Indians have good reason to celebrate Rishi Sunak
It is difficult to overstate the symbolic significance of Sunak’s premiership. He is the first British Prime Minister of color; the first who is openly and proudly not a Christian; the first child of two immigrants. And he reached No 10 Downing Street at the youngest age of anyone in over a century.
Nevertheless, some will try to minimize it. A Labor MP tweeted that it “wasn’t a win for Asian representation”, because Sunak is also absurdly wealthy. It’s simplistic and cynical. Also, many Asians are incredibly wealthy. There was even a movie about it.
Few things fit the moment less than the Guardians’ attempts to define what constitutes a “true Asian.” Yes, Sunak is wealthy and connected. He worked in investment banks and hedge funds and, like 16 of 17 post-war graduate British prime ministers, he went to Oxford. (Diversity would certainly have been better served had he gone to Cambridge.)
The Indians remember, however, that no matter how well you were educated, what universities you attended, there was a limit to your rise in the Raj. The Imperial Glass Ceiling was as hard as the Kohinoor Diamond and Sunak shattered it.
Members of the Indian diaspora also note that Sunak’s origin story bears an uncanny resemblance to many of them. He is the son of an NHS doctor and a pharmacist; his grandmother sold her wedding jewelry to pay for his trip to England in the 1960s. If he went to Winchester and Oxford – well, that’s surely not news that a large portion of Indians from the middle class of his parents hope this for their children?
As for these riches – yes, his wife Akshata Murty is the daughter of a billionaire. But Narayana Murthy is also one of the most beloved figures of these Indian WhatsApp groups; he co-founded one of India’s most iconic businesses and lives in the same apartment in Bengaluru he lived in before he got rich.
To flatten Sunak identities is to deliberately downplay the layers of experience, varieties of effort, and richness of background that immigrants bring to any population.
Sunak was not directly elected or even chosen by Tory members, and no one believes his appointment will usher Britain into a post-racial era. And yet, the speed of British change is remarkable, especially as diversity came late to British politics. When India was an imperial possession, two Parsis were elected to Parliament. But it wasn’t until 1987 that another person of color entered the House of Commons.
Indeed, within living memory, a leading conservative predicted that Commonwealth immigration would pour “rivers of blood” through the streets of England. Enoch Powell’s party has now chosen the child of one of the people it warned against, but to restrict immigration as much as Powell would have liked.
Sunak neither transcends nor challenges common clichés about Indian immigrants. He has neither the exceptional charisma of a Barack Obama nor the ideological fervor of a Margaret Thatcher. On the contrary, what appeals most to his conservative colleagues at this point seems to be his air of solid and reliable skill and diligence. Sunak hasn’t hidden or obscured how much his past means to him either: two Diwalis ago he was photographed placing diya lamps on the steps of 11 Downing Street.
Most Indians know that a member of our diaspora in power is unlikely to be, in practice, good news for the rest of us. Politicians have long had to worry about accusations of dual loyalty. The modern Conservative Party was built by a man of Jewish origin, Benjamin Disraeli. But, as a recent biography of David Cesarani points out, he hasn’t lifted a finger for Jewish causes. For her part, Sunak reappointed Suella Braverman – another British Indian – as home secretary, just weeks after she caused a stir by naming Indian immigrants as critics.
Representation is just that: representation. This means that a person of your heritage can access the highest offices of the State. This does not mean that this person will offer you special protection.
But the representation has a value in itself. Disraeli proclaimed the British Empire in India to please Queen Victoria; now his party and his legacy are in the hands of Rishi Sunak. Winston Churchill called the Indians “a beastly people with a beastly religion” and said he had “not become the king’s prime minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”. Sunak is now the Prime Minister of the King and the British Empire among the unmourned dead.
So if next year Sunak happily puts Diwali candles outside the house that was once Churchill’s, you’re not Indian if you don’t smile a little. This is the only identity check I will allow.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• What is not on Sunak’s to-do list? Ending Racism: Pankaj Mishra
• Britain’s Tories are ready for Rishi. Is it too late? : Therese Raphael
• What Rishi Sunak brings to the Conservative mess: Adrian Wooldridge
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy“.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion