Rishi Sunak’s story has lessons for India and Britain

Rishi Sunak, then the British chancellor of the exchequer, lights earthen lamps outside Downing Street for Diwali in November 2020. Reuters

Rishi Sunak’s meteoric rise to become the first British prime minister of Indian ancestry on Tuesday triggered celebrations in the subcontinent and among its diaspora. So historic was this moment for so many Indians desperate to shed their colonial baggage that it compelled wall-to-wall coverage on India’s social media and in its mainstream press.

“Indian son rises over an empire,” the news channel NDTV declared. “Sunak: Ex-India Company set to run Britain,” screamed a headline on the front page of The Telegraph India. Its rival, The Times of India, went with “Rishi Sunak, a ‘proud Hindu’, is the new UK PM.”

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There is an understandably triumphant feeling among many that 75 years after India won independence, an “Indian son” will run what remains of the British Empire. Emotional outpouring isn’t such a bad thing occasionally, whether it takes the form of hilarious memes or even some of the tasteless chest-thumping that was on display. But after the initial brouhaha, it’s important for Indians – and I speak as one – to acknowledge the progress that countries such as Britain have made towards building multicultural societies, which made possible the “rise of Rishi” – whatever one might make of his politics.

Just as critical is honest self-reflection.

Right to left: Rishi Sunak's father, Yashvir Sunak, mother, Usha Sunak, wife, Akshata Murthy, and Michael Gove cheer during an event at Wembley Arena, London in the campaign for Sunak to be leader of the Conservative Party, on August 31. PA Wire

Right to left: Rishi Sunak’s father, Yashvir Sunak, mother, Usha Sunak, wife, Akshata Murthy, and Michael Gove cheer during an event at Wembley Arena, London in the campaign for Sunak to be leader of the Conservative Party, on August 31. PA Wire

The buzz around the “Indian son”, for instance, stands in stark contrast to how Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving former head of India’s Congress party, was treated by fellow politicians and large sections of the electorate when she was on the cusp of becoming prime minister almost two decades ago. Born Sonia Maino into an Italian family, Mrs Gandhi moved to India after marrying former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. After entering politics almost a decade after her husband’s assassination, she led the Congress party to parliamentary victories in 2004 and 2009. Yet, the prospect of an Italian-born prime minister of India was a bridge too far for the political class at the time. Mrs Gandhi’s patriotism having been questioned, she swiftly nominated Manmohan Singh to lead the government in both terms. The move was both selfless and politically astute, as it won Mrs Gandhi more admirers and drew to the party more voters.

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Mrs Gandhi’s case isn’t point-for-point comparable with that of Mr Sunak – for one, she left Italy for India as an adult, while he was born and raised in Britain. But her example is relevant, with her having stepped down as party president on Wednesday presumably to retire from active politics, at a time when ethnic and religious minorities still find it challenging to reach the top of India’s political hierarchy. Dr Singh, it’s worth pointing out, remains the only non-Hindu prime minister India has ever had.

This is not to say that no progress has been made – on the contrary, Indian politics over the past four decades has empowered a large number of diverse caste groups all over the country – but there’s still some way to go before we see a Muslim, Dalit or tribal figure running New Delhi.

But how does one process the double standard that exists among those who even today cannot stomach a Sonia Gandhi rising to the top, while at the same time, cheering on a Rishi Sunak?

For decades, Indians have been following closely the successful careers of the diaspora as well as of people of Indian origin – from the late astronaut Kalpana Chawla and US Vice President Kamala Harris to the current generation of CEOs commanding America’s largest corporations. Their successes are viewed as a “vindication of Indian excellence”, as the New York-based author Salil Tripathi told the BBC.

But while there is such a thing called merit, Indians sometimes fail to recognise that “Indian excellence” would remain a myth if not for the warm embrace of other countries. In fact, over the past 50 years, some 30 men and women of Indian or partially Indian origin have been either heads of government or state around the world, from South America to East Asia.

That they all rose to the top of their respective political structures is certainly a “vindication” of their “excellence”, hard work and, let’s face it, good fortune. But it’s also the result of the open immigration policies put in place decades ago in several of these countries, particularly the US and UK.

It’s also the outcome of a political vision to create multicultural and meritocratic societies, where people can succeed irrespective of where they come from and what their ethnic, cultural and religious make-up is. It’s for this reason that, as the Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai pointed out, Britain today has a “Hindu prime minister, a Muslim mayor of London and a Christian king”.

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Back in 2005, Crispin Blunt, an MP from Mr Sunak’s Conservative party, expressed to me his desire to see Tories open the doors to the British-Indian community. He pointed to the aspirational nature of the community and its success in building its people up, despite the odds. Mr Blunt even predicted that British Indians will lead the party one day. Seventeen years later, he has been proven right.

It has been an uphill climb for Indian minorities living in the West, of course. Which is why today British Indians feel that Mr Sunak’s ascension matters – because race still matters.

As the author Sathnam Sanghera points out in his book Empireland, Indians were systematically excluded from top jobs in Britain as recently as the post-war era. In a recent tweet, he quoted George Curzon, the former viceroy of India, as having said: “There were no Indian natives in the Government of India because among all the 300 million people of the subcontinent, there was not a single man capable of the job.”

This is what, according Sanghera and others like him, makes Mr Sunak’s premiership symbolically significant going forward. However long he lasts in the rough and tumble of British politics, which still has to contend with racism and bigotry, he has become a “living bridge” for British Indians, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put it.

Despite Britain’s continuing struggles with race relations, Mr Sunak’s story is about the positive impact of immigration – and it should inspire more such stories around the world.

Alas, in his own cabinet, Mr Sunak has colleagues who don’t appreciate his story enough. It would take more than a sense of irony, certainly foolhardiness and a lack of foresight, if he were to cave in to their hard right-wing agendas and derail Britain’s immigration policies that he and his family and countless others directly benefited from, all in the name of canny politics.

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