The elevation of the 42-year-old Conservative leader of Indian origin – his parents immigrated to the UK from East Africa – as Britain’s third prime minister this year appears to have warmed the hearts of many Indians. Even skeptics can’t help but feel a little triumphant.
Of course, it is the nationalists who are most exalted and seem interested in claiming Mr. Sunak through his faith.
Rishi Sunak, a “proud Hindu” is the new British Prime Minister, writes India’s largest English newspaper Times of India – the story mentions the word Hindu five times. Being a Hindu at 10 Downing Street rings a bell in India Today, adding that Mr. Sunak “got the UK’s top job despite being a Hindu, not because of it”.
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Others use colonial references: “Sunak: Ex-India Company set to rule Britain,” he told The Telegraph, referring to the firm that controlled large parts of India with its mercenary forces. Dainik Bhaskar, a Hindi newspaper, carried the headline: “Another Diwali gift to the nation, Rishi of Indian descent to rule the whites”.
In the eyes of many Indians, Mr. Sunak’s new job is rich in symbolism: they seem convinced that the new prime minister will be good for India.
In August, Mr. Sunak launched a campaign involving a largely British Indian meeting in North London with traditional greetings. He also forayed into Hindi and said he would work to strengthen ties with India if he becomes prime minister.
Mr. Sunak was sworn in as an MP on the Bhagvad Gita, a revered Hindu text. During a recent ritual, he worshiped a cow, lit Diwali lamps in his Downing Street mansion, and says he loves cricket, the real religion in India.
His father-in-law is a software billionaire and the founder of Infosys, the giant outsourcing firm that is the pride of India. In a letter to his daughter, NR Narayana Murthy found that Mr. Sunak, then her fiancé, “was everything you described him to be – brilliant, handsome and most importantly honest”.
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When Mr. Sunak was set to become Prime Minister earlier this year, there was a buzz on social media in India and some found the celebrations a little rowdy.
But other Indians such as Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, an academic and writer, saw Sunak’s promotion as indicative of a “remarkable new level of multicultural tolerance among the British electorate and political class”.
Indians have always been fascinated by the career trajectories of the diaspora, says Salil Tripathi, an Indian author based in New York.
“They look proud when Sundar Pichai runs Google or Satya Nadella runs Microsoft. These overseas achievements are seen as a vindication of Indian excellence. The fact that these individuals have succeeded in an alien environment is a matter of particular pride,” says Tripathi.
What is usually missing is a conversation about class. Mr. Sunak was educated at an elite school and went to Oxford and Stanford. Similarly, Mr. Tripathi adds, India’s corporate high achievers are mostly products of India’s elite universities.
Because most Conservative Party politicians of Indian origin represent seats that are Tory strongholds, Mr. Tripathi adds, “to that extent they have limited appeal among the Indian or wider Asian communities”.
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“Mr. Sunak’s success is arguably more important because he has become prime minister of a country with its own messy colonial past and a society that continues to struggle with racism.”
At the diaspora campaign in August, Mr. Sunak spoke of the need to look at the India-UK relationship “differently because there is a huge amount of things we can learn from India here in the UK”.
“Rishi will be a great Prime Minister for the nation and for working with India, especially at this time when Britain and India are working to launch a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). He has vast experience and has proven his skills during the Covid pandemic saving the British.” jobs and businesses as chancellor,” says Nayaz Qazi, director of Conservative Friends of India.
As for India, Mr. Sunak’s main task will be to revive the stalled free trade agreement with “high ambitions” – the two sides began negotiations in January. India expects to increase exports of leather, jewelry, textiles, and food products and secure more visas for students and businesses.
The ambitious pact, which aims to double bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2030, appears to have hit a rough patch after Indian-origin former home secretary Suella Braverman told the Spectator magazine she would increase Indian migration to the UK at a time when “the largest group of overstayers are Indian migrants”. Mr. Sunak said he was firmly committed to a deal with India, which has overtaken Britain as the world’s fifth-largest economy.
India-UK relations will strengthen under new Prime Minister Happymon Jacob of Delhi’s Jawaharlal University, “not because Mr. Sunak is of Indian origin, but because his premiership is likely to bring about two things”: FTA; and “following Mr. Sunak’s campaign rhetoric against China, the UK will be less ambivalent about its view of China as a threat”.
“Delhi is trying to do a free trade deal and it would be pleased if the Western powers, especially the UK, stood up to the Chinese,” says Jacob.
Others aren’t so sure. “India will not be at the top of Mr. Sunak’s agenda,” says Sanjaya Baru, a political analyst based in Delhi. “There are economic challenges to address at home and restoring external stability with the European Union and the US. So India will not be his number one priority. We will have to be patient.”
Mr. Baru notes that more than 200 people of Indian origin have been elected to positions of political power in 25 countries, with 10 governments headed by a person of Indian origin. When Leo Varadkar becomes Prime Minister of Ireland, both the UK and Ireland will have leaders of Indian descent.
“Many of them were smooth friends of India, but some made Indian diplomats work hard,” he says.
Mr. Tripathi is more circumspect. Mr. Sunak, he says, “will want a free trade deal with India, but it will not come at the cost of a significant change in UK immigration policy.”
“Mr. Sunak will put British interests first and that will make the mood worse.”