• Thursday, July 18, 2024

News

Rajesh Agrawal: Championing change and community cohesion

Labour’s Leicester East candidate discusses ending “14 years of Tory Chaos”

POLICY PRIORITIES: Rajesh Agrawal

By: BARNIE CHOUDHURY

Our editor-at-large, Barnie Choudhury, meets Rajesh Agrawal, one of the hopefuls to take a seat usually regarded as a Labour stronghold.

Leicester is one of those cities in middle England which gets ignored in general elections.

No big-name politicians really grace us with their presence – no Rishi, no Keir, no Ed and certainly no Nigel – and that’s OK.

Well, actually, it isn’t alright – it’s downright rude.

Like every wannabe date, we want to be wooed – you need to earn our cherry and not just expect we’ll give it away on a promise.

The Tories keep away because Labour usually hold all three of the city’s seats – Leicester West since 1974, and Leicester East since 1987 (don’t forget Claudia Webbe ran on a Labour ticket).

Leicester South is another story – but since 2005, it’s been Labour’s to lose.

Forget the Lib-Dems and other parties – they don’t really stand a chance, and I wonder how many will get five per cent of the vote to keep their £500 deposit.

Here’s a fact. In 2021, Asians became the largest minority group in Leicester for the first time.

They overtook white people – 43.4 per cent compared to 40.9.

And that’s a big problem for Labour – speak to south Asians, especially along the city’s famed Belgrave Road – the Golden mile – and they’ll tell you that they feel the party take their vote for granted.

But don’t look away now – there’s a great story to be told, and it’s in Leicester East.

New readers start here.

Keith Vaz, elected for Labour in 1987, stepped down after a scandal in 2019.

Labour then selected Claudia Webbe, and she won with a much-reduced majority that December … before they kicked her out after a criminal conviction in November 2021.

Since then, Webbe served as an independent, and she hopes the good people of Leicester East will vote her back in this time around.

Except … sources have told Eastern Eye that even though she was born and raised in the city, few regard her as ‘one of them’.

They felt that Webbe was foisted on them after Vaz decided not the stand.

To make matters worse, Labour has once again parachuted in another outsider.

Humble beginnings

Rajesh Agrawal’s campaign office is a tiny affair in the back streets of north Evington.

We meet on a dull Monday morning, and cars are parked on either side on the pavement choc-a-bloc.

Agrawal is charming, eloquent and enthusiastic, and he’s just finishing off a meeting.

“I was born and brought up in Indore in central India, very humble background,” he explained when I asked him about his beginnings.

“My mother used to teach girls from underprivileged background in Indore.

“My father used to work as a mechanic in the irrigation department in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

“So, a very humble background, but I had a good education, I went to a Catholic school in Indore.

“I finished my education in business, I got a degree in business, and I then found my first job in Chandigarh, and then went to Mumbai, designing and selling websites, very exciting times.”

His back story could be pivotal to his success because in the LE5 postcode area in which his constituency is based, 54 per cent are Indian.

“In 2001 I got an opportunity to come to London, and I still remember the day when I first landed at Heathrow Airport.

“I’d never been on a plane before, never been outside India before, and I did not know anybody here.

“But here I was in the UK, this country welcomed me with open arms, I set up my own business, which did very well.

“Then I got associated with numerous charities because I wanted to give back to society.

“I worked with Oxfam, Prince’s Trust, the Cheri Blair Foundation for Women where I was a trustee.

“But then I thought, what better way of giving back than joining politics?

“So, I joined politics and ended up being deputy mayor (for business) of one of the greatest cities on earth, London.

“You know, people talk about the American dream, I’m living the British dream.”

Change

There is something Bambiesque about Agrawal – his smiling demeanour appears quite genuine.

But he has learnt the political art of repetition – getting his stump-speech-soundbite-messages across time and again.

“There’s no doubt there are challenges, but then I think it’s very clear, speaking on the doorsteps, that people are tired of this 14 years of Tory chaos,” he declared.

“People want change at a national scale, and that’s very, very evident in all my conversations.

“You know, people can’t get GP appointments, dentistry appointments, hospital appointments.

“Class sizes have gone up because of underinvestment.

“Joblessness, more than 50 per cent of children in Leicester East are living in poverty.

“So, the challenges faced by people nationally are also the challenges faced here by people in Leicester East, and as such, they’re very keen on this change from 14 years of Tory chaos to a viable, strong leadership of Keir Starmer.”

