It was Rishi Sunak’s first visit to India as Prime Minister of the UK, which generated a lot of buzz in India, but it was his wife Akshata Murthy, daughter of Indian billionaire businessman Narayan Murthy of Infosys, who stole the show at the G20 Summit.
She was more conspicuous over the weekend given the absence of two other high-profile political spouses — from the US and Canada. Downing Street was in overdrive with pictures of Murthy, highlighting their visit to the British Council, and her kicking her shoes off to play soccer and adjusting her husband’s tie before getting out of the plane in New Delhi.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him, Sunak said the trip was "obviously special” given his Indian heritage and family links. “I saw somewhere I’d been referred to as 'India’s son-in-law,’ which I hope was meant affectionately,” he said. "I’m excited to be back and it’s nice to have Akshata here with me.”
India-UK FTA in the Pipeline
Responding to the “son-in-law of India” comment by Sunak, Devi Sridhar, an Indian origin Professor of Global Public Health at, the University of Edinburgh, said, “He wants to strike a trade deal with India and there is a need to come across as special, given the fact that we are not as integrated with Europe,” so it is about trying to have closer relations with others.
In fact, on a lighter note, one must not forget that former PM Boris Johnson’s ex wife also was of Indian- origin. So, India can technically boast of two son-in-laws.
There was a lot of speculation in the UK if there would be any significant announcement on the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be any closer to signing the deal.
Before meeting the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sunak said the UK-India Trade deal is "not guaranteed”. While acknowledging the importance of the deal, he said, “That’s why we’ve been working towards an ambitious and comprehensive free trade deal. But it’s not a given: these things are a lot of work and a lot of time.”
He said he wants to make sure of a trade deal that “works for the British people.” He is clear he will not rush through a deal.
What Stood Out in Sunak’s India Visit
India and the UK being the fifth and sixth biggest economies in the world, there were expectations that the meeting between the two leaders would take place at Modi’s grand residence and there would be some kind of a photo-op. The Guardian noted, “Instead of the glorious photo op that had been in prospect, the two leaders met in a soulless conference room in the concrete complex where India had been hosting the G20 conference. The prized trip to the Indian prime minister’s house, with all its rich splendour, was reserved for US president Joe Biden.”
There is little doubt that the trade deal will happen sooner or later and that the UK will be ‘India-inflected and India-influenced over the next decade’.
As Andrew Marr, political editor of New Statesman told Sky News: “With 1.4 billion population, if we do a great (trade) deal, which I think we will, which will mean more Indians coming here and more Indians being able to take their pension pots back. But..”, he cautioned, “the crucial point for everyone to remember is that this is not Congress India, this is BJP India. It may not even be called India for much longer. It may be Bharat, not India.”
One photo-op that did go viral in India was Sunak and Murthy’s visit to the Akshardham Temple in New Delhi. He said, “I am hugely proud of my Hindu roots and my connections to India ... being a proud Hindu means I will always have a connection to India and the people of India.”
Last month, Sunak attended Morari Bapu’s Ram Katha at the Cambridge University where he said, “I am here today not as a prime minister but as a Hindu. For me, faith is very personal. It guides me in every aspect of my life.”
While in India it was seen as a great moment, the reality is that previous UK PMs have visited various temples and gurudwaras, and Sunak, who many say, wears his religion on his sleeve, took oath in the Parliament on the Bhagavad Gita when he was elected as an MP.
But it also needs to be noted that at the coronation of King Charles III in May, Sunak as Prime Minister also read from the Epistle to the Colossians.
UK PM’s Faith Doesn’t Trump Multiculturalism
In reality, it is about the multicultural principles of the UK, which gives every individual the freedom to practice his or her faith/religion. In a country where the official religion is Christianity, all other religions have an equal status. It is a lesson for all religious supremacists to learn from.
As Sridhar pointed out, counting herself in, “I think the larger point is, someone (like her) with an American accent is a British citizen of Indian origin – it is just that you have more and more global citizens and you can’t be put in a box – where are you? We are a bit in every part of the world.”
The PM's religion is inconsequential in this country, and it must remain that way. In the past 30-odd years, there has been a shift in British society’s understanding of religion which is why Sunak being a Hindu, is of no relevance here.
People look at self-identity more as spiritual than religious. The outcome of this change is why politics too is reflecting the same openness, where letting people follow their beliefs is the norm.
It can be seen as a coincidence of history that Sunak, the first person of colour, is PM during the reign of King Charles III who had been an advocate of multiculturalism and had expressed his interest in the diversity and spiritualisation of private lives in public spaces in Britain today.
Sunak-Murthy's Temple Run
While the Akshardham visit did not receive any media coverage here, it was noticed that a planned dinner with a delegation of business executives was cancelled “after struggling to get past the roadblocks erected across the city for the duration of the summit,” it was reported.
Another report claimed the couple “could not even visit one of their favourite Indian chain restaurants – Haldiram’s or Saravana Bhavan – because of a citywide shutdown.”
For the UK Prime Minister, the headline news from the Delhi Summit was his interaction with his Chinese counterpart wherein he "conveyed his significant concerns about Chinese interference in the UK's parliamentary democracy". Chinese espionage concerns have, for now, taken center stage in the UK.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)