Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Battle For Britain - A Campaign Story



One reason the 1997 election was exciting (pic: Tory Campaign)

Tony Blair's third successful return to Government brings back memories of his grand arrival on the British electoral scene eight years ago. This was the first time one had hit a campaign trail for an election, with any politician. And the willing participant happened to be a British Asian Member of Parliament seeking re-election.

The year was 1997 and a momentous one for Britain. After 18 years of ruling powerful and mighty, Tony Blair's labour party was set to boot out the Tories. Labour not only went on to hold the electorate with a near vice-like grip but also proceeded to, quite smartly, redefine itself as New Labour - its world view had more in common with the Tories it just defeated than its own past.

It was this, month of May (British elections are predictable, unlike the rains) and I had just arrived in London having completed an exhaustive but educative sojourn across some European Union member countries, courtesy the European Commission's India unit at Brussels.

St James Court

I flew British Midland from the dazzling Schipol Airport, Amsterdam on an early morning flight, having noticed little except that the air-hostesses sported lovely hats. A friend's friend's car fetched me from Heathrow. It was a cold, depressing and overcast morning, like perhaps most mornings in London and I was fortunate enough to be deposited at the venerable St James Court in an hour.

The St James Court, then a Taj Group property, is a wonderful repairing place for anyone visiting London. It has all the class and glory of a British institution, even located a short walk away from the Buckingham Palace and yet, for those seeking it, has that bare Indian touch, in the form of a the manager or a lone front office staff. Else, there is nothing to suggest that the flagship property of this hotel
chain sits halfway around the world, facing a filthy waterfront in Bombay.

A meeting with Lenny Menezes, then Executive Director at the Taj Group and now running Hilton in India, was on the agenda. Amidst a pleasant lunch in a rather finely liveried Chinese restaurant off the lobby, Menezes wondered if I had met a Keith Vaz. The answer was no. "Oh, you haven't, then you must, he's a very interesting chap," said Menezes.

My features must have suggested that I was speculating on some Goan connection working here but Menezes was quick to explain, "He's young and a very successful British Asian MP, running for election again." And then, after deftly tossing some more noodles into his mouth added, "You must visit his constituency in Leicester East and see how he's doing on the election trail."

Going up the M1

An hour later, we were on the mighty M1, tearing up North in a sleek Jaguar, an XJ6 I think. A young St James Court manager was deputed to accompany me and he filled me in on London, England and the Midland city of Leicester, our destination in a few of hours' time.

The chaffeur, an ageing but tall gent with a classic British aquiline nose spoke very little except to point out that our progress might be slow because of heavy rains which had been forecast. Else, for most of the time, he stared rigidly ahead even as the Jag ate up the miles.

The plan was to turn off at Junction 21 and head for the Stakis Hotel, where we would be fetched by a Keith Vaz campaign volunteer. Two hours on, we were there and strode into a buzzing lobby with lots of convention folk milling around. A ten
minute wait looked like it was extending itself, so hot coffees were ordered as I began taking in a little history lesson on Leicester and its people.

BBC Radio's first mainland local radio station was launched in Leicester in 1967 and the first weekly programme for Asian listeners, on the same station, followed in 1974. Asians, notably Indians and Pakistanis had been pouring into Leicester since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many were East African in origin and were fleeing Uganda and Idi Amin.

Leicester did not exactly offer them a rousing reception. A 1961 frontpage story in The Illustrated Chronicle, for instance, was titled "Lecester's Indian Invasion". Even a decade later, local authorities were advising Asians against coming to Leicester. In one case, this was done by inserting an advertisement in the Ugandan press ! Matters appeared to have cooled off over the years, as the proverbial melting pot began to boil away. The Chronicle wound up in 1979.



Loyal voters live here (pic:internet post on Leicester)


Leicester comes away as a modern English town. As you drive through, you pass the usual terraced, brick and stucco houses with brightly coloured doors and gleaming brass knobs. Some parts here bear close resemblance to Wembley and Southall back in London, especially the Asian eateries and the people milling around them.

Interestingly, Leicester was better known, once, as the home of the Attenborough Brothers (Richard & David) and Thomas Cook, yes a Mr Thomas Cook, who took the first group of tourists apparently from Leicester to Loughborough, in 1841.

A young man of Asian origin, a Keith Vaz functionary, charges into the Stakis lobby looking around wildly. My companion locks eyes with him, they wave at each other and he motions us out of the lobby onto the portico. `Follow my car,' he says as we walk up and shake hands. And we are off, giving chase on the streets of Leicester, our Jag and his ordinary car.

Some 20 minutes later we arrive at the campaign headquarters, a homely looking, independent brick house with a large garden. Keith Vaz, wearing his trademark round-rimmed spectacles arrives, beaming. In a quick burst of energy, characteristic of Vaz, we are quickly introduced to his lawyer wife Maria and mother Merlyn Verona Vaz. The mother, who was also an elected councillor of Leicester died recently, from cancer.

While Keith and his wife look suitably English in attire and speech, his mother reminded me of the pleasant and brightly attired church-returning Goan ladies one typically encountered on a Sunday morning grocery shopping stroll in Bandra, Bombay. Merlyn completed the connection when she asked about Bombay and where I lived in the city.

