The diaspora are interested in economic basics, not identity
Britain and India have an inescapably problematic common history of colonisation, subjugation, mutual migration, and now, unsteady partnership. And with this week marking India’s 75th year as an independent nation, it is worth reflecting on British-Indian diaspora’s relationship with their country of origin.
In 2010, then-prime minister David Cameron hailed UK-India relations as the ‘New Special Relationship’, attempting to establish a firm political-cultural alliance based on this shared past. Cameron attempted to woo Indian prime minister Narendra Modi with 60,000 people — predominantly British citizens of Indian origin — packed into Wembley Stadium for the November 2015 ‘Team UK-Team India’ rally.
The moment underlined just how seriously the UK took India, the most populous parliamentary democracy on earth, as a strategically important partner for the UK.
A Summer 2021 survey of social and political attitudes among British Indians revealed that the they are far from being the monolithic bloc they looked like on the day Modi visited Wembley Stadium. They are not always as interested as British politicians are in UK-Indian diplomatic relations either.
Tory supporters and Hindu voters are the most upbeat over Narendra Modi’s performance as prime minister of India. Older, foreign-born British voters of Gujarati Hindu origin — especially those holding a strong preference for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — are especially interested in UK-India relations.
But this is not the same for all subgroups and only a small number of British Indians rate UK-India relations as a top political priority. Indeed, when compared with UK-India relations, British Indian voters are more likely to say that the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union (EU) is their most important political issue on a personal level.
Along with many not prioritising UK-India relations in their electoral considerations, a plurality of Indian-heritage Brits believe that groups affiliated with Indian political parties — such as the Overseas Friends of the BJP and Indian Overseas Congress — should not get involved in British domestic politics (46%), with under one in five believing they should (19%).
While the rise of Tory Indian-heritage politicians like Rishi Sunak provides the Tories with the appearance of being an inclusive political party, there is no guarantee that such representation will bolster British-Indian support for the Conservatives. A comfortable majority — 56% — say that it is not important for them to have an Indian-origin MP representing their constituency. Identity-based representation is not the order of the day among socially-integrated British Indians at large.
Of course, an integral part of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign-policy identity is cultivating stronger trading, defence and educational ties with India. But increasingly this is a separate goal from appealing to Britain’s Indian diaspora.
If the Conservative Party wants to be a more electorally competitive force in the wider British-Indian population, the best way to do so is by focusing on the bread-and-butter of economic management, improving healthcare provision and lifting educational standards. It would serve the Tories well to keep a safe distance away from subcontinental-style sectarian politics and not to fall into the trap of believing that identity-based representation will automatically bring Indian-heritage voters into the Tory fold.