The election for London’s mayor is only four weeks away, and the closer it gets, the dirtier Zac Goldsmith’s campaign becomes. His office has been targeting the homes of London’s Indians with bizarre campaign literature focusing on stereotypes and shallow examples of his engagement with these communities.
This blatant case of ethnic profiling has seen Indians — or people with Indian-sounding names — receive flyers listing Goldsmith’s support for controversial Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and mentioning how he has celebrated Diwali and been to Rajasthan.
The patronising tone continues as Goldsmith trumpets his support for family-owned businesses and accuses Sadiq Khan, his Labour rival in the election, of wanting to levy taxes on family jewellery. It seems in Goldsmith’s worldview all Indians in London support Modi, run family-owned businesses and have a huge stash of family jewellery at home.
Zac Goldsmith targeting Indian voters with coded Muslim bashing & open Modi love. Wife disgusted to receive this. pic.twitter.com/dTdvQf6OQr— Iain Aitch (@iainaitch) March 14, 2016
Condemned by South Asians across the capital, as well as lobbying groups like Operation Black Vote, for many the flyers are not just patronising and full of stereotypes but unnecessarily divisive as well. Crucially, although the first flyers to surface were addressed to British Indians, it appears that they were not delivered to British Indian Muslims, but only to members of the Hindu community.
Since then, it has surfaced that there at least four versions of the flyers, naming British Indian, Gujarati Hindu, Punjabi and Sikh, and Tamil communities as their respective targets. No similar flyers have been sent to London’s Muslim communities, Indian or otherwise.
In their terminology and rhetoric, the flyers take advantage of divisions between different communities in London; they steer away from inclusive words like ‘South Asian community’ because Khan is a member of this community. Rather, they are addressed exclusively to Tamil, Sikh, Indian and Hindu communities to underscore any potential divisions and differences between Khan, a British Pakistani Muslim, and these groups.
It’s clear that Goldsmith is taking advantage of faultlines and potential tensions between South Asian groups of different ethnicities and religions for his own political gain. These manipulative tactics, which have seen Goldsmith openly accuse his rival of failing to stand up for the Tamil community, ignore Khan’s long record of engagement with South Asian communities from across the spectrum — a record that includes representing and advocating for these groups, and yes, years of celebrating Hindu festivals like Diwali.
For many of London’s South Asians, the flyers and these tactics are uncomfortably reminiscent of the divisive approach historically exercised by the British in India. Goldsmith tries to paint his rival as untrustworthy and unrepresentative of South Asian communities, and then cunningly suggests himself as a safe, neutral alternative as a leader.
This scheme, referred to as divide and rule, has colonial connotations and a long history of being used by the British establishment to consolidate their rule and subjugate South Asian populations. It’s unclear why Goldsmith thought such unpleasant and much maligned tactics would be successful, but he has doubled down and defended them since criticism began.
Goldsmith has earlier engaged in other coded attacks on Khan, including calling him “radical”, while Secretary of Defence Michael Fallon has attempted to discredit Khan by linking him with Islamic “extremists”. It’s impressive that he both continues to feign ignorance that there might be nasty connotations to labelling a Muslim politician radical, and to deny that there is any racial element to his ethnic profiling.
Goldsmith’s feeble defence is that he is trying to address real concerns within South Asian communities, which suggests he thinks mainstream campaign issues like housing, healthcare, the economy and the environment are of no interest to London’s South Asians.
He seems to genuinely think that Indians are primarily concerned with whether he’s showing up to Diwali parties and if he has been to Dehra Dun; his flyer aimed at the Tamil community actually lists — completely unironically — the time he brought Boris Johnson to celebrate Pongal at Wimbledon Temple as a major point of his support for Tamil causes.
Despite being roundly criticised by South Asians from left and right, including by former Tory Parliamentary candidate Shazia Awan, and perhaps most damningly, British Indian Tory councillor Binita Mehta who described them as “clumsy”, Goldsmith has stood by the flyers and his campaign, saying “it’s not a race element at all. I talk to different communities about their concerns.”
While there’s nothing wrong with making sure a plurality of voices are heard and causes from minority groups are embraced and addressed, if this is the end result of Goldsmith’s efforts to engage with South Asian communities he clearly has a lot of work to do.
It’s almost unbelievable that a mainstream election candidate in 2016 could be this clueless about how to engage with minority communities. Many of the Londoners who have spoken out felt patronised, angry and insulted by his shallow assessment of their communities, and his awkward attempts to depict himself as having better links to the South Asian community than Sadiq Khan — a member of our community.
London’s South Asians need someone who understands and advocates for them, a candidate who can address in depth real issues and causes of substance, not someone who conceptualises all Indians as small business owners, who doesn’t seem to know that Punjabi and Sikh aren’t interchangeable words and that you can be an Indian Muslim or a Tamil Christian.
Nor do they need blatant attempts to exploit the deep hurt between Indians and Pakistanis, or the deep hurt in the Sikh community over the storming of the Golden Temple. Frankly his inability to recognise that his flyers have upset people or to take on board any of the feedback offered by members of these communities suggest he is not interested in listening to us.
All that’s left to say is why did Zac Goldsmith ever think this was acceptable — and will he ever apologise?
An earlier version of this article appeared on Media Diversified.