Indo-Pak tensions surface in UK election campaign as Tories’ lead shrinks

Tensions over the issue of cross-border terrorism between India and Pakistan have made their way into the UK general election campaign. In the most recent incident, one of Britain’s longest serving Indian-origin MPs, Virendra Sharma, was caught on camera at a multi-faith meeting in London saying that “Pakistan is not harbouring terrorist groups or sponsoring terrorism”.

The incident was shared across social media just before campaigning was suspended following the blast in Manchester that killed 22 people.

Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, a heavily Indian-origin constituency, and chair of the Indo-British All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) instantly faced questions around this statement during the weekend and negative reactions from the Indian diaspora in the UK.

“Given your seniority as a long-standing British Indian-origin member of Parliament and that you hold various posts ostensibly promoting UK-India relations, your comments are totally at odds with everything we have tirelessly worked on over many years. Why,” questioned Manoj Ladwa, a senior Labour party member and political communications strategist, in a letter to the MP.

“I would strongly urge you to make an urgent public and written statement clarifying your position and that of the Labour party before this issue spirals any further,” said Ladwa, who is also CEO of the UK-based media house India Inc.

“During elections strong feelings are common, but this is no time for people to raise issues for their own selfish reasons,” Sharma responded in a statement on Monday. “It is important that we consider our community and put its needs above our own. I am proud to represent a diverse community made up of all religions and nationalities and I think it is important that politicians represent everyone, not just a narrow section.”

Virendra Sharma.
Virendra Sharma. Photo: Connected to India

Sharma is seeking his fourth re-election in the June 8 snap poll. “I am proud to represent the area I have lived in for the last 49 years and my campaign will focus on our community and how much we can achieve. This election must be about bringing people together, improving people’s lives and turning our backs on the politics of division,” said the 69-year-old Punjab-born MP.

The campaign for next month’s election is heating up on all sides, with the ruling Conservative party losing some of its massive lead in opinion polls.

The Tory lead in terms of vote share has halved compared to a week ago, according to a latest Survation poll, with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s party on 43 per cent compared to Labour’s 34 per cent. A YouGov poll over the weekend also appeared to show Labour narrowing the gap at 35 per cent compared with the Tories at 44 per cent.

The manifesto launches by the two main parties last week are believed to be behind the swing, with Conservative party plans on social care for the elderly coming under scrutiny.

The Labour party, on the other hand, made a direct play for the youth vote, with an announcement to bring forward its pledge to scrap tuition fees to include students starting university this year if it wins the election. The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrat party focused on the ruling party’s plans to double the migrant surcharge on companies employing migrants from outside the European Union (EU), including India.

The party’s shadow chancellor, Vince Cable, said, “The Brexiteers, many members of whom are now in the Cabinet, told us that leaving the EU would mean we could be more generous to our Commonwealth partners, it is now clear that this was another leave lie.”