The election of Rishi Sunak by the Conservative Party as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has, quite predictably, evoked a good deal of reactions from across the world, including of course, from the Indian sub-continent, the place of his origin. The event indeed is historic from several points of view. The reactions largely point to the history turning full circle, in the sense that, a person with his origins in a former British colony, is now the head of the same government that used to run the biggest colonial empire in the world. But in the appointment of Sunak as the British PM by King Charles III many a record is created.
Before scanning and analysing the reactions – political, sociological, emotional and so on, let us look at the grounds broken by Sunak. He will be the first person of South Asian descent and East African heritage to occupy the highest office. He is also the first non-Christian to head the British government: Sunak is a Punjabi Hindu. The United Kingdom becomes the third European country to have a head of government of South Asian ancestry. The other two arePortugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa, and Ireland’s ex-premier Leo Varadkar. At 42, Sunak is the youngest premier since the 2nd Earl of Liverpool in 1812. Rishi Sunak is also the Prime Minister with the shortest prior service in the Parliament (7 years), since William Pitt the Younger in 1783. Sunak is the first teetotal PM of the country since Lloyd George, who left office in October 1922. Along with these historic facts, Liz Truss’s premiership was the shortest in British Parliament history, 46 odd-days.
The popular reactions relate to the origin, religion, colour of the British Prime Minister. It was incredible for many that a non-white, non-British and non-Christian could head the British government. The United States, supposed to be the ‘greatest’ democracy has shown the way by electing a black person as the President and another one of Indian-African stock as the Vice-President. Yet, the British politics, representing the oldest democracy, tended to be conservative, although it had people of non-British ethnicities as the heads of several institutions and in government positions. At any rate, the British democracy has dispelled all doubts of racism, social conservatism and majoritarian sectarianism etc. It has proved to be a meritocracy respecting talents and efficiency etc.
Admittedly, Britain has been a source of a great many political ideas that permeated across the world. Rishi Sunak’selection to the top post of the country will transmit another idea that should challenge many assumptions and practices, some of them aforesaid, that dilute and derail democracies. It should debunk the present pernicious narrative of inalienable rights of the majority or the ‘victimhood’ of the social-religious majority in any country.
The United Kingdom has demonstrated that the world has moved on. It is not the colour, nor the background, not for that matter any ascribed identity, that matters. What counts in governance, or in public life, is efficiency and delivery for the greater good. That is the key indicator of modernity, development and progress. The Conservative Party, not the Labour Party, electing a non-white as their leader bolsters the argument for meritocracy. The definite change of the mindset and work culture in United Kingdom was endorsed by a UK citizen of Indian origin. When I asked him, if Sunak’s loss to Liz Truss, six weeks ago, had anything to do with racism in British society, in this case, in the Conservative Party, he emphatically said no and added that it was due to Boris Johnson’s opposition to Sunak, who had irked Johnson before.
Having applauded the British democracy for election of Sunakas the head of the government, let me quickly add a rider to it. Sunak has been elected unopposed by 1,70,000 odd Conservative Party primary members, not the 50 million or so voters of the country. As said, Liz Truss had massively defeated Sunak in the leadership elections. Just after six weeks, due to disastrous handling of the economy, Liz had to leave, and no other leader was ready or trusted to fix the economy. The only other contender Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons, pulled out of the contest. So we do not know, even out of 1,70,000 members, how many would have voted for Sunak and how many opposed. The real test of the cultural mindset in the United Kingdom will come when Sunak leads his party in the next general elections. So, the euphoria may be misplaced.
Be the above as it may. Sunak is the Prime Minister of Britain. What should the world and Indian sub-continent expect? The sub-continent should be redrawn from the point of view of Sunak’s ancestry and cultural affinity. Sunak’s ancestors came from India’s Gujrawala, which today lies in Pakistan. His extended family is in Punjab. Sunak is a Hindu and is married to an Indian. Will he be more friendly with the India and soft on British citizens with Indian origins, or migrants and over-stayers? The simple and straight answer to this question is ‘no’.
Sunak seems to be, like any other successful politician, a pragmatist. Of course, he has a predominant economic approach to his politics. He comes from a business background on his own and his wife’s side. Both Sunak and his wife are said to be the richest political family in UK. He has been elected to this position to fix the economy. In fact, one member of British Parliament of Pakistani origin said so clearly to a BBC correspondent that the fragile British economy needed a person like Sunak to fix it.
If Sunak engages with India using his cultural links and Indian sentiments for him, it will be to build the British economy. In fact, he may do so, engage more with India to generate jobs in UK by inviting greater investment from India into his country. He may tap the growing Indian market for British goodsespecially after Brexit. Sunak as a politician will like to expand his support in the white segments of British population, win over the fringe and non-Conservative voters. He can do so only by improving the economy. He will certainly be harsher on illegal migrants and over-stayers to prove that he is not biased. Sunak may be better than his predecessors in dealing with India as he will explore the economic potential in the bilateralism. Others have missed it before, the British leadership perhaps for a superiority complex and the Indian leadership for sure for misplaced priorities etc.
For the world, Sunak will have a similar approach. He may go all out to defend and secure British national economic interests. So, it appears to be good days for both United Kingdom and India for an enhanced bilateralism based on respective economic strengths and interests. Time will tell. I am hopeful. Are you?