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Too rich to be PM? Why Britons are unhappy with Rishi Sunak for all the wrong reasons

Why claims of Akshata Murthy being richer than the queen and calling Rishi Sunak "Maharaja of the Dales" could undo some of the progress the British-Indian community has made.

April 09, 2022 / 05:27 PM IST
Akshata Murty and Rishi Sunak. Akshata, who has had 'non-domicile' status in the UK for the past nine years, announced on April 9, 2022, that she will now be paying taxes on her income worldwide in the UK. (Photo: AFP)

Akshata Murty and Rishi Sunak. Akshata, who has had 'non-domicile' status in the UK for the past nine years, announced on April 9, 2022, that she will now be paying taxes on her income worldwide in the UK. (Photo: AFP)

There is a war going on in Ukraine, the living-cost crisis has engulfed Britain and speculation over the successor of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been raging constantly. In this din of British politics, it’s easy to forget three facts about chancellor Rishi Sunak: He is the first non-white leader in British politics in the race for Britain’s top job, he took over office as the youngest-ever chancellor of Britain, and he is arguably one of the most qualified to do the job.

That’s a big deal.

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 (not all friendly yet) Britain, British-Indians are a successful community, and Sunak is one among the 1.4 million of them.

Yet, in a matter of weeks, his popularity for Britain’s top job has plummeted. Once hailed as the biggest threat to current UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s term, Sunak is now in the eye of many storms, not entirely of his making.

The war in Ukraine led to the withdrawal of Infosys' operations from Russia last week. This happened after Sunak came under fire for the operations of the Indian IT giant of which his father-in-law Narayana Murthy is the founder. While the UK government has imposed stringent sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime, India has chosen to stay neutral. For Sunak, this has necessitated a tough balancing act.

But criticism of Sunak hasn’t stopped here. There are reams more of newspaper reports on Sunak’s and his billionaire wife Akshata Murthy’s private wealth. Sunak 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.

Reports have emerged in the UK media on Murthy’s tax status, and Sunak's cars. News reports have also called him a "political novice" in the chancellor’s job - the first cabinet job Sunak has held - an indictment of his meteoric rise through the ranks of British politics. Sunak started his political innings five years ago, and it’s been hard for his detractors to digest this.

To be sure, there are critiques of his policies as a chancellor. But the ongoing attacks on the Sunaks for their private wealth is now bordering on the ridiculous. That Sunak is wealthy - in fact, he is one of the richest MPs in the British Parliament - is not news. Indeed, Britain’s new-found discomfort with wealth, particularly the private wealth of its chancellor, is what seems to be new here.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that 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. "You can come to this country with very little… My grandparents came with very little from a village in northern India, and two generations on, their grandson has this enormous privilege of running as a candidate for Parliament. For my family, that route was education," Sunak has said.

This emphasis on education is very Indian, as millions of Indian immigrants in Britain will admit today. Nisha Tandon, who helms a leading arts organisation headquartered in Belfast, came to the predominantly white Northern Ireland in the 1970s and became one of the most recognisable faces of the community through her work over the years.

"The one thing that defines me, and I think I can say that about the Indian community in the UK, is that we raise our children with a lot of emphasis on education, so much so that anyone knows that about us. It’s all part of the set of values we care deeply about. In addition to this, we are law-abiding people, we follow rules, we work hard and we assimilate very quickly. These values transmit through generations," Tandon says.

Tandon’s views are not just conjectures; the UK government identifies the Indian community as one of the most successful in the country. This progress doesn’t mean there are no challenges.

Dr Rohit Dasgupta, an academic, and a Labour councillor and Commissioner for Social Integration and Equalities in the London Borough of Newham, underlines the struggles of the Indian community to overcome structural racism and inequality that exist in the country. "Indian communities across the UK have been resilient in fighting for employment rights. Our Indian community stands on the shoulders of activists such as Jayaben Desai and the Indian workers association who worked hard paving the way for much of the employment and trade union rights we now enjoy."

In Sunak’s case, this has meant becoming the first head boy of Indian origin at Winchester, then going on to study at Oxford and Stanford, and to tremendous successes as a hedge fund manager, and chancellor at the exchequer. Before he made it to Winchester and Oxford, he waited tables at a London restaurant. Over the next decade, he would set up his own private investment business, Theleme Partners, with an initial fund of £536 million.

Sunak’s rise is a giant leap from the time when Indians, however entrepreneurial, were liaised with for their capital, but that didn’t quite bring them on par with their British counterparts.

Dwarkanath Tagore, popularly called the ‘Prince of Bengal’ by the British and credited with starting India’s first biracial managing agency Carr, Tagore and Co., partnered with the British but couldn’t earn a membership to the Bengal Club where the social life of British entrepreneurs in India played out in elite ghettos. In the early decades of the 19th century when the Bengal Club came into being in colonial Calcutta, there were high entry barriers for membership that explicitly excluded Indians, even the capitalists with truckloads of money.

Sunak’s place in British politics has to be seen through the same prism. In two centuries since Dwarkanath Tagore forged equal business partnerships with the British, Sunak is doing the same in the British political sphere which has not yet seen a non-white prime minister. Coincidentally, though, Sunak has a title from the British press just as Dwarkanath Tagore had gained from the British. While Sunak’s wife Murthy, often targeted by the British tabloids, is often called a ‘princess’ for her wealth; Sunak himself has been repeatedly called the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’ by the newspapers.

Sunak has often been quick to emphasise that he is British more than Indian, a badge he wears proudly, and goes to lengths to explain. He doesn’t have to - obviously. He is not merely a British leader with solid credentials, he is an indicator of the progress Britain has made since its prominence waned as a racist, colonial power. In critiquing the Sunak couple for their private wealth and lampooning them with grand but unfounded titles, Britain runs the risk of squandering the progress it has made.

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