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Indian values are a cornerstone of Rishi Sunak's bid to be the UK's next prime minister

The super wealthy politician, now in the running to be leader of the Conservative Party and the UK’s next prime minister, could embrace a few life lessons from father-in-law N.R. Narayana Murthy’s life.

July 09, 2022 / 02:32 PM IST
Rishi Sunak resigned as the UK's finance minister on July 5, saying that "the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously". He was the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson until last year. Lately, though, Sunak has faced some criticism for not giving enough cost-of-living support to households, and for his wealthy wife Akshata Murty's non-domiciled tax status in the UK. among other things. (Source: Reuters)

Rishi Sunak resigned as the UK's finance minister on July 5, saying that "the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously". He was the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson until last year. Lately, though, Sunak has faced some criticism for not giving enough cost-of-living support to households, and for his wealthy wife Akshata Murty's non-domiciled tax status in the UK. among other things. (Source: Reuters)

Rishi Sunak, Britain’s chancellor until the evening of July 5, 2022, is now campaigning to be the UK's next prime minister. His first move since resigning from Boris Johnson's cabinet: reminding us 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 home.

In a fresh campaign video launched last evening, Sunak put his value system front and centre, and traced it to his middle-class Indian upbringing.

Sunak, like many Indians in the UK, is a vegetarian, teetotaller, lights up his home on Diwali, and visits a childhood temple in Southampton for family prayer days. He even took oath in the House of Commons on the Hindu religious text Gita.

Back in India where his in-laws live, a similar set of values is in place. His father-in-law N.R. Narayana Murthy, Indian billionaire and founder of IT giant Infosys, is well-regarded for his value system and fiercely humble, middle-class living.

Those unversed in the cultural values many Indians share, might find them hard to understand, even unrealistic. It’s no wonder certain sections of the British social media are outraged. To place these customs into context might be a challenge. Indians have earned this reputation wherever they go. It’s evident in how parents raise their children, teachers teach in class, and workers work, anywhere. The IT worker segment is a prominent - and growing - representation of India abroad. For a diverse India, this is not a diverse representation, but the value system is the unifying thread and that just about works.

It works for the larger South Asian community, too. While studying for my Masters in London, my Pakistani classmates and I formed study groups, went out for dinners and lunches, shared homecooked meals and recipes, and spoke in a funny mix of Hindi-Urdu. We told each other: "We are same-same". That Sunak paired up with Sajid Javid, the Pakistan-origin British leader who resigned as health secretary within minutes of Sunak’s resignation, reminded me of the many joint acts of follies and celebrations I have shared and continue to share with friends from Pakistan. We are diverse, but we celebrate the ties that hold us together.

This comes together much the same in the resignation letters and speeches both leaders put out. Even as other resignation letters poured on July 5-6 talking of the non-negotiable importance of integrity in public life, the vehemently critical letters from the Asian leaders questioning Boris Johnson’s lack of integrity allow for a case to be made for the cultural value system they both seem to share, or at least, allude to.

Rituals and values have special meanings among South Asians. In the very white Irish city where I live, South Asians have swarmed in big numbers in recent years and made a cultural assertion. In the year that I have been in Belfast, I have been invited to numerous celebrations and festivals organised by South Asians, where there is free food, music, and advice.

We have time for each other, even if it's just random conversation that the other person desires. Sometimes, we are masters of impromptu acts of kindness or generosity. We barely know you but will invite you home for dinner or bring the kadhi or the kheer for you at work. If you do even a bit of the same for us, we will be loyal friends to you for life. But this is not about food or song and dance; this is about the value system that shapes what we eat, drink, or do, broadly.

In February 2020, Sunak stepped in as Chancellor right after Javid resigned. And then, Tuesday morning, within nine minutes of each other, both leaders handed in their resignations from two of the most powerful cabinet positions in the UK government. Sunak said it wasn’t coordinated; he barely knew. But in words and values they said they wanted to uphold, they connected.

