Activists directly linked to India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, have vowed to campaign on behalf of the Conservative Party – raising concerns about attempted foreign interference in next month’s UK general election.
The campaign has alarmed some Labour Party MPs standing for reelection, who say the prospect of foreign interference by “religious hardliners” could stir up inter-community tensions.
In July, Canadian officials warned of potential election interference from the BJP government in Canada’s upcoming elections. In a report, the civil servants accused India and China of trying to promote sympathetic candidates and spread misinformation.
On Tuesday the president of Overseas Friends of BJP UK (OFBJPUK), told The Times of India his campaign group was planning to campaign in 48 marginal seats to help Conservative candidates.
“We have a team in each constituency which is going round with the Tory candidate leafleting, speaking to people and persuading them to vote Tory,” said Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat. “The teams are organised by the BJP and Friends of India Society International.”
It is extremely unusual for a group explicitly tied to a foreign political party to openly declare its intent to campaign for a specific British political party during an election.
Shekhawat also said their campaign will target Britain’s only two Sikh MPs – Tan Dhesi and Preet Gill – both of whom are Labour, and replace them with Conservatives.
“We are working with the Tory candidates in Keith Vaz’s ex seat, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi’s seat, Preet Gill’s seat, Lisa Nandy’s seat, Seema Malhotra’s and Valerie Vaz’s seats,” Shekhawat said, because – he claimed – “some of them have signed letters against India”.
Friends of Modi
Overseas Friends of BJP UK (OFBJPUK), founded in 1992, says it aims to “spread a positive message of the BJP Government in India” led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has attracted recent controversy and international condemnation by stripping the disputed territory of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. The residents of Kashmir are now living under severe lockdown, with TV channels cut, curfews and thousands of troops deployed to the region.
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who is standing to be re-elected as the Labour MP for Slough, told openDemocracy: “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.”
He also said the Labour Party was not “anti-India”, as some critics have claimed.
“Unlike what some people may try to portray, the Labour Party is not anti-India, anti-Pakistan, or anti anyone else. We merely stand up for and have always stood up for the human rights of all – regardless of background, colour or creed.”
Labour’s Lisa Nandy, who is standing for re-election in Wigan, told openDemocracy: “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.
“People in Wigan wouldn’t take kindly to being told what to do by Manchester, let alone India.”
Jaskaran Singh, former director at the World Sikh Organization of Canada said: "Top Canadian security experts confirmed what the Sikh community has always known – that India, currently under BJP rule, is using community pressure, media manipulation and other tactics to pressure and malign the Sikh community in the hopes of influencing the outcome of another country's election results."
The campaign has also raised concerns at the Charity Commission. Shekhawat said that OFBJPUK had been in talks with Hindu temples in the UK about campaigning on behalf of Conservative candidates too. But most of those temples would be registered as charities.
A spokesperson for the Charity Commission told openDemocracy: “The public expect charities to be driven by their purpose and representing their beneficiaries at all times, which is all the more important in this intense political environment. Charities must never engage in party political activity.”
The Charity Commission has intervened in the issue of political activity by Hindu temples before. Just before the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) sent out emails urging Hindus to vote Conservative. The Charity Commission intervened on both occasions and forced the NCHT to withdraw its advice.
Last month the NCHT also sent a letter to Jeremy Corbyn accusing the Labour Party of “internal apartheid” and “anti-Indian racism”. It said that Labour had kept its “Indian members” in the dark about a motion over Kashmir that had been passed at the party conference. The NCHT also claimed that Labour was “perilously close to becoming direct supporters of Islamist terror organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS”.
A Labour MP who wanted to remain anonymous told openDemocracy that concerns over Kashmir were being raised by Conservative MPs too.
Last week the Conservative MP Steven Baker asked Boris Johnson about “serious allegations of human rights abuses” in the region and argued that this was not just a matter for India and Pakistan to decide.
Slough MP Dhesi also said: “Slough constituents and the good people of Great Britain can rest assured that despite such activities of religious hardliners trying to divide our cohesive community, I will continue to speak up stridently for the hard-fought values of human rights for all.”