The ascent of Rishi Sunak to the Prime Ministership of the UK is an extraordinary story at multiple levels. First and most obvious, is that the British have done something very rare in the world—to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office in their government.
In a world where most people find it impossible to be oblivious to the issues of race, religion, and ethnicity, a majority of Conservative Members of Parliament have chosen to anoint as their leader— a brown-skinned Hindu, a member of an “Asian” minority that represents barely 7.5 % of the British population.
That is even more breathtaking than Barack Obama’s ascent to the Presidency in the United States in 2008, since blacks have been a feature of the US political landscape and were far more visible in American politics way longer than Indians or Asians had been in Britain.
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This suggests a “normalisation” of ethnic differences in a country long associated with overt racism, and a culture of racial discrimination that they exported with them to the colonies Britain ruled during centuries of imperial conquest and oppression. It is extraordinary for any society to so comprehensively outgrow its worst attributes as Britain has done.
Less than a century ago, the British ran clubs in India and Africa where people of colour were disallowed. Today, their Prime Minister is a man from an ethnicity that most British people in those days would have regarded and treated with contempt. Can one imagine what their iconic leader, the egregiously racist Winston Churchill, would have said even about the prospect of such a development?
We know what he would have said about Rishi Sunak’s overt faith in the practice of Hinduism. “Hindus are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” Churchill notoriously sneered. And here the British government will be led by a man who not only practices his Hindu faith but does so openly.
He took his ministerial oath on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and even while campaigning for the leadership of his party earlier this year, tweeted photos and videos of himself performing cow worship and praying to Lord Krishna on Janmashtami.
Some Britons have wondered how a Hindu will preside over the government of a country that has an established religion (Christianity as practised by the Anglican Church), and where the then Prime Minister read aloud from the Bible at the Queen’s funeral service earlier this year. Would Sunak be able to do that on a similar occasion if required?
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(Though he has not said so, I imagine that like most Hindus he would answer “Yes” since Hindus generally have no difficulty venerating the beliefs and the sacred texts of other faiths).
Then, there is the stark fact of his age. Rishi Sunak was born in 1980—he is now 42. His parliamentary career only began in 2015, when he was first elected to the House of Commons for the mainly rural constituency of Richmond in Yorkshire. In three years, Sunak was appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government in Theresa May’s government.
Within two years after that, Boris Johnson made him Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Finance Minister. That is a dizzying rise by any standards; in India it would be inconceivable.
To be Prime Minister seven years after first entering Parliament is an astonishing achievement, and while it is a tribute to Sunak’s talents, it also shows Britain’s ability to recognise talent and reward it early. In India, he would almost certainly still be occupying the back benches of any ruling party, sporting at best a Minister of State tag.
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Undoubtedly, the circumstances of the economic meltdown that precipitated Liz Truss’ resignation after just 45 days in office helped. Britain was in need of a steadying pair of hands with a record of expertise and competence in financial management, and Sunak, whose earlier stint in the private sector had made him an effective Chancellor during the worst days of the Covid pandemic, