Sadiq Khan’s brilliant victory as London mayor is a feather in the cap of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, which the leftist leader is striving to lick into an agreeable shape. How is it of use to be reminded profusely that Khan is a Muslim or is of Pakistani extraction? Parochial exultations here will necessarily smack of hypocrisy and are disingenuous.
Celebrating the first ‘Muslim Lord Mayor of London’ runs the risk of surprising the disparate groups of open-hearted Londoners who chose Khan over his opponents’ perverse recourse to religious innuendo. Does Khan’s victory indicate that racism is over in Britain? The answer is no. It will be a while and may require a nationwide change of heart. Khan’s election is a milestone in that direction.
In any case, the plain truth is that Sadiq Khan would not have survived in Pakistan, not as a Muslim, not as a non-Muslim. There was one Labour Party-like (or possibly better) hope in the country — in the 1970s — but its leaders compromised with right-wing Muslim zealots. And the zealots found a self-proclaimed Muslim despot to hang their former benefactor. That was that. The daughter tried to rekindle some hope for an open society but sadly ended up creating the Taliban. The liberal soufflé has not risen since in Pakistan. Where would Khan fit?
Does Khan’s victory indicate that racism is over in Britain? The answer is no.
Well, the news of his victory in London coincided with another cowardly murder of an open-minded Pakistani, the murder of Khurram Zaki. The slain human rights activist would have savoured the Labour-Corbyn-Khan win had he lived to rejoice. Khan too was a respected rights activist before plunging into politics.
And here we can say that Zaki’s killers do seem to belong to the stock of self-proclaimed Muslims, the kind that can and do make life difficult for people like Khan. And by making it difficult for Khan, they make it equally uphill for Corbyn’s old Labour politics and its growing allies, Bernie Sanders among others.
Some will say since we supported Barack Obama as the first black contender for the White House why not celebrate Khan as the first Muslim mayor of London. A simple answer would be: history. Obama’s election ushered a point of departure in American history. And then he was the most progressive hope doing the rounds at the time, more so after the dark years of Bush presidency. To use a counterfactual argument, however, would Colin Powell have clinched the support of black voters, or even Obama, for that matter, had he been a Republican candidate?
The analogy is actually relevant in Khan’s case. In a parallel narrative on the London circuit, a suggestion is being circulated by some of his admirers, inappropriately in my view, that he won the election despite or perhaps because of policy differences with Corbyn.
Another view on offer, with Corbyn as the obvious target, is that Khan won because he reached out to Tory voters and businesses. The claim suggests that Labour under Corbyn doesn’t have what it would take to offer a strategy to win a wider range of support than he had inherited. Let’s hope this view is wrong for I do believe that Khan’s major winning asset if not the only one was the Labour Party in its new changing avatar. But let me return to the issue of parochial identities coming into play.
The reason why I might seem more sensitive than some others about narrow identities could be because of their overuse in India. India, we are told ad nauseam by fellow Indians, is secular as it has the Khan brothers as movie heroes, a Muslim vice president, a Catholic (is she?) leader of a national party and so on. People would helpfully add how beautiful Urdu sounds and also how their grandfathers spoke Persian. The fact is with all these facets of important symbolism, Indian society is hurtling towards increasing prejudice, a well-defined majoritarianism and state-sponsored violence.
Besides, how much longer are we going to be stuck in the Hindu pani and Muslim pani vacuity, the water pitchers thus labelled on railway platforms in pre-Partition India? Add to that an Ahmadi pitcher, a Jewish pitcher and a Christian pitcher in an imaginary mayoral fray. What would the original inhabitants of the city, the pagans, have to say about it? Are the Hindus in London or Tamilians for that matter going to jockey for their community member next to make the mark? If so to what avail?
In any case, as the Guardian said in its assessment of Khan’s campaign, it has become standard practice for London politicians to proclaim the city’s ethnic diversity as its strength. On the other hand, there was appeal by Khan’s rivals to the city’s dark underbelly. For example, Zac Goldsmith attempted to woo Indian and Tamil Londoners — “London’s Hindus,” as the Mirror’s headline put it — with tales of threats to their family jewels because Khan proposed to impose wealth tax.
We are told that in the run-up to the polls, Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, escalated his drive to scare up votes in London’s suburbs. Leaflets were sent to voters in Harrow and elsewhere with messages tailored to arouse hostility to Sadiq Khan.
One leaflet claimed that Khan “supported” Corbyn who “wanted to BAN [India’s] Prime Minister Modi from visiting the UK”. It added that Khan did not attend the vast welcome event held at Wembley stadium for Modi when he visited London last year.
The fact is that both Corbyn and Khan eventually did meet Modi. And that tempts me to wonder if the Labour tally would not be higher had the two not met the controversial leader as a matter of principle enshrined in their liberal ideals.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2016