The UK’s Opposition Labour Party was branded “divisive” and “anti-India” by Indian diaspora groups after a party leaflet for a by-election in northern England used an image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The leaflet, in circulation for the Batley and Spen by-poll in West Yorkshire scheduled for Thursday, shows Modi in a handshake with Conservative Party Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the G7 Summit in 2019 with the message “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side”.
It triggered furious reactions across social media after Tory MP Richard Holden posted an image of it on Twitter, questioning whether it implies that Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer would not be seen in a handshake with the Indian Prime Minister.
“Dear Keir Starmer, please can you explain this leaflet and clarify whether a Labour PM/politician would refuse to have any relationship with the world’s largest democracy? Is this your message to 1.5 million members of the Indian diaspora in UK,” questioned the Conservative Friends of India (CFIN) diaspora organisation.
The outrage was echoed from within the Labour Party ranks, with the Labour Friends of India (LFIN) diaspora group demanding the “immediate withdrawal” of the leaflet.
“The Labour Party is right to call out Boris Johnson’s lack of action following the conclusion that anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem within the Conservative Party. It is unfortunate that the Labour Party used a picture of the Prime Minister of India, the world’s largest democracy and one of the UK’s closest friends, from the G7 meeting in 2019, on its leaflet,” LFIN said in its statement.
Indian-origin veteran Labour MP Virendra Sharma also condemned the move as “cheap divide and rule” and “dog-whistle” politics not worthy of Labour.
“The Labour Party will win by bringing people together and uniting the community, to do anything else will divide our community and play into Tory hands,” said Sharma, who represents Ealing Southall in London – a constituency with a large Indian diaspora presence.
Another Indian-origin Labour MP, Navendu Mishra, took to Twitter to declare that “racism is alive and well within Labour”.
“A hierarchy of racism exists inside the party and some groups are seen as fair game for attacks based on religion/race/heritage,” said Mishra, MP for Stockport in northern England.
“Labour will not win by playing divide and rule politics against our communities. We will win based on a principled stance against racism and discrimination of all kinds inside and outside the party,” he said.
The Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) group reacted by organising a letter of complaint to party leader Starmer, criticising the “votebank politics” of the campaign leaflet.
“OFBJP objects to this kind of anti-India branding just for votebank politics. Such posters and statements are clearly a sign of divisive politics played by Labour,” said OFBJP President Kuldeep Shekhawat.
Angry messages dominated the original Twitter post on social media, with many pointing out that it was Labour’s perceived “anti-India stance” that was among the factors behind its bruising defeat in the 2019 General Election under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The by-election in Batley and Spen, a traditional Labour stronghold, is seen as a crucial test of Starmer’s leadership after the Opposition party fared poorly in recent byelections.
The by-poll this week follows the previous Labour MP, Tracy Brabin, stepping down after being elected Mayor of West Yorkshire and has Kim Leadbeater in the fray for the party, the sister of Jo Cox – the Labour MP murdered near her constituency office in a far-right attack in June 2016.