U.K.’s first Hindu leader is symbol of both progress and privilege

Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, delivers his first speech after becoming prime minister outside 10 Downing Street in London on Oct. 25, 2022. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris J. Ratcliffe.

Rishi Sunak made history as the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to celebrate Diwali, lighting candles on the steps of his official residence at No. 11 Downing Street.

Two years later, on the day of the same festival, the 42-year-old Conservative was preparing to move into the prime minister’s lodgings next door, as both the first person of color and the first Hindu to take the country’s top job.

He is at the same time a symbol of how far the country has come on race and how entrenched the economic and class barriers to social mobility have become.

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At Neasden Temple in north London, one of the largest and oldest traditionally built Hindu places of worship in the country, tens of thousands of people funneled through the gates on Monday dressed in their best for Diwali, representing the triumph of good over evil and new beginnings.

Many lauded Sunak’s achievement and what it means for the 1.4 million British people of Indian descent, the largest and wealthiest ethnic minority in the U.K., particularly when it comes to home ownership.

Sixteen-year-old Swarda Yeolekar said her parents were thrilled about his meteoric rise to power, some 75 years after India won independence from British rule. But she, as part of a younger generation often more concerned about opportunity and exclusion, had different priorities.

“It’s a good thing that other people from other religions or other cultures are trying to lead the whole nation” she said, “but that doesn’t really matter to me.” What she wants is a leader who understands the struggles of ordinary people, especially during a cost-of-living crisis.

Sunak’s background does little to foster the impression that he can do that.

Like most other prime ministers since World War II, Sunak attended the University of Oxford and before that the elite private school, Winchester, highlighting criticism that the country’s leaders largely come from a narrow educational pool.

He spent three years at Goldman Sachs and is even richer than King Charles III, largely thanks to the fortune of his wife, heiress Akshata Murty, whose father Narayana Murthy is the founder of software giant Infosys Ltd.

“One of the things I worry about is that we’re dominated by leaders from professional class backgrounds,” said Lee Elliot Major, a social mobility professor at the University of Exeter. “These things are important, because what you want is a leader who empathizes with the people they serve.”

As Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Covid pandemic, Sunak already formed a part of one of the most diverse Cabinets in U.K. history. He has spoken about the importance of his faith, and takes his oath in the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu sacred text.

But the idea that he is a breakthrough is also undermined by his path to the premiership. Sunak only came to power after losing the leadership election this summer to Liz Truss, who gained more votes from the Conservative party’s grassroots members.

“It’s not quite an Obama moment as we haven’t had an election,” said Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust, a non-profit advocating for racial equality.

Frustration has already erupted that he is now the second leader in a row to have been chosen without a public mandate, as public support for the Conservative party slumps to historic lows.

Sunak was born in Southampton to parents of Indian descent who migrated to Britain from east Africa in the 1960s – his father worked as a doctor in the NHS and his mother in a pharmacy.

“He will always have an uphill task,” said Neil Govind, who works for a beer, wine and sprits wholesaler, as he waited for his family on the busy street outside the temple. That’s both because of the economic troubles the country’s facing and because he’s from a minority. “White Anglo-Saxons will always be number one,” he said.

Although Sunak has talked about his own experience of racism as a child in an interview with the BBC, he said he can’t imagine something similar happening today, and the issue of racial inequality hasn’t been a focus of his agenda. He has also endorsed policies, which have been criticized by those working in the immigration sector.

When running to be the Conservative party leader over the summer, Sunak said he’d continue the controversial program to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, and tighten the definition of what qualifies for asylum. He voted for Brexit during the 2016 referendum, and said in an interview with LBC this year that it was in part to make sure the U.K. could control its borders.

“It makes you proud, but – I don’t know,” said 44-year old Priyesh Varshani, who was waiting outside the gates of Neasden Temple with his family. “Let’s see what he does with it.”

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