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Bumper Diwali for British Indians: Rishi Sunak to become UK’s first Indian-origin PM

After a season of doomsday predictions and criticism, Rishi Sunak, the MP from Richmond, has managed to cement his rise in British politics with many historic firsts.

October 24, 2022 / 09:41 PM IST
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Image via Twitter/RishiSunak)

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Image via Twitter/RishiSunak)

As soon as Rishi Sunak was back in the race to be Britain’s next prime minister after a difficult, arduous season of political scandals and mudslinging, Sunak’s religion and roots were back in focus.

While all the other adjectives alluding to his immigrant, brown, South Asian roots are in order, the moniker some sections of the British press have used to describe Sunak over the past few days pertain to his religion - Hindu and Hindutva.

This curious mix of religion and politics is a recipe for political incorrectness, but when it comes to Sunak, reactions are often extreme and their pitch high.

It's time to move beyond these monikers, in the interest of Britain. Let’s call it what it is. Rishi Sunak is Britain’s first non-white prime minister. He is also the first Indian-origin, British-Asian prime minister of Britain. He is also, at 42, the youngest prime minister in more than a century. He is the prime minister who is richer than the monarch sitting in Buckingham Palace, stone’s throw away from the British Parliament, the seat of government.

There are many firsts here, not just for British history but also Indian history, and the list could go on. Sunak’s detractors and opponents, who have revised versions and stances in a matter of days, finally have egg on their face.

Sunak’s win came after the withdrawal of Conservative leader Penny Mordaunt from the Tory leadership race Monday afternoon. This clears the way for Sunak to succeed Liz Truss seven weeks after she outvoted him in a close leadership contest. Since the resignation of Truss, Sunak was the frontrunner to be the PM with more than half of Tory MPs backing his candidature. His earlier stance on economic policy - calling Truss’ plan to borrow money during an inflation crisis a "fairytale" with disastrous consequences - proved right as the former prime minister’s regime progressed.

Where do we go from here? How do we read this victory as British politics moves forward with its third prime minister in under five months?

Firstly, it’s symbolic of something uplifting about the British political system: however challenging it may be, it still has paved the way for Sunak to occupy the pinnacle of political power. In colonial Britain, this would have been an impossible feat for the offspring of middle-class parents of Indian-origin. But in the new, immigrant-conscious Britain, British-Indians are a successful community, and Sunak is one among 1.4 million of them.

Prasanna Raghav, a senior media professional who closely follows British politics for its deep impact in India, aptly described it: “Kudos to the system that despite its fallacies, gives a chance to newcomers, immigrants, others. This is a cracker of a Diwali for Indians in Britain."

This is not to say that immigrants do not have to work doubly hard to succeed. Sunak’s political journey is a case in point. His personal wealth has been used in public criticism to overshadow his personal story of rise in British politics and before that, as a successful, self-made hedge fund manager.

The fact that he found love in billionaire heiress Akshata Murty while studying in the US proved to be another challenge to his political journey. Sunak has been labelled too rich to understand middle- or lower-class economic struggles, though ironically, his own roots and upbringing have been middle-class.

His economic policies, often bordering on austere, unpopular measures, have been slammed as anti-poor. In particular, his residential homes, cars and clothing have been accounted for, labelled, and calculated for extravagance, and used to demonise him as an unfeeling, flashy politician.

To add to this, his open affection for his Indian values, cultural and religious traditions, have worked against him. His first move since resigning from Boris Johnson's cabinet was a campaign video reminding us of who he is – a British Indian whose story is the story of a new Britain, home to millions of successful Indians who have made Britain their home. In the video, Sunak put his value system front and centre, and traced it to his middle-class Indian upbringing.

Is Sunak’s rise a reflection of a post-racial, religiously diverse Britain? It’s a complex question and one could argue either way.

However, Indians in Britain overwhelmingly welcome the development, and find Sunak’s prime ministership a natural progression from his role as chancellor of the exchequer (he resigned from this role on July 5, 2022).

"It is only right that Rishi Sunak wins this race as he successfully helped thousands of businesses from closing down during the pandemic with his furlough scheme during his time as the chancellor. He is as British as any other in the Tory party and has a deep understanding of this country and the challenges it faces," said Stavan Desai, senior communications officer of the Police Federation of England and Wales.

Gopal Sathe, an Indian journalist who recently moved to London, said: "I'm not really aware of the nuances of British politics, but based on the choices in front of the party members, this seemed like the most realistic outcome after Truss' resignation."

Others cautioned about the challenges that lie ahead of Sunak. “It's an interesting development, especially with India celebrating 75 years of independence. But this is also a very tricky juncture, given the state of the British economy. This is Sunak's time to stay calm and think his policies through, while showing fortitude. Given all the chaos, and low confidence in the Tories, there is a lot riding on how Sunak manages the situation. There is no room for mistakes," Shruti Chakraborty, a heritage professional who is based in Kent and works in London, reasoned.

It’s true that Sunak has now been fashioned as an economic messiah, the best man to steer Britain out of its economic crises. But the task before him is utterly daunting: revive the Tory party’s approval ratings and appeal with the electorate, revive the NHS and the British economy, tackle the cost of living crisis, the strikes and blackouts, and the spectre of Brexit refusing to rest.

Already, irrespective of the outcome of the Tory leadership race, the Labour Party have reiterated their call for a general election, as have the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch and a supporter of former Prime minister Boris Johnson, warned of a turbulence within Conseravtive Party, too unruly for Sunak to lead.

Time will tell if Sunak can overcome all these challenges and continue the winning streak.
Pallavi Singh is an independent journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal. She tweets at @econhistorienne
first published: Oct 24, 2022 08:42 pm