But hasn’t he been parachuted in, and knows nothing about Leicester, I asked?

“I’ve been coming to Leicester East for a very long time,” he explained, “as somebody who was born and brought up in India, I know in Leicester East, it’s got the biggest Indian community in the UK, and by the way, most of them are either first or second generation immigrants, like I am, so it’s a city of immigrants, and that’s why I chose Leicester East.

“I’m speaking to hundreds, if not thousands of people, it’s never come up on the doorstep.

“All people want is a good MP, they’ve been let down by their MP, they feel under served by their MP, and they want a competent person.

“Most people in Leicester are either first or second generation immigrants, like I am.

“So, they’ve been asked this question before – you are an outsider, what are you doing here?

“They’ve been asked this for decades and decades, the last thing they will do is ask it to anybody else.”

Leicester disturbances

The thing about Leicester is that it was once held up as a model of multicultural integration.

But the disturbances in the summer of 2022, based along the fault lines of Hindu-Muslim tensions, have sullied that reputation.

The city is desperate to get past that, and those with whom I have spoken want someone who will advocate for Leicester and return the reputation it once had.

The man who until his selection was a deputy to London mayor, Sadiq Khan, responded quickly to that challenge.

“I’ll champion Leicester all around the world, I’ll make the case for both national as well as international investment here in Leicester,” he confirmed.

“I’ll champion the improvement in public services, including the NHS in Leicester, so that people who are struggling to get appointments, whether it’s in GP or hospital appointments, they’ll get better.

“And another very important point, particularly for Leicester, is about bringing communities together.

“I’m very proud to be the first Hindu deputy mayor of London, working alongside the first Muslim mayor of London.

“I went to a Catholic school in London, I lived in a Jewish neighbourhood.

“It’s all about working with communities together.

“Leicester is a great example of communities living together, and I want to make sure that that continues that way, and community cohesion would be a big part of my priority.”

Vaz effect

What outsiders to Leicester don’t realise is that Keith Vaz has dominated the political landscape for more than three decades.

Even today, his name instils a frisson of excitement – brand Vaz overshadows everyone else’s, and his reputation to fix problems is legendary across the city and wider afield.

“I’m not trying to match anybody here,” the fintech entrepreneur batted back when asked how he would cut through Vaz’s popularity.

“I’m just trying to match myself, what I did in London in last eight years as the deputy mayor, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, bringing billions in international investment, improving working conditions [for] so many people, supporting over 20,000 businesses.

“I’m just trying to match my own record, rather than trying to look at others.”

Throughout the country, we have seen how the Muslim communities have reacted to Labour’s lack of calling for an unequivocal ceasefire in the current war in Gaza.

They have now changed their stance, but for many Muslims this has come too late.

On Friday (14), social media posts showed Tan Dhesi, who represented Slough, being harangued by Muslim protestors outside a mosque.

Leicester too has a sizeable Muslim contingent (23.5 per cent) – so is he worried by anti-Labour votes because of the conflict in the Middle East?

“Let me say at the outset, when you see the images, the pictures and the videos from Gaza, it’s absolutely heart wrenching what’s happening there.

“That’s why the Labour Party has called for an immediate ceasefire, all violence must stop, hostages must be returned.

“We need to work towards a longer-term peace process in the region.

“We need to get the humanitarian aid [in] as soon as possible, and it’s very important that in the middle of all the politics, we do not forget the people of Palestine and their plight.

“They are suffering day in day out, and that must be the number one priority for us to get the aid for them and an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.”

Fighter

As we draw to a close, I remind the candidate that south Asians with whom I’ve spoken feel Labour take their vote for granted and haven’t earned their support.

Agrawal said that things had changed under the current leader claiming that Labour was “a party that values their votes”.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge for this hopeful will be to show he is his own man, putting Leicester first and his party second – something his main opponent has turned into an election pledge.

“I came to this country with £200 in my pocket just 23 years ago,” he stressed.

“I’ve seen poverty in my childhood, significantly I’ve got where I’m in life, like most migrant workers, with my sheer hard work, courage and resilience.

“And I’ll continue to fight to win the vote and trust and confidence of people in Leicester East in the same spirit.”

The general election is on 4 July, and you will need a photo-ID to vote in person. Details here: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/voting-and-elections/voter-id/accepted-forms-photo-id.

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