Don’t Discount the Sikh Vote in pushing for Progressive Policy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and #45 here in America have demonstrated to the world that they will do everything in their power to exclude Muslims, to dilute the power of the courts to bend policy and law to their whim and they carve out spaces for their goons to go after their political enemies. It is little wonder that with the rise of right-wing governments, the first things to be scrapped are often the reproductive rights of women and gender non-conforming individuals, the rights of the LGBTQ community and critical public services that many depend upon for preventative health. With the rise of the Aam Admi Party in the past decade, New Delhi has been a critical juncture as the nation’s capitol to keep Modi’s BJP at bay even as they recruited a Sikh candidate to run in the elections for Member of Legislative Assembly in New Delhi which exposes their limited outreach across Indian constituencies. With the police still brutally cracking down on protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, this was the BJP’s election to lose.
In a recent article in the India Today newspaper, I saw an interesting piece written by Harmeet Shah Singh regarding the recent election in New Delhi that saw the re-election of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who belongs to the Aam Admi Party (Common Man’s Party). Some takeaways that he points out when it comes to the Sikh community in India and their voting habits that I found interesting were:
- Politically, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP has come across as a natural choice for the Sikhs of Delhi because its doctrine embodies governance and not sectarian issues.
- If Arvind Kejriwal nurses Punjab ambitions in the time to come, he has to undo the mistakes he committed in the past and a) build local leadership with decision-making powers, and b) prepare his strategy beforehand to counter possible communalisation of politics.
These two points really made sense because Singh points out there must be more emphasis on building the Indian economy, funding schools, healthcare and other critical priorities sought out by the Indian citizenry. This is even relevant here in the United States and universally. Government must be responding to the needs of it’s citizens and not stoke communal tensions over religion and ideology of racial superiority.
When I was in India in January 2017, I noticed that Aam Admi Party was running a candidate in the local region I was in, and I was very happy to notice that AAP had been attempting to branch out and engage Sikh voters in the state of Punjab and to shake off the Shiromani Akali Dal Party and other political parties who simply were not responding to the challenges that citizens were facing in their everyday lives and attempted to present a new solution to Punjab’s issues in Aam Admi Party. It presented a new chance for me to see the ways in which Indian voters in Punjab would be attempting to carve out a new path for themselves. In elections in the UK, Canada and now India, what has emerged as sticking sore thumb has been the stances of politicians who either condemn what has happened under the Modi government to Kashmir or praise what has happened and groups have attempted to target those who are perceived to be disloyal to India. Frequent targets have been the Labour Party in England, the Democratic Party in the United States (which boasts the largest amount of Asian American voters) and in Canada with the New Democratic Party’s leader Jagmeet Singh.
In another article, there were interesting if not similar points made by Purnendra Jain in The Interpreter in which he notes that:
- Kejriwal’s 2020 performance against all political odds speak for his policy achievements, service, and connection to Delhiites. The BJP was so certain of its success that its leaders began to mount offensive and vitriolic attacks ahead of the ballot, even branding Kejriwal a “terrorist” and “a spokesman for the Pakistan Army”. Not only did Amit Shah, the BJP’s second most powerful figure, campaign vigorously, he also deployed huge resources in the form of volunteers, parliamentarians, and finances to defeat the incumbent chief minister.
- Furthermore, the electoral contest was presented as if a run-off between Kejriwal and Modi, as a BJP chief minister candidate was not announced to replace Kejriwal. Driving through Delhi roads during the election period, there were plenty of billboards and electronic displays featuring Kejriwal and Modi — the two faces representing the AAP and BJP.
- He shot to national fame in 2011 through his association with an anti-corruption movement during Congress Party rule both nationally and in Delhi. His anti-graft campaign attracted nationwide attention and his concerns for Delhi residents captivated many voters. Since 2013 Kejriwal has been a most watched and commented “local leader”, both in India and abroad.
- His latest victory represents a big tick to the kinds of social services his government provided to Delhiites during the past five years of AAP’s rule, especially for the poor and less privileged. These included reasonably priced — sometimes free — electricity, water, school, transportation, and medical facilities, and above all, good governance. In January Kejriwal issued a ten-point “guarantee card” for the Delhiites which included reducing pollution, building houses for the slum dwellers, and plans for better business infrastructure, while guaranteeing the current welfare policies to continue and improve.
- Kejriwal engaged voters on “local” issues — issues that matter for their living and working conditions — while the BJP leadership remained focused mainly on national and international issues, such as those related to the Citizenship Amendment Act, sectarian identity, and pro-Hindu rhetoric, which did not attract many voters. Some BJP leaders even made comments that clearly promoted hate politics.
- The BJP has once again been rejected by Delhi voters, a huge setback to the party strongmen — Modi and Shah included. Although a jurisdiction with only 20 million people in a country of 1.3 billion, Delhi’s visibility both nationally and internationally is much above its size, being the capital city of India where national offices, big business houses, and embassies are located. Its politics is watched and reported widely, especially since Kejriwal jumped into the political arena.
The Bharatiya-Janata Party’s Sikh Problem
It was clear that nominating a Sikh to run in the elections on the BJP ticket for Member of the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi -the stronghold of the AAP- was a strategy clearly intent on bringing in the Sikhs to the BJP and creating a firewall of support. But after the BJP made clear strides in passing the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens last fall, Sikhs in India and abroad started waking up to the reality that when Muslims are scapegoated for political gain and legislation enacted to further discriminate, that there is a clear distinction between who is being oppressed now, and who could potentially be the next to be impacted, and given the history of Sikhs and the Indian state, it is clear that Sikhs weren’t going to be taking the risk of joining BJP in their quest to make India a non-secular state. The fluidity of the Indian Government’s attempted interventions in matters of UK, Canadian and American elections, that Sikh voters would come out for and campaign with Aam Admi Party. For this blog, I outline the challenges in which the Sikh electorate in the United Kingdom has faced, in addition to the direct, targeted impacts of Rashtriya Swamisavek Sang (RSS) has had on Sikh candidates who are running for public office and those like Labour MPs Tan Singh and Preet Gill in the UK have faced threats in their South Asian ridings because of the attempted influence of the Indian government into diasporic politics.
