May 22, 2001
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Punjabi slugfest puts Southall in spotlight

Shyam Bhatia
India Abroad Correspondent in London

The roar of two Punjabi politicians slugging it out in a London constituency has overshadowed the other 54 South Asian candidates competing for seats in the forthcoming British general election.

Never before has there been such Asian interest in a British parliamentary constituency as there is in the battle being fought between Labour Party standard-bearer Piara Khabra and radio station owner Avtar Lit, an independent, who claims to represent the true interests of Punjabis settled round London's Heathrow airport.

The two have been at personal loggerheads ever since they announced their rival candidacies for this key constituency.

"The Labour Party's view is that we don't consider the independents a serious threat at all," Khabra told India Abroad in an exclusive interview. "Their view is that it's not worth meeting them and so I'm just ignoring him.

"The vast majority of people here are white voters and they don't know who the hell he is. They will vote on the basis of issues, on the performance of the government in power and the promises of the party in opposition.

"His election address only talks about Southall. But if you show this to the majority they say, 'to hell with that'. Are upkeep of toilets and street-cleaning appropriate to a manifesto?"

Asked if he would be prepared to cross swords with his opponent at a public meeting, 76-year-old Khabra replies, "I don't want to give him any credit because he's not a politician. And a public meeting should discuss national issues like health, education and the economy. We have to stay above panchayat level."

Lit, 51, inevitably has a completely different take on what their differences are. "Mr Khabra has taken exception to the democratic process," he told India Abroad. "All candidates canvass, meet, laugh, joke, but Mr Khabra takes exception to anyone standing.

"We're looking for a change in Southall. There's very little that has happened here in the last few years. Mr Khabra says the central government is taking care of everything, but we want local services taken care of and not just at the national level. Local services have been neglected and that's the view over here."

Meanwhile, the lesser-known Liberal Democrats are also fielding a Punjabi in order to keep up with the two main parties. Fifty-six-year-old Baldev Sharma is seen by many as a "spoiler". By common consensus, he has no chance of winning, but he will almost certainly divide the Labour protest vote that first-time candidate Lit hopes to cultivate.

Southall businessman and community leader Brij Mohan Gupta says Sharma's impact on the voters so far has been negligible. "My feeling is that Liberal Democrats are loyal to their party and will vote for the party candidate. Mr Sharma will be able to draw a few more from his personal clan because Indian society is loyal to local people.

"For example, if he comes from Jalandhar he may attract a few extra votes from fellow Jalandharis. But for the moment Khabra's lead is so large that he seems untouchable. Yesterday in Southall I didn't see Sharma anywhere, but Lit was going from shop to shop canvassing and holding press conferences on the road."

Lit, current owner of the popular Asian radio station, Sunrise Radio, has been a loyal Labour supporter for years. In fact, as he explained in great detail to India Abroad, he is a far more authentic representative of Labour Party thinking than the incumbent MP.

Despite such protestations of loyalty, Labour prefers to stick with the tried and tested Khabra. A proud Socialist, he is regarded by many as the grand old man of Asian politics in Britain. Khabra has been vehement in his criticism of Lit. Last week he shocked an interviewer from a local newspaper by telling him that Lit would do himself a favour by returning to India.

The irony of this particular declaration is that both men were born in Jalandhar district. Linked by a common geography, they nevertheless are poles apart when it comes to political rivalries.

Lit has so far refused to be drawn into a slanging match. He says he is only asking for a chance to be elected and wants voters to send him to Westminster so that he can "correct the failures" and change things for the better.

Although the whites have a clear majority in this particular constituency, Asians in Southall have always given the area a distinctive flavour. Thanks to the sparkling business establishments on the Broadway, the area is known by the host community as the "Jackson Heights" of London.

This is the home of Britain's first chaat house, not to mention the Glassy House pub where beers may be paid for in Indian rupees.

"In the last 55 years Labour has always won and the Conservatives have always lost in Southall," explains a local Asian businessman. "It's the second safest seat in the country for Labour. Whoever stands on a Labour ticket is sure to win.

"Economically, it's a vibrant community. Teachers and even airport workers who have worked and saved for 20 years own two and three houses each. Every third person is nearly a millionaire. Culturally, we maintain the traditions we brought over from the subcontinent.

"That's why you have a mix of temples, mosques and gurdwaras that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. People come from all over the world to watch the latest Bollywood releases, to shop for saris, jewellery and other items. In fact, you could say we are a microcosm of British Asian society."

True to tradition Southall opinion polls confirm Labour is in the lead for the coming election. Yet, even if there is a last-minute upset, Southall's Asian families are confident that Punjabi culture will remain alive and continue to resonate within the corridors of power in Westminster.

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