18th February 2001

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Not far from home

Somebody once said - and I can not quite recollect who - that the more he heard about politicians, the more he loved animals.

As an animal lover myself, I take exception to whosoever made this caustic remark, because not all the latest archaeological or other findings have unearthed evidence of sleaze and corruption in the animal kingdom. On the other hand, one is never at a loss for such news of influence-peddling in the political world, be it in the developing or developed world. That is what makes one feel so much at home even when one is thousands of kilometres away from Sri Lanka's political epicentre. High ranking politicians and officials rub shoulders, not to mention click champagne glasses, with agents for arms dealers and top security officials engage in verbal fisticuffs while the frontline soldiers wonder how they are going to survive without body armour and ammo. The latest drama being played out in London's political stage has many ingredients that remind one of Sri Lankan theatre with only the dramatis personae and the locale being different. Take away the charges of racism and substitute for it political bias or conspiracy and this could have been staged at Colombo's Tower Hall to packed houses.

The other day some heavyweights from Britain's Asian community wrote to the Guardian and Mirror newspapers expressing their "profound disquiet" at the "ferocious witch-hunt" against one of their soul brothers..

The person being "subjected to an obsessive campaign of denigration", wrote Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord King of West Bromwich and Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green, was "Britain's first elected Asian minister", Keith Vaz, minister for Europe, in Tony Blair's government.

The peers were truly angry, it seemed, because of this sustained attempt to put down one from a community that had made a "tremendous contribution to British society in every walk of life".

Why is Keith Vaz being investigated? On the one hand the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards (does Colombo have one?) is trying to ascertain whether Mr Vaz acted with the propriety and conduct becoming of a parliamentarian and declared all the monies received from donors to fight the last parliamentary election, as the election law requires. That, of course, is not the only matter that interests Commissioner Elizabeth Filkin. There are allegations of "cash for favours" from British Asian businessmen and attempts to purchase a £900,000 house which raised questions of how he had made such money on a parliamentarian's salary and some other isues.

Just change some of the allegations, substitute arms deals or other tender issues or even simple deals like importing parippu or potatoes and similarities become visible to anybody who keeps tabs on what is going on over in Colombo or in London Town. A more recent matter, and the one that seems to preoccupy the Labour peers, was whether Keith Vaz used his influence or was instrumental in obtaining British citizenship for Srichand Hinduja, a very rich Indian businessman and one of four brothers. That might seem like a common occurrence in Colombo where politicians and officials often call diplomatic missions on behalf of some person and ask that a visa be issued. Here, however such acts are frowned on as abusing ministerial position. One cabinet minister Peter Mandelson, has already become a victim of this passport affair, having been forced to resign by Tony Blair.The whole unsavoury affair is being investigated by Sir Anthony Hammond QC, whom Blair appointed to head the inquiry, but one really wonders whether it would go beyond pointing a finger at Mandelson who has fallen out of favour with those in high political position. Sound familiar?

The umbrage of the Lords might have appeared more convincing had Keith Vaz been an innocent victim of vicious racism and media prejudice. But when birds of a feather rush to flock together, even those who take only a marginal interest in political ornithology begin to look closer and ask hitherto unintended questions.

So when the lordly letter appeared in the media on February 6, those who keep a note of happenings in society disclosed that the principal writers had all been elevated to the peerage by the Labour government just as Keith Vaz had been kicked up. Vaz was elected to represent Leicester East, a constituency with a substantial Asian vote, at the last general election and subsequently raised to higher political office. Earlier Prime Minister Tony Blair received a letter from the Hinduja brothers, the Indian family at the centre of much political heartburn for New Labour, not to mention the Congress Party in India. The Hindujas, now being questioned in India over the notorious Bofors arms deal during Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's time, asked why an Asian should not be elevated to political office. If within a few weeks Keith Vaz found himself in the Lord Chancellor's office, it was only because great minds some times think alike. The letter to the media by the peers is now being mentioned as both a tactical and a strategic mistake. It was perhaps natural for peers from the Indian community to come to the rescue of one of their embattled people, Keith Vaz, who has his origins in India's Goan, Catholic community. But in doing so the peers made the mistake of identifying themselves as representatives of the Asian community. India is a part of Asia, but Asia is not India, however much Britain's Indians might like to think so .

These Asian differences came to the fore when Keith Vaz, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, egotistically called himself a leader, if not the leader, of the Asian community in Britain. The Europe minister's Vaz-ly inflated ego was pricked last Sunday when Mihir Bose, an Asian journalist, wrote in The Telegraph, saying "I have certainly never seen him as my leader or representative".

The Labour peers have mounted the charge of racism because that is what grabs attention here now. Shouting racism grabs attention. The Labour peers are doing so because that is the most convenient way to draw a red herring across the Keith Vaz affair. By crying racism they are hoping to rally an aggrieved minority vote behind Labour.

Parliamentary elections are likely to be held this spring. One of Labour's great fears is that its traditional voters, disillusioned with Labour's performance, might stay away from the polls which would be disastrous for Blair. Already Labour holds several marginal seats where minority communities could easily decide the outcome. There are fears that about 50 Labour seats are up for grabs and a loss of the ethnic minority vote could seriously affect Labour's electoral outcome. But what the Labour peers who cry racism have failed to answer is this. It was Peter Mandelson the media initially went after for purportedly using his influence to get S.P.Hinduja, one of the brothers, British citizenship in one-third the normal time.

Digging into Mandelson's role led to all sorts of things emerging concerning Keith Vaz. If according to the lords the attention on Vaz is racism by the same logic what originally led the media to investigate Mandelson should also be racism. That, of course, is difficult to swallow. The peers have put themselves out on a limb with their flimsy cover-up. Now you know why I feel so much at home.

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