white Prime Minister of UK. Incidentally, he also openly proclaims his Hindu identity.

Another important development for India is that India-UK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is part of election manifestos. This is not surprising as Britain, across political parties, will like to expand its business contacts with other countries, since it left the European Union in 2020. London has also been trying to revive the Commonwealth which consists of the former colonies of the United Kingdom. Amongst them, India is the biggest and the largest economy. Recall that British colonialism used to treat India as its ‘jewel in the crown’. So, the FTA is expected to be taken forward by any party coming to power from the 5th of July.

Unarguably, the issues mainly related to India merit some analysis. The Indian Diaspora is about 1.8 million, out of which 1.06 million are Hindus as per 2021 Census. Hinduism is now the third largest religion in England. Due to their large size of population, the Hindus in Britain have begun to wield considerable electoral influence in British politics. Their manifesto, “Hindu Manifesto UK 2024” has been jointly prepared by a coalition of 29 Hindu groups like BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha UK, Chinmaya Mission, and ISKCON UK. It has also received the support from several parliamentary candidates.

What does the Hindu manifesto consist of? It has seven key demands. These are: protection of Hindu places of worship, access to fair education, equal representation, streamlined immigration, health and social care, protection of dharmic values and recognition of anti-Hindu hate as a religious hate crime. Basically, the manifesto aims to unify the UK Hindu community’s voice urging all parliamentary candidates to support the community. On representation, there were a few individuals from Indian origin, who got elected to the UK Parliament. Some of the prominent ones include Dadabhai Naoroji, Mancherjee Bhownagree, Shapurji Saklatvala and Muhammad Yunus.

Fast forward, in 2017 general elections, eight Hindu MPs were elected to the British Parliament which was an all-time high reflecting Hindu community’s increasing political clout. The highest point so far was the election of Rishi Sunak as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2022. Although, the Hindu leaders in the UK will be driven by the national interest of the country, they could, to a great extent, contribute to the cultural diplomacy between two countries which in turn enhances bilateralism. Reassertion of Indian traditions and culture, largely through reiteration of Hindu identity at the behest of the ruling BJP may have spurred the activism of Hindu leaders in the UK. At any rate, Diaspora of any ethnicity in any country feels somewhat nostalgic about the country of their origin.

As said, FTA with India is on the manifesto of both Tory and the Labour. Both sides would like to conclude it in mutual interests of both countries. Due to India’s prolonged election process covering one-and-half month and seven phases, and campaigning in Britain have stalled the 14th round of negotiations. The negotiations had begun in January 2022 under the premiership of Boris Johnson. Since then, the Tories have been bedevilled by the leadership crisis.

Johnson had to resign suddenly on moral ground. Liz Truss premiership ended shortly for poor handling of the economy. Now the Conservative manifesto reads, “We will finalise a Free Trade Agreement with India, alongside a deeper strategic partnership on technology and defence”. Another interesting reference is about the Scotch whisky, popular in India. The manifesto promises to achieve a significant tariff reduction on Scotch whisky in India through FTA discussions.

The Labour Party has gone a few steps further than the Tories on FTA. Their manifesto states, “We will seek a new strategic partnership with India, including a Free Trade Agreement, as well as deepening cooperation in areas like security, education, technology and climate change”. David Lammy, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said at the India Global Forum in London recently that, “My message to Finance Minister Ms. Sitharaman and Trade Minister Goyal is that Labour is ready to go. Let us finally get our free trade deal done and move on”. The Labour Party called out the Conservatives for dragging it.

In the meantime, the UK-India Business Council (UKIBC) released its own pledge, a kind of a manifesto, for stronger bilateral partnership between India and the United Kingdom. It said, “Concluding the FTA promptly should be a priority for the UK government. Getting this right will mean greater economic growth, higher productivity and increased private sector investment in UK. We recommend that the UK government prioritises completion of the negotiations and ratification of a win-win UK-India FTA that benefits our goods and services sector”. The Indian High Commissioner to UK, Vikram Doraiswami reciprocated the earnestness in completing the FTA. He said that FTA with UK was one of the priorities in Modi government’s 100-days’ to-do-list. He revealed that India had placed an unprecedented offer on the table.

The British Indians are not a politically coherent community and not without any controversies including moral turpitude. But as a Diaspora, they are perceived as a significant political community. How to use this connection in India’s foreign policy is a question to be addressed by the diplomats in South Block. Using the Diaspora in Nepal has not gone down well in our relationship with the Himalayan state. Yet, it provides some emotional source for building relationship. Irrespective of Diaspora, India and Britain should come closer in view of their long historical links and political and administrative similarities. Many other countries also view India as being inherently close to the UK.

Remember, India could have a formal relation with the European Union only after Britain joined it in 1973, although, New Delhi had made political contact with the Union since 1962.  Once, when I was trying to be nominated to an international body, the Swedish friends suggested that I should have the backing of the Brits. New Delhi may be making new contacts with other European countries like France but a continued close relation with Britain is important for India. For many Indian students seeking higher studies, Britain is still a preferred destination. Many Indians would like to go to Britain and work. This helps relocating the huge Indian population. So, whatever happens in the election on 4th July, New Delhi ought to keep in mind the issues debated in the campaign. — INFA