Citizens in India have watched Rishi Sunak’s ascension to prime minister of Britain with a sense of admiration and triumph, hailing the rise of a person of Indian descent and a Hindu to the top job in a major Western country.
Although Sunak, whose parents migrated from East Africa to Britain in the 1960s, has never lived in India, his heritage has made Indians proud.
Sunak’s grandparents hailed from Punjab state before the Indian subcontinent was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan, after British colonial rule ended in 1947. They had moved to East Africa in the 1930s. Sunak is married to Akshata Murty, the daughter of Indian technology billionaire N.R. Narayana Murthy, who founded one of India’s most successful software companies.
Many Indians and the media, which gave prominent coverage to his elevation as prime minister, emphasized not just his Indian roots but also his faith; Sunak is a Hindu, the majority religion in India, and has spoken about its importance to him.
When news broke this week that Sunak was destined to be Britain’s new leader, Indians were celebrating the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali. For many, like Mumbai resident Nikhil Shirodkar, the development added to the celebratory mood.
“It is indeed a very special moment that a person of Indian origin and a practicing Hindu is heading a government in Britain,” said Shirodkar, who heard the news as he got ready to perform Diwali rituals. “I would have never thought it possible that the country has accepted a member of an ethnic minority as prime minister. It is really amazing,” he said, calling it a testament to multiculturalism.
Similar sentiments echoed on social media while mainstream media ran triumphant headlines like the one in the Times of India newspaper that said “Rishi Sunak, a 'proud Hindu,' is new UK PM.”
Since Sunak first bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party in July, television networks and newspapers have carried stories about how in 2019 he had taken his oath as a member of Parliament on the Bhagavad Gita, a revered Hindu text; performed a cow worship, a Hindu ritual in August; and lit lamps at his Downing Street residence on Diwali two years ago when he was chancellor.
Inevitably, India’s colonial legacy also became a talking point, with many calling it ironic that Britain, which ruled India for 200 years, would now be led by a man who traced his descent to its former colony.
However, historians pointed out that Sunak’s rise to the top job was not really a case of history coming full circle as many would like to believe.
“At some point of time as historians we were expecting that a person of Indian origin would become prime minister of a country like Britain or Canada,” said Archana Ojha, professor of history at Delhi University. “That conclusion is derived from a study of future demographics. While there may not be a big increase in the number of Indians in these countries, they are a rich and influential community and hence poised to play a very important role in politics there.”
But she pointed out that Sunak has also benefited from being at the right place at the right time; his ascension came after two prime ministers quit in the face of political scandal and economic crisis.
“He became prime minister when no one else in the party was well-placed to take the role. If his tenure goes well, it will be a triumph for him and others of ethnic descent,” Ojha said. “But if he fails, that will also reflect a failure of the policy of multiculturalism.”
From Indian heads of technology giants such as Google’s Sundar Pichai to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, India has long cheered the achievements of people of Indian origin and the Indian diaspora.
But even as they were gladdened by the latest and possibly the most significant such success, some opposition politicians questioned whether the same could happen in India, which critics say is sliding into majoritarianism under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
P. Chidambaram, a veteran leader of the opposition Congress Party, tweeted, “First Kamala Harris, now Rishi Sunak. The people of the U.S. and the U.K have embraced the non-majority citizens of their countries and elected them to high office in government. I think there is a lesson to be learned by India and the parties that practice majoritarianism.”
Sunak’s rise is expected to have little direct impact on political ties between Britain and India, which have been on the upswing in recent years. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited India in April this year.
The challenge in the coming months, however, will be to seal an ambitious free-trade deal that India and Britain had hoped to wrap up by October, but which missed the deadline because of the recent political turbulence in the country. While some hope that those talks will get momentum if Sunak can restore stability, others warn that Britain’s economic woes will make it hard to pursue the pact, which aims to double bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2030.
“Trade deals happen when the going is good because they are about give and take,” said Biswajit Dhar, trade analyst and professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“The British economy is in doldrums and the first priority for Sunak will be to clear the economic mess,” he said. “Also, India usually comes up with huge demands in the services sector, and with the high unemployment rates that Britain is seeing, I doubt if they can accommodate those at this juncture.”