Conscience, loyalty, compromise, teamwork, key words as far as I can see from both their resignation letters are core values underpinning the shared cultures in which they were raised. It’s what we are told growing up as children - be loyal; don’t hurt anyone; adjust where there is conflict; don’t go to war when you can compromise; work with everyone. It’s reflected in our multicultural, diverse societies, in the social divisions that necessitate assimilation and adjustments; in tense features of caste, class and religion where working together is a way to survive; in our meditative states, prayers and azans, where gratitude is a way of life, reflected in how we take favours to heart and work to return in excess.

And then, the famous Asian commitment to family values - “I learnt early on that family matters. Families nurture our children and teach them good conduct; support us, unconditionally; pass on culture, religion, and identity. No government could even begin to replicate the profound bond family forms,” Sunak has earlier said - and the moral authority of parents over their children which finds a reference in Ayesha Hazarika’s piece in the Evening Standard. Hazarika comments, funnily, that the Asian moms of both the leaders might have had a lot to do with their resignations hinting at the moral code governing much of their childhood and better part of their adulthoods – in short – "do the right thing". That’s where conscience comes in.

Yet, there is a lot that separates the two. Of the two politicians, Sunak is significantly richer, and fair enough, in his own right, and married to a woman richer than the Queen. Yet, while wealth makes life easier for many, Sunak has been in the eye of a storm, at times unfairly. His economic policies as Chancellor, some of which have backfired, have also been criticized, which makes his political journey difficult. He has been asked if his wealth sits comfortably with the difficult decisions that come with the job of the chancellor – taxing the rich, deciding on benefits, or free school meals, et al. It has been argued, for the very wealthy Sunak, preaching austerity to the poor might get very difficult, and it has.

Sunak could take a leaf out of his father in law’s life. Sunak is a self-made success story. His father, a general practitioner, and mother, a pharmacist, crossed over to Southampton in the UK in the 1960s from Africa and raised Sunak with a particular emphasis on education. Sunak—who studied at Winchester College—has often talked about his parents’ sacrifices to educate him, and the intergenerational mobility Britain offers to immigrants. “I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. My overriding memory of childhood is how hard my parents worked,” he has often recalled.

Clear resonances there with father-in-law N.R. Narayana Murthy’s life, but for one exception. Sunak owns big things unlike Murthy. He reportedly owns a £10 million property portfolio in his constituency of Richmond, North Yorkshire, with a £1.5 million Georgian manor in Yorkshire across 12 acres, including an ornamental lake. His wife Akshata, daughter of one of India’s richest men, has a personal fortune estimated to be around £300 million.

Nothing wrong with it, but as the slew of resignations today show, for those in public life, it takes more to find favour, especially in difficult times. The past few months have shown that he could be more transparent and humbler. His wife until recently was non-domiciled for tax purposes, which simply meant saving enormous amounts of tax. Even though lawful, this is the least desirable of ways to be transparent in public life.

While Sunak’s resignation mentioned that he may never become a minister again, his fresh bid to become the prime minister of UK will be important for India-UK relations, even though his political journey as a British Indian hasn’t been without its share of struggles. "The diasporic people, either migrated directly from India or through various countries of Africa in the 1950s and '60s, have developed a strong commitment to hard work, intellect, and education amidst a struggling history of securing livelihoods, racial discrimination, and paddling the two worlds: the old home in India and elsewhere and the new home in the UK. Sunak’s rise and resignation shows that the journey is not always smooth," says Dr Arun Kumar, Assistant Professor in British Imperial, Colonial, and Post-Colonial History, Nottingham University.

As second favourite to succeed Boris Johnson in the past, and as someone hoping to become the first person of colour to be UK prime minister, many speculate that his move to quit cabinet may open doors for him back into the corridors of power, this time as prime minister. While this may happen or not happen, Sunak may be key to the bridge that needs building to bring India and UK together as equal partners. As a child of Indian-origin, immigrant parents, Sunak is aware of the shared history and the need to look beyond history to enable people from both countries to study and work in fair working and living conditions; or in his words, a "rewarding karma bhoomi" where someone like him could become Chancellor, and likely, the prime minister.

These are good reasons for Sunak to start practising the Indian values he often talks about. Like he himself once said: "Our task now is to make sure that’s not the end of the British Indian story, but the beginning.”

Pallavi Singh is a freelance journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal. She tweets at @econhistorienne
first published: Jul 9, 2022 02:22 pm