Belfast Telegraph

Meet the Tory in a true blue turban out to win over voters of Upper Bann

Amandeep Singh Bhogal is the first Sikh to stand for election in Northern Ireland. Ivan Little joins him on the campaign trail

He wasn't shy about pranking Ed Miliband on a train by producing a mask depicting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, but the Conservatives' candidate in Upper Bann - the first Sikh to stand for election here - didn't see the funny side of it as I asked him the first of 10 planned questions about the constituency he hopes to represent.

He clearly had no idea that Portadown and Glenavon were the area's main footballing rivals.

"I'm here to learn," insisted the affable would-be - but probably won't-be - MP for Upper Bann, Amandeep Singh Bhogal.

And my quiz queries about Master McGrath, a Lurgan spade and the LVF among others went unasked.

The father-of-two later texted me to say that some of his more fancied rivals for the Upper Bann seat probably wouldn't be able to answer questions about London.

Which begged the observation that his opponents hadn't been parachuted into England to contest the election there. Not that he saw himself as a blow-in to Northern Ireland in the first place.

Mr Boghal hit the headlines earlier this month after a video appeared online of Mr Miliband asking him during a chance encounter in a railway carriage if he would make sure the Sikh vote turned out to support him.

Mr Boghal responded by pulling out the Sturgeon mask which he had earlier worn as a joke at the launch of the Labour manifesto in Manchester. It didn't go down well with a fiery-faced Mr Miliband.

Mr Boghal's profile has been considerably lower in Upper Bann.

As we talked in Banbridge where his election team - his father Harbans, on a day-trip here, and Englishman John Lund, who lives here - handed out leaflets.

One of my first questions for Mr Boghal was one I suspected he might have been asked before in the run-up to an election scrap in which some say he's not so much a no-hoper as a why botherer?

What I wanted to know was if he really, genuinely and truly believed he had any chance of finding himself on the famous green benches in the House of Commons.

"Well, I'm not going to say I have it in the bag. But it's up to the electorate to decide on May the seventh," he replied with all the quick-fire slickness of a man who had used the line before. Which he admitted he had done in several previous interviews.

Later on I threw the question at him again to see if the prospective politician would come up with the seasoned politician's trick of saying the same thing, only differently.

But variance came there none from Mr Boghal, who is one of 16 Conservatives standing in all but two of Northern Ireland's constituencies about which they know virtually nothing, if that.

He did, however, say that the Tories had a long-term electoral plan to bring "normal, mainsteam, real" politics to Northern Ireland, which he added had been for too long based on sectarianism.

"My big slogan which I say to everyone on the streets is that politics should be about job counts not headcounts."

In Banbridge the true blue Tory in the true blue turban - the choice of colour was no coincidence - tried to give the impression that he was totally at home even though he'd never set foot in Northern Ireland before he threw his hat into the ring in Upper Bann, which was apparently well down his list of first choices for his general election debut.

He's lost three previous local government contests but he was proud to say that his eight-year-old daughter had beaten him to electoral success, having just been mandated by her school peers to be one of their councillors.

He said he had been warmly received as he tried to press the flesh, but further education teacher Tanya McCullough from Banbridge gave him a run for his money, if not his vote.

Standing toe to toe with Mr Bhogal, she argued her point with passion about the lack of jobs for her young pupils, but drifted away when Mr Lund weighed into the debate.

"That just put me off," she said. "And anyway, I don't think the Tories really understand politics here."

Rodney Russell from Lenaderg gave Mr Bhogal a polite hearing before dropping the bombshell that he wouldn't be voting for him or anyone else.

"I haven't voted for years because of all the back-handers, the dirty tricks and the expenses scandals. People say you're wasting your vote if you don't use it but I used my vote for years and we're still in the same mess" he said

Born in India, 31-year-old Mr Bhogal grew up in a council estate in Bexley, Kent, joining the Conservatives when he was still at school, and he defended the Tories' decision to put largely unknown candidates up for election here

"I believe in the United Kingdom as a whole so it shouldn't matter where somebody comes from. What matters is where they are going. And I want to take Northern Ireland and Upper Bann forward."

He insisted he wasn't a complete Northern Ireland novice and said he knew his fellow Punjabi, Lord Diljit Rana, the prominent Belfast-based businessman and hotelier.

And even though the election battle is nearing its climax, Mr Boghal said he was opting out for a few days to go to New Delhi on a flying visit. Not for a holiday, but rather to have top-level meetings to pitch Upper Bann and Northern Ireland to potential Indian investors. "I will tell them that this is a place to invest, a place with endless potential." he said.

Bizarrely, he claimed to have a "providential" link with Ireland in that in 1920 the Connaught Rangers mutinied in his home town as a protest against the activities of the British Army in Ireland and flew the tricolour and wore Sinn Fein rosettes.

"They set up the first ever free Irish government in exile. So there's some sort of history there," he said, though it was the sort of anecdotal flashback that might appeal more to republicans than unionists.

For a man who admitted that his knowledge of Northern Ireland was hardly extensive he had no hesitation about rounding on politicians here.

"I know there's a legislative Assembly at Stormont which never works, which doesn't function. But I was shocked to hear that there's no opposition. However, I would be a strong voice for Northern Ireland at Westminster."

Mr Boghal said he hadn't been subjected to any racist abuse in Upper Bann though he was aware of the problems encountered by eastern Europeans in Belfast.

He said that he attended a church service in Magheralin on Palm Sunday and added that, as a Sikh, he was met with hospitality not hostility.

On the lampposts above him in Banbridge were the smiling faces of Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson and the DUP's last MP David Simpson, but there were no posters of the bearded Tory anywhere to be seen.

Even Fossetts Circus which had just rolled into town had a higher profile with their publicity.

"Posters on lampposts are not the way we do things in England and Scotland. It's very much a tribal thing, a parochial thing here," he said, even though other Tories in the Northern Ireland elections haven't demurred from becoming poster boys and girls.

And besides, Mr Boghal, a fourth generation farmer, said he was preparing to wheel in tractors to haul 18ft by 12ft trailers with posters around the constituency.

The turbaned Tory and electoral success may be strangers but he did play up his part in getting Boris Johnson elected as London's Mayor.

"I led the Back Boris campaign in Bexley," he said, though he stopped short of backing Boris all the way to Downing Street.

"Mr Cameron is doing a wonderful job in getting rid of the deficit. And I think he will lead the long-term economic plan for recovery."

Just before he left to drop his father back to the airport, I tried again with my quiz.

I wondered if Mr Boghal knew why Craigavon in the heart of Upper Bann was called Craigavon.

He replied: "I wouldn't be able to answer that question right away. But, as I say, I am here to learn."

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