The United Kingdom
The Indian government’s role in attempting to influence the outcome of the Prime Minister’s election & down ballot seats was stamped out almost immediately by the UK authorities who were clamping down on Mandirs who were being prodded by the RSS group Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), to vote against Labour in the general election. Overseas Friends of the BJP also has a strong presence in the United States as I detailed in my post about the Indian-Amerian diaspora and the influence of BJP in American electoral contexts. In addition, the election saw many prominenet actors and singers from the Punjabi entertainment industry that endorsed candidates from the Conservative Party which lent the loaded question: Where do we draw the boundary between entertainers influencing a major election and how do we contend with superstars endorsing candidates for political office and know how to make our own independent judgement?
While the Indian government may have been told to stand down from the quest to target Labour Party Members of Parliament Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) and MP Preet Gill through direct interference in UK elections (and thereby attempting a page out of Russia’s election playbook), the Bharatiya Janata Party pounced on the perceived disrespect of India when the Labour Party passed a motion that was critical of Indian occupation and communications blackout of Kashmir, after having taken away Kashmir’s special status and clamping down on violently on dissent. After the Conservatives swept the UK elections and Labour lost 59 seats across the country, the group Conservative Friends of India had to say this:
“The Conservative Friends of India (CFI) took credit for some saying it had campaigned to swing the Indian diaspora vote in 16 of the Tory’s target seats, where the diaspora numbers exceeded the majority that needed to be overturned.”
Given that the South Asian diaspora uses WhatsApp as it’s more popular means of communication across countries, it is little surprise that the BJP harnessed WhatsApp to campaign against Labour and to flex it’s diasporic muscles to get Hindus to vote against the Labour Party. It is interesting how the new frontier in the world of political campaigning, misleading information and deep fakes has come online through our mini computers and now we have to contend with multi-faceted frontiers in preventing misinformation from being a factor that prevents voters from making an informed decision about who they’re voting for. Giants like Facebook continue to capitalize on publishing misleading information all for the sake of a quick buck.
In some cases, UK citizens took campaiging into their own hands:
“We ran hustings in four constituencies — in Hounslow, Reading West, Woking and one in the Midlands,” he said. “We sent letters to candidates and we used our wider networks and community groups, both traditional ones and on social media, to put the message across. We actively worked with community groups to campaign door-to door. We also did a lot with Facebook and Twitter. We had more than 250 volunteers working on a social media campaign informing the community on Labour’s policies under Corbyn, including its stance on Kashmir. There was a lot of interaction on social media from non-Indians too, especially the Jewish community.” He emphasised they did not campaign on a pro-Tory stance, rather an anti-Labour one. “This was more of anti-Jeremy Corbyn, than anything else,” he said.”
Canada’s Election for Prime Minister
Jagmeet Singh created a new trail for Sikh Canadians when as leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) sought to be the prime representative of Canadians through the most powerful role in the country. Along his campaign, there much anxiety among the more stringent supporters of the Hindu-right that having a Sikh as Prime Minister of India would mean greater accountability for the actions of India in Kashmir as well as bringing to justice those were instigators of the 1984 riots that swept India because of the assasination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards because of Operation Blue Star. Singh had been very vocal about his intentions to bring India to heel on this issue and even in Canada, there had been an entire operation to prevent his rise by factions of the RSS. His loss in the elections hasn’t prevented him from continuing on his path towards seeking justice. Along with racism, Jagmeet faced a large obstacle in becoming the first person of color to become Prime Minister.
The Globe and Mail reported in July of 2018 that:
“Under the rubric of ‘hybrid or asymmetric or information warfare,’ adversarial states have increased the use of covert technical and human-based intelligence platforms to advance their security, defence, economic or foreign-policy objectives,” it reads.
“What qualifies these as ‘hostile-state activity’ is that, in each case, these operations are calculated to undermine or harm our interests, as well as those of our allies.”
While the report lists several countries that officials consider threats to Canada, most of those references, along with many other details, were blacked out before the document was released.
However, one section specifically mentions the 1.8 million Canadians of Chinese descent and 1.2 million of Indian descent in the context of foreign governments trying to “directly and indirectly work to influence diaspora communities across the country.”
“The increasing political participation of these communities at all levels of government is both laudable and reflective of the increasing diversity of the Canadian political system,” the report says of Chinese- and Indo-Canadians.
However, it adds: “The risk of these communities being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas cannot be overlooked.”
It goes on to state that “the lines between legitimate advocacy and lobbying and pressures imposed to advance the economic and political interests of foreign actors are becoming increasingly blurred.”
The rest of the section is largely blacked out, including any possible measures to prevent or detect such attempts.
Concerns about Chinese influence in Canada are not new, Carment said, but “what we’re talking about in this case is a ‘fifth column’ of individuals who are sort of mobilized for the purposes of undermining or influencing or affecting the government.”
Jagmeet’s campaign ultimately wasn’t a success. But it is helping us understand how identity, diaspora and politics work or don’t work. The important thing to takeaway is the Indian government’s flexing of its electoral strength and whether or not it can have good relations with the West, while trying to arm twist any dissent into oblivion. For this purpose, the BJP will enlist the aid of the Indian diaspora which has now ascended into powerful roles within many governments.