Election of first Kiwi-Indian electorate MP marks a milestone

9:42 pm on 21 October 2020

By Sandeep Singh*

Opinion - Like the rest of the nation, the Kiwi-Indian community is left stunned by the dramatic electoral verdict that many experts believe may have the potential to alter the future trajectory of New Zealand politics.

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New Hamilton West MP Dr Gaurav Sharma on the campaign trail with Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Twitter / Dr Gaurav Sharma

In the absence of any scientific poll or survey, there is always a challenge of accurately assessing how the voting patterns within the community would have changed, if at all, during this election.

However, many in the community would have voted to reward Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's stellar leadership in managing Covid-19 and keeping New Zealand safe - at least for now.

The majority of the Kiwi-Indian voters would not fall into the category of the so-called "tactical voters" who, according to recent commentators, are pointing out that some chose to shift their votes tactically to the Labour Party, to deny the Green Party a stronger position in the new government.

The Kiwi-Indian community clearly were not facing any such dilemma, and their relationship with the Green Party remains - despite some growing interest in green politics in recent years - at best supremely indifferent.

Traditionally, it has always been the popularity and the charisma of party leaders that has been instrumental in swinging many undecided voters one way or the other.

The personal popularity of Sir John Key was instrumental in swinging the community's votes towards the National Party away from the Labour Party, and it seems Ardern has decisively swung back those undecided voters within the Kiwi-Indian community towards Labour in this election.

Given the community has faced some pressing issues in the last term - particularly the immigration mess, where there was a noticeable outrage because of a perceived sense of systemic bias on partnership visa woes and Indian marriages - this is nothing less than dramatic.

Immigration woes, particularly those emanating from an absence of political decisiveness and clarity on the policy, and operational bungles, directly impact on the real lives and futures of people within ethnic migrant communities and can often influence votes of others within the community.

In that regard, the latest election results also have another stunning, if not dramatic, significance for the Kiwi-Indian community.

Mixed bag of results for Kiwi-Indian community

If the number of total co-ethnic MPs in Parliament was any measure of a community's rising political aspirations then the Kiwi-Indian community has been left poorer after this election.

For at least the last three terms, the Kiwi-Indian community sent three co-ethnic MPs in the Parliament, via different political parties.

In 2017 the National Party had two Kiwi-Indian MPs, Kanwaljeet Singh Bakshi and Dr Parmjeet Parmar, both based in Auckland, while the Labour Party had one Kiwi-Indian MP, Priyanca Radhakrishnan.

National's Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi (left) and Agnes Loheni are both now out of Parliament.

Kiwi-Indian MP Kanwaljeet Singh Bakshi has not made it back into Parliament. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

In 2014, along with the two National MPs, New Zealand First was able to bring a Kiwi-Indian MP into Parliament, perhaps setting an expectation within the community that three might be the new normal when it comes to having representation.

This election has only returned two Kiwi-Indian MPs - Radhakrishnan and the first-time Labour MP from Hamilton West, Dr Gaurav Sharma.

Bakshi, who was the first India-born MP of the NZ Parliament, along with Parmar, who were both List MPs, are not returning to Parliament post-election.

Another stunning outcome is the election of the first-ever electorate Kiwi-Indian MP in Parliament - an outcome for which apparently many within the community have been secretly hoping for many years. Sharma stormed home on election night in Hamilton West.

A small segment of the Kiwi-Indian community have become disillusioned with the system of list MPs in recent times, saying the system did not allow the community to hold their co-ethnic MPs to account.

Most within the community might not necessarily share this pessimism. It is unclear if that is because of their enhanced awareness of the political process within an immigrant-based multicultural country, or pure indifference.

Labour's Priyanca Radhakrishnan.

Priyanca Radhakrishnan is a Labour List MP. Photo: Supplied.

Political experts firmly believe that New Zealand's MMP system (which allows list MPs in Parliament based on party vote share) is best suited to bring forward the views of minorities, including the ethnic migrant minority community, in mainstream politics.

To what extent the success of electorate MP Dr Sharma will transform the mutual relations of "accountability and responsibility" between the Kiwi-Indian community and their respective co-ethnic MPs remains to be seen.

For now, this is indeed a step forward in terms of the community's overall engagement and integration within every level of political decision-making in this country.

* Sandeep Singh is the editor of Auckland-based community newspaper The Indian Weekender. The views expressed are the author's alone.

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