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Election for mayor of London: the Pakistan connection

March 27, 2016

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A combo of the three candidates: (from left) George Galloway, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith.—Courtesy Daily Mail
A combo of the three candidates: (from left) George Galloway, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith.—Courtesy Daily Mail

THE three leading candidates running to be the next mayor of London — one of the highest profile jobs in British politics — all have close links to Pakistan.

The grandparents of the favourite, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, moved from India to Karachi at the time of partition. The Conservative party’s Zac Goldsmith is a former brother-in-law of Imran Khan and the current outsider in the political betting markets, George Galloway, has a long-standing association with the Bhutto family.

Press coverage of the race has focused on the issue of class: while Zac Goldsmith is worth an estimated £200 million, Sadiq Khan is the son of a bus driver and a seamstress who emigrated to the UK in 1960. He and his seven siblings grew up in a three-bedroom publically owned apartment. His main pitch is that London provided great opportunities for him and, under his leadership, the city would do the same for others.

Zac Goldsmith’s campaign team includes Jemima and Imran Khan’s son, 18-year-old Sulaiman Isa Khan. Goldsmith has in the past described the PTI leader as the “answer to Pakistan’s problems” and the admiration seems to be mutual. In 2010 Imran Khan campaigned for Goldsmith during his successful bid to become the MP for Richmond.

George Galloway’s opposition to Zionism and the occupation of Iraq has, over the years, won him the support of many British Pakistanis and he has continued to court the Muslim vote in the mayoral elections. When Sadiq Khan reacted to a jihadist attack in Europe by urging British Muslims to challenge extremist views, Galloway accused him of turning his own people into scapegoats.

Despite such attacks, Sadiq Khan has made consistent efforts to avoid being seen as a candidate who supports Muslim causes. He not only launched one of his election campaigns from a pub but has also backed gay marriage — a stance that led to his facing death threats. Sadiq Khan has urged British Muslims not to focus on foreign policy and counter-terrorism issues, but rather on poverty and inequality which, he argues, have a greater impact on the lives of the majority of British Muslims.

The mayor of London has one of the highest profile jobs in British politics. The last two people to do the job, Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson, are better known politicians than most cabinet ministers. The mayor’s powers, however, are quite limited and relate mainly to land development, transport and some aspects of policing.

Voters whose families came to the UK from South Asia are key to any London election. The city’s Indian-origin community, for example, is estimated to be over half a million strong and Zac Goldsmith has made a particular effort to woo them.

Earlier this year he distributed leaflets with photos of him shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the leaflets’ mention of only Hindu festivals left many Indian-origin Sikhs and Muslims complaining that a London mayoral candidate should be aware that not every Indian origin voter in the city is a Hindu.

Goldsmith’s campaign also struck an awkward note when it suggested that a Labour wealth tax could hurt Indian families “owning gold and valuable family heirlooms”. Some Indian-origin voters complained that amounted to patronising stereotyping.

MQM FACTOR: The result will be closely watched by the leadership of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in London. Zac Goldsmith has gone on record supporting Imran Khan’s efforts to get legal proceedings against the MQM underway in London. “If the MQM’s Altaf Hussain has incited violence from his UK home against anti vote-rigging demonstrators, he must be prosecuted,” Goldsmith said.

For his part George Galloway, who once made a strong speech in the British parliament denouncing Altaf Hussain, has said that if elected, he would move against the party. Sadiq Khan has made no public statement about the MQM.

Reflecting London’s status as a global city, the mayoral race has provoked interest in a number of countries. One Israeli paper characterised the contest as being between a practising Muslim and the aristocratic scion of a Jewish family. Other Israeli media outlets have noted that both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have expressed support for a London festival celebrating Tel Aviv scheduled for 2017. George Galloway, by contrast, has been highly critical of the idea. “So both Zac and Sadiq are backing a Tel Aviv Festival in London,” he tweeted. “If I’m mayor there will be no cooperation with the apartheid state.”

Galloway’s Pakistan connections came to public attention in 1998 when Nawaz Sharif’s anti-corruption enforcer, Saifur Rehman, leaked documents revealing confidential contacts between Galloway and Benazir Bhutto’s government regarding funding for advocacy work on the Kashmir issue. But far from seeing it as case of shocking financial malpractice, many Pakistanis thought the money had been well spent on a legitimate lobbying effort. In 2013 Galloway told the Karachi Literary Festival that he has been “with the Bhutto family since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged and will stay with them till my last breath”.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2016