UK shrugs as Rishi Sunak becomes first Brown PM
LONDON – By winning the race to lead Britain’s Conservatives on Monday, Rishi Sunak will become the first colored prime minister to govern a country that once ruled India, much of Africa and far beyond.
It happened at the beginning of Diwali. The Hindu Festival of Lights celebrates the triumph of good over evil – and for some of the religious minds, it was congruence written in the stars.
India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised his co-religionist on Twitter, while extending Diwali greetings to the “living bridge” of Indians across the UK as a whole.
UK-born Sunak’s success has also spread across the Atlantic.
Ro Khanna, a Democratic member of Congress representing a slice of California’s Silicon Valley, said his own grandfather spent years fighting British rule in India.
“It is remarkable to see @RishiSunak, a British Indian of Hindu faith becoming Prime Minister on Diwali. Irrespective of politics, it is a symbolic step to move beyond the world of a colonizer,” he said tweeted.
But for many British South Asians, as for the country as a whole, the arrival of Britain’s first colored prime minister has sparked as much debate over his economic creed as the color of his skin.
At the country’s largest Hindu temple in London’s Neasden, many Diwali revelers feasted on Sunak’s ascent.
“It’s a great day for the Indian community…but more than that, it’s a time when we look back and think ‘how can we move forward from here?'” Financial analyst Kirtan Patel told AFP at the temple.
– Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ –
Anand Menon, professor of politics at King’s College London, said Sunak’s ethnicity was “a very, very big issue”.
But he added on BBC television: ‘What gives me the most comfort, actually, is how little commentary there is, in a sense that we seem to have normalized this.’
If he feels ‘normalized’ now, a brown or black prime minister would have felt unimaginable in Britain just a few years ago.
When Sunak was born in 1980, there had been no Asian or black MPs since World War II.
A handful were then elected for the opposition Labor Party. But the Tories still had none when Sunak graduated from Oxford University in 2001.
By the late 1960s, many were in the grip of Tory instigator Enoch Powell, who warned of a racial civil war if mass immigration from the Old Empire continued.
Polls at the time found that a majority of white Britons agreed with Powell.
Today, according to Sunder Katwala, director of the demographic think tank British Future, “most people in Britain are now rightly saying that the Prime Minister’s ethnicity and faith should not matter”.
“They will judge Sunak on whether he can rein in the chaos in Westminster, clean up public finances and restore the integrity of politics,” he said.
“But we should not underestimate this important social change.”
– Oxford still rules –
Sunak’s reception among South Asians was heralded by that given to conservative politicians such as Priti Patel, who served as Britain’s first Indian-born Home Secretary.
Patel’s flagship policy of sending would-be migrants on a one-way ticket to Rwanda was met with disbelief by many, given that his own family escaped persecution under Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
As Sunak’s elevation was announced, Patel tweeted photos of a Diwali visit to a Hindu temple, saying, “It’s a time for self-reflection, family, friends and service to others.”
“A period of personal reflection would do you good,” was one of the more polite tweets in response.
The Conservatives have been more successful in cultivating ethnic Indian – and female – politicians in their senior ranks than Labor, and they often outperform their white colleagues in appeals to the hard right.
Patel’s short-lived successor, Suella Braverman, whose family also came from India, was even more outspoken about the migration. His views helped dash dwindling hopes of a UK-India free trade deal by Diwali.
For many observers, the Tories still suffer from a lack of perspective, given the elite Oxford education offered to Sunak and Truss – as well as Boris Johnson and most other prime ministers post-war years before them.
Sunak’s appointment, which coincides with a new king in Charles III, “tells an important story about our society, where we came from and where we are going in the future,” Katwala said.
But he added: “I hope Sunak will recognize that not everyone has enjoyed their advantages in life. Rishi Sunak reaching 10 Downing Street does not make Britain a perfect meritocracy.