Rishi Sunak’s ascent to U.K. leader hailed in India as ‘incredible feat’

Rishi Sunak, former U.K. chancellor of the exchequer, during the campaign launch for his bid to become leader of the Conservative party in London on July 12, 2022. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Hollie Adams.

NEW DELHI – Rishi Sunak has become the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of color, and many in India and its diaspora hailed the milestone in British politics as a testament to the country’s multiculturalism.

In India, the development took on additional meaning, particularly among nationalists who celebrated the prospect of a politician of Indian origin – and a practicing Hindu – taking the reins of a former colonial power that once ruled their country.

Sunak, 42, cruised to victory in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest Monday on his way to the prime minister’s office – coinciding with Diwali, the most important festival of the year for Hindus.

In Britain, Sunak’s heritage was being celebrated as “going against the grain of deeply racial hierarchies of 21st-century Britain,” said Avinash Paliwal, a lecturer in diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies. But in India, he added, “it’ll be celebrated and feed into the popular narrative of rising Indian – even Hindu – global power.”

Anuj Dhar, a Delhi-based author who has written about Indian freedom fighters, hailed the “incredible feat” that a person of Indian descent would lead Britain. Rajdeep Sardesai, a well-known former news anchor, noted that Sunak’s victory took place exactly 75 years after Indian independence, adding in Hindi: “That’s the spirit!” And Priti Gandhi, a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said she cheered “with great joy” the rise of a “proud Hindu who publicly acknowledges and respects his culture and roots.”

Sunak secured the backing of Conservative Party lawmakers five days after Liz Truss resigned – his former boss Boris Johnson dropped out of the leadership race, and his other challenger, House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, conceded that she did not have enough support from the party.

Sunak, the former finance minister whose parents emigrated to Britain from East Africa in the 1960s, was born in Southampton, England. His father worked as a family doctor, and his mother ran a pharmacy. Sunak has spoken frequently of the sacrifices they made to ensure his success.

For years, Sunak has had a relatively low profile in a country where he was often referred to in news reports as the son-in-law to Narayan Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys and one of India’s most revered tech entrepreneurs. Sunak is married to Murthy’s daughter, Akshata Murty, a fashion designer and heiress with an estimated fortune of more than $1 billion.

Still, as his career soared, Sunak garnered attention in India not only for his ancestry, but also for his faith. He attracted discussion, particularly among India’s Hindu right, after calling himself a proud Hindu and speaking about his religious devotion. In 2019, Sunak took his oath of office holding the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy book. And as he campaigned for Tory leadership earlier this year, he tweeted photos and videos of himself praying on Lord Krishna’s birthday and performing a cow worship, a ritual in Hinduism. Those clips went viral and were picked up by major television networks in India.

Ashok Malik, head of the Asia Group consultancy’s Indian practice and a former senior adviser to the Foreign Ministry, said Sunak’s ascent will bear little impact on relations between Britain and India. But Sunak’s story highlighted the success of one influential community within the vast Indian diaspora, he said: Indians whose middle-class families migrated to Africa during the British Empire and moved during the latter half of the 20th century to Britain.

Several high-profile British politicians, including former home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, hail from similar backgrounds.

Sunak’s rise “has little to do with India directly, and we can’t lay claim to it in India,” Malik said. “It’s entirely about the achievements of one strand of the Indian diaspora, and about the country that they moved to, where they were embraced and where they thrived.”

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank on immigration, identity and race, said, “It is symbolically very, very significant.” Katwala, who is of Indian and Irish descent, said it was viewed as a “historic landmark” but noted that Sunak’s win was unlike that of President Barack Obama’s across the Atlantic, where race was a large feature of his campaign.

In the U.K., little fuss has been made of Sunak’s heritage, he said, which feels an almost “accidental achievement.” It is either a “sign of the normalization of ethnic diversity in British politics” or an indicator of the “scale of the crisis” that made Sunak simply the “last man standing” amid Conservative Party chaos this month.

To be sure, Sunak has been met with some racist comments. A man who identified as a Conservative Party member and Johnson backer called into British radio station LBC over the weekend to publicly denounce Sunak, describing him as “not even British” and accusing him of not loving England.

There are more than a million Britons of Indian descent in the United Kingdom, according to the latest government data, from 2021. About 86 percent of the population of England and Wales is White, with people from Asian ethnic groups making up the second-largest cohort, at 7.5 percent, followed by Black ethnic groups at 3.3 percent, according to census data.

Older members of Britain’s Indian communities will probably have a large sense of “pride,” said Katwala, the British Future director, remembering their own journeys as Commonwealth migrants whose presence was “contested” as they sought to make the U.K. home.

However, he added, younger people and other minorities in Britain may feel more “conflicted” about Sunak’s success because of his right-leaning politics and “particularly his social privileges.”

Although his race may be unique among British prime ministers, Sunak’s class is not.

He is one of the wealthiest lawmakers in Parliament, and his wife’s tax affairs caused controversy during his leadership campaign in September, when it emerged she maintained “non-domiciled” status, paying some taxes to the Indian treasury rather than the British agency her husband oversaw. And a video clip from a 2007 BBC documentary resurfaced in recent months in which Sunak suggests he doesn’t have any “working-class friends.”

Sunak has said he “grew up watching my parents serve our local community with dedication” and sought to “make that same positive difference to people” when he became a member of Parliament for an area of Yorkshire, in northern England, in 2015.

“My parents sacrificed a great deal so I could attend good schools,” he said on his official website. “I am passionate about ensuring everybody has access to a great education.”

Like many prime ministers before him, Sunak studied at an elite private school where his academic excellence propelled him to the position of “head boy” (a British high school accolade) before going on to the University of Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics.

Later, he moved to the United States and studied for an MBA as a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, where he met his wife. They have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka. “I have been fortunate to enjoy a successful business career,” he said, after co-founding a large investment firm that worked with companies from Silicon Valley to Bangalore. He has also worked for the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Nonetheless, his political rise has been swift. He was appointed minister for local government in 2018 and chief secretary to the treasury in 2019. In February 2020, he became one of the country’s youngest chancellors of the Exchequer, or finance minister, after being promoted by Johnson. His senior government role came just as the coronavirus pandemic broke out, shutting down much of the global economy. Sunak was praised as a steadying force on the British economy, although he received criticism for encouraging people to “eat out to help out” and for business loans that have saddled the U.K. with debt.

After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter movement swept much of the world in 2020, Sunak spoke out about the racism he has faced in public life and about the struggles his family overcame as immigrants to Britain. “As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country,” he tweeted. “But a better society doesn’t happen overnight – like all great acts of creation, it happens slowly, and depends on the cooperation of each of us toward that common goal.”



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