Party Workers Jam

Vaz ushers us inside, where a row of young and old men and women are writing up forms, filling up little kits with all about, obviously, Keith Vaz. Its less than a week to go and everyone is working hard, says Vaz. He introduces us to some of the volunteers. First lesson of British democracy: the concept of a `party worker' does not really exist here. Everyone volunteers, out of choice, most of the folks manning the kits earn several times more than Keith does.

One I discover runs a prosperous shipping agency, his daughter is also a volunteer and smiles from two tables away. Another is a well known, local restaurateur. The only thing common that's common to all is their Asian lineage. Having been suitably forewarned, Keith has had occasion to prepare a small itinerary of sorts - we wait while he finishes up a bit and then we are to drive to an Indian restaurant for
dinner.

Keith has never lived in India, he was born in Aden and educated at Cambridge in England. He worked as a barrister and solicitor from 1980 to 1987, the year he was first elected. Since then, he's had the privilege of being returned to power continuously. Vaz was also the first British Asian member of parliament in the House of Commons preceded only by Baron Sinha of Jaipur in the Lords in 1919.


An obsession with Kashmir

Soon, we are off, this time in his car, seated behind, driving slowly. He glances out regularly, dividing his attention between the conversation going on and a running check on his campaign signs all over. Most of them are in the form of posters of a beaming Vaz and a red rose alongside, pasted on the glass windows of houses we drive past.

Was he doing something else or would he like to, I ask. "Not quite, I am what you would call a career politician," he says. While Leicester may be far from India, the Indian influence is not, Hindi film tunes with rewritten lyrics are a key campaign tactic here.

Vaz is a regular visitor to India and to his land of origin, Goa. While he articulates the Labour cause and speaks of the future of Britain, he admits that his hands are often tied by local issues. "Often I am approached to take up cases of people where a spouse in India or Pakistan wants to migrate here," he says. Immigration worries thus take up time.

The other obsession, he says with some regret, is with Pakistan. "Of course I have a view on Pakistan and Kashmir," he says but adds, "That's not my only view." Often though, media typically pesters him for his comments on the latest developments on Kashmir. Even a few hours in Leicester tells you Kashmir is not a burning issue for the local populace.

All customers are equal !

We reach and enter the somewhat dark confines Indian restaurant (called the Taj Mahal I think) and wait to be seated. Now, a politician entering is not a big deal here. No scampering, hurried movements, chairs shifted about or waiters rushing forth to please. No such thing. We wait and are soon seated by a waiter with a smile which must be customary for all.

Looking around, the restaurant has a healthy mix of Asian and non-Asian patronage. The portions are large and most diners are busy hacking away at their tandooris as the waiters circle around. Vaz continues to talk, about his life as a solicitor, his constituency and his regard for Tony Blair - that regard brought him a position of power in the Blair government later. Later, he was to step down, somewhat unceremoniously.

A little Asian girl comes forth and shakes hands with Vaz, as her parents, a young couple, seated a few tables away watch proudly. "Hello Mr Vaz," she beams and darts back. The couple wave and Vaz waves back. Lesson number two: Maybe its because there are less than 100,000 voters in this constituency but politicians never seem to be
too distant from their voters.

With elections a week away Vaz may have no choice but to be friends with one and all but anyone could tell this was a politician who knew his constituency and more importantly, the people who represented it. As is evident when a middle aged man, again Asian, emerges from the kitchens and walks up towards us. He shakes hands all around and introduces himself. I don't catch it but Vaz explains, we are talking to the owner of the restaurant. The owner sits down asks the customary question about the food and then quizzes Vaz about the election campaign.

Dinner & democracy

The restaurant owner says things have changed for the good in Leicester but feels the food business needs to be nurtured a little better. "Lots of Asian restaurants coming up here and we need to train our cooks and chefs much better," he says. He then places his campaign demands: "Could we look at having a training college for chefs in Leicester ?" Vaz nods his assent, saying he would surely look into it.

We go through a full course with dessert and soon it is time for us to hit the M1 and head back to London. The evening with Vaz was illuminating, as much to understand the role of British Asians in England as the very functioning of an efficient democracy and the role and duties of elected leaders within it. Of the two, the latter left a far greater impression.

That year, 1997, saw Vaz going on to win handsomely, taking in 65.5 per cent of the votes and beating hands down his nearest rival, conservative Simon Wilton, who made do with just 24% of the votes. Vaz won the subsequent 2001 elections as well though he was embroiled in allegations of bribes and misdeclaration of assets. On the way, he became a parliamentary private secretary and a minister for Europe at the Foreign Office. He stepped down in the face of controversy but his ground strength has continued to hold, evidently.

Two weeks ago, the loyal voters of Leicester returned Vaz to power. And resoundingly so - Vaz secured 58.1% of the votes beating convervative rival Suella Fernandes in the process. Bollywood's influence hadn't waned in the 2005 elections either, quite the contrary; actor Dilip Tahil, who last made news for his skirmish with British immigration authorities, was seen actively campaigning for Vaz.

Still to return: The Buzz Series !

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