Alastair Campbell famously declared that ‘We don’t do God', yet it is customary that part of an election campaign includes wooing Britain’s minority faith communities – be they Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims. Boris and Corbyn are no exception.
In recent weeks, both party leaders have donned saffron headscarves while visiting Sikh temples (gurdwara). Both have published congratulatory tweets on the 550th birthday of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, and participated in the langar or free kitchen (always a good photo op). Boris even had a go at making the notoriously elusive round chapati with worshippers in Milton Keynes and Southall.
Meanwhile, Corbyn visited a Hindu temple to mark Diwali, seen in this video with a traditional religious mark on his forehead and floral garland around his neck, just as Boris made a trip to the Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent's Park. But forgive me my cynicism – the reality is that politicians only 'do God' when they think it might help them at the ballot box.
I find it comical when Corbyn tells Hindus, Jains and Sikhs that ‘Diwali represents the victory of light over darkness’ when the stench of Labour's institutional anti-Semitism festers like a gaping wound. What's more, the roster of Labour party candidates found to have posted anti-Semitic material on social media shows nothing has really changed.
Meanwhile, British Indians – especially pro-Modi Hindus – aren’t happy with the passing of a pro-Pakistan Kashmir motion at the party’s conference. The chairman of the Labour party Ian Lavery has just sent an open letter backtracking from the motion, saying ‘The Labour party holds the Indian diaspora community in the highest regard’. But the damage, especially amongst sections of Britain’s Hindu community, has been done. Hindu activists with links to Modi's BJP party have announced that they are working to unseat Labour candidates by campaigning for the Conservatives in 48 marginal seats. According to official 2011 figures, there are 1.4 million Indians in England and Wales. The words ‘damage limitation’ spring to mind, so expect a few more mandir visits from Labour in the run-up to the election.
Corbyn says of the Sikh founder:
‘We remember his inspirational message of every one of us being equal, working together for the benefit of all, and always striving for peace and justice...These founding values of the Sikh religion are values which also mean so much to me and to my party, the Labour party’.
Why not also tell Sikhs that Labour has unequivocally backed a controversial definition of so-called ‘Islamophobia’, which could lead to an absurd situation where it is ‘Islamophobic’ for Sikhs (and Hindus) to merely discuss their history of persecution under India’s extremist Muslim invaders? Although the government rightly rejected the definition, it has since been adopted by a number of Labour-led councils as well as by the Mayor of London. If this wasn’t bad enough, it may not have even occurred to Corbyn that the treatment of British Jews under his leadership is not consistent with the very Sikh teachings he praises.
Conservatives have also offered us snippets of comedy gold. Earlier this year, while campaigning in Birmingham, the city's mayor Andy Street inadvertently referred to a Sikh temple as ‘Guru Nanak Mosque’ on live television. In recent visits to Sikh temples, Boris appears to have learnt from a 2017 gaffe when he visited a gurdwara in Bristol. At the time, he was unable to contain his extraordinary enthusiasm for Britain’s scotch whisky sales to India – failing to remember, of course, that practicing Sikhs are prohibited from drinking alcohol. Understandably, he got an angry response from a woman while the men remained silent.
I do hope one day to overcome my cynicism about politicians and their photo-op visits to places of worship. The truth is my scepticism stems from the former prime minister David Cameron’s own admission about his first speech in a gurdwara back in 1996. Unsure how to address the congregation of worshippers in Stafford, a friend provided some valuable advice: ‘Well, just remember to say that British Sikhs are incredibly hard-working and remember to say that they’ve won more Victoria Crosses than any other ethnic group in the British Army, and you’ll never disappoint.' I’m still undecided about what annoys me more: politicians who think we're all stupid or the smug ‘community leaders’ who host them with their irritating Cheshire cat grins.