New Delhi: The news of pro-BJP groups in the United Kingdom (UK) campaigning for Conservative Party candidates ahead of the country’s general elections, scheduled for 12 December, has sparked fears of “foreign interference” in the poll process.
Groups such as the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) UK and an umbrella religious charity group, the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT), are actively campaigning for the Conservatives in 48 seats that are expected to witness tight contests.
The groups are backing the Conservatives as a number of Labour MPs had slammed the Narendra Modi government over its decision to scrap Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir.
“They are appealing to UK’s Hindus that if you vote for Labour, you are anti-India,” Sunny Hundal, a British journalist who has been tracking the story, told ThePrint. “What they (BJP) did in the Indian elections, they want to do the same in the UK.”
While the OFBJP UK campaigning for the Conservatives is perfectly legal, as long as it doesn’t breach campaign finance rules, the NCHT is in murky terrain as according to UK laws, a charity group is not allowed to “engage in political activity”.
OFBJP campaigning on 48 marginal seats
On Tuesday, Kuldeep Shekhawat, the working president of OFBJP, told the Times of India (TOI) that his group would be campaigning for the Conservatives on 48 seats.
OFBJP plans to campaign against prominent Labour party candidates like Tanmanjeet Singh Deshi, Preet Gill, Seema Malhotra and Valerie Vaz.
Shekhawat told TOI that they would be sending a team to each of the 48 constituencies, who would be helping the Tory candidate with “leafleting”, “speaking to people”, and “persuading them to vote Tory”.
This has led to sharp reactions from Labour party candidates. “There has been a lot of talk in recent years about foreign external interference in elections and surely this is just another prime example of it,” said Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Labour candidate from Slough.
“I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp. They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights,” tweeted Dhesi.
It remains unclear if the OFBJP UK, established in 1992, receives any direct funding from the BJP but the group states that its objectives include “disseminating information” to the diaspora on behalf of the BJP and “countering any negative or false news”.
The OFBJP was responsible for organising major public events during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London in 2018. Its working president Shekhawat played a major role in the “event management”. Its general secretary is Sanjay Kadia, an electrical engineer with the UK Power Networks who calls himself a “swayamsevak”.
At the time of writing, the OFBJP UK had not responded to ThePrint’s questions.
Mobilisation by NCHT
NCHT, the religious umbrella group, has been mobilising its Hindu followers in favour of the Tories.
“There are a lot of Hindu temples in the UK and some of them are affiliated to this group,” Hundal said. “During the 2015 and 2017 election campaigns, they sent out emails to their followers, asking them to vote for Conservatives.”
Hundal told ThePrint that he had reported NCHT to the Charity Commission in 2015 and 2017 and that following his complaint, the group was pulled by the commission and was forced to withdraw its statement. Hundal plans to lodge a complaint against NCHT yet again.
Labour as ‘anti-India’ and ‘Hindu-phobic’
Following India’s decision to scrap Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, withdrawing special status granted to the state, the BJP faced a lot of backlash by British Labour party MPs. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party passed an emergency motion on 25 September, asking international observers to enter Kashmir and demand the “right of self-determination” for Kashmiris.
Following this, groups such as OFBJP UK are trying to approach Hindu voters in the UK to convince them that the Labour party is inherently anti-India.
The left-leaning Indian Workers Association (IWA), criticised OFBJP’s decision to support Conservatives. “As soon as Labour passed a resolution on Kashmir, the BJP began to campaign against Labour,” said Harsev Bains of IWA.
He said there was an “anti-Muslim alliance” formed on the basis of Islamophobia, involving Modi, US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There’s a Trump-Netanyahu-Modi axis based on Islamophobia — an anti-Muslim alliance,” Mr Bains said.
“We know Farage, Banks and Wigmore overtly court Russian and Far right US interference in UK elections. But now add Modi to the list (along with MBS and Netanyahu). This is illegal,” tweeted UK journalist Peter Jukes.
Shocking revelations by @sunny_hundal. We know Farage, Banks and Wigmore overtly court Russian and Far right US interference in UK elections. But now add Modi to the list (along with MBS and Netanyahu).
This is illegal. https://t.co/qQVqK6AcNt
— Peter Jukes (@peterjukes) November 8, 2019
In his interview to TOI, OFBJP’s Shekhawat listed out three reasons why his group was extending their support for the Conservative party.
“Firstly, some Labour MPs joined the violent protests outside India House on 15 August and 3 September,” Shekhawat had said. “Secondly, no Labour MP spoke in favour of India in the House of Commons on Kashmir, and thirdly because of the Labour motion on Kashmir passed at their party conference.”
According to research conducted by Eviane Leidig of Oslo University, a section of British Hindu voters perceive the Labour party to be in control of the “Muslim voting bloc”. “These British Hindus frequently describe Labour as being ‘Hinduphobic’ and appeasing to Muslims,” Leidig told Sky News.
Hundal argues that this is the sentiment BJP-supporting groups in the UK are trying to exploit. “It is not important whether they will have a substantial electoral impact, but what this would do to the fabric of Hindu-Muslim relations in the country,” she said.
Labour party’s Lisa Nandy, who is contesting for re-election from Wigan, however, said, “The idea that the BJP is going to have any sort of campaign presence on the ground and make any inroads here is somewhat ridiculous.”
Using WhatsApp for propaganda
According to reports, WhatsApp is also being used to circulate divisive messages to British Hindus, urging them to vote against Labour. A report by Sky News found such messages circulating in a Conservative Party’s WhatsApp group.
One of the messages read, “Pass this to every TRUE Indian … there are now no excuses left for any Indian to still be with the Labour Party.”
Another message shared by a Conservative Party leader, Sushil Dokwal, read, “Sadiq (Khan) and (Jeremy) Corbin [sic] are against Jews, Hindus and following hidden agenda of jihadis.”
Several messages have referred to Kashmir and accuse the Labour party of “blindly” following Pakistan’s propaganda.
“The messages expose the increasing influence of Hindu nationalism on British politics, where it often finds common cause with the far right,” notes the report.