Govan's millionaire knight fights for his political life

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The Independent Online
Like a knight in shining armour, Mohammed Sarwar came home to Glasgow last year as the rescuer of two young Scots damsels in distress overseas.

Mr Sarwar's personal mission to "save" Nazia and Rifat Haq from forced marriages in Pakistan was a wonderful photo opportunity for an aspiring politician. The millionaire businessman turned to face the press and warned: "This atrocious abuse of women is intolerable." His actions cast him as a hero in a tale which appeared to embody the cultural conflict experienced by the 20,000-strong Pakistani community in Glasgow.

At the time of the rescue, in April 1996, Mr Sarwar had been embroiled in a bitter fight for the Labour candidacy for the new seat of Glasgow Govan. He had been beaten by one vote by Mike Watson, a sitting Labour MP, the previous December, but protested that the selection process was unfair.

In May, weeks after the forced marriage affair hit the headlines, the Labour party national executive committee ordered a re-run and Mr Sarwar won the candidacy. It was said that Labour chiefs were worried about losing the Asian vote in Scotland. Yet, while Mr Sarwar had impressed Labour bosses with his liberal views, his position as a community leader was far from secure.

His Pakistan rescue was denounced by some as a "disgrace to Islam". Among the critics was Badar Islam, another prominent Glasgow Pakistani, who thought Mr Sarwar's actions had brought "shame" on the Asian community. Mr Sarwar's response was illuminating. "I know I have my enemies and they will use anything they can to try and attack me," he said.

Anyone turning a humble corner-shop enterprise into an pounds 85m cash-and- carry empire, as Mr Sarwar did after arriving in Scotland from Pakistan 20 years ago, is likely to pick up their share of antagonists. But Mr Sarwar had manoeuvred himself into a position where he was fighting his first election with bitter adversaries within his own constituency party, and in his community.

The rescue trip, which had propelled him into the public eye, was also the cause of many of his problems.

Abdul Haq, the father of the two rescued girls, announced that he was suing for pounds 1m damages over Mr Sarwar's allegations about his part in the forced marriages.

As campaigning began in Govan, the cash-and-carry boss found himself confronted by a crop of "Stop Sarwar" candidates, trying to whip up the kind of protest vote normally reserved for celebrity MPs like David Mellor.

Two friends of Mr Haq's announced that they were standing: Zahid Abbasi, a fellow Muslim, was an Independent Conservative, while Peter Paton was running on an Unofficial Labour ticket. Even more confusingly, Mr Islam, who took a dim view of Mr Sarwar's rescue, now stood against him as an Independent Labour candidate.

The campaign, like the Labour selection, quickly became acrimonious.

Days before the election, Mr Paton went to Strathclyde police with allegations of vote-rigging after 279 voters gained late entry to the electoral roll. The police are still investigating, but Mr Sarwar argues that there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to exercise their right to vote.

On 1 May, despite intense competition from the Scottish Nationalist Party, Mr Sarwar was elected, by a margin of 2,914, as Britain's first Muslim MP. Before polling day, Mr Sarwar claimed that his enemies were offering up to pounds 250,000 for information that would sully his honour.

And, last night, after Mr Islam's dramatic allegations of corruption, this outspoken champion of decency was doing his best to persuade Labour chiefs that he himself had not paid thousands of pounds in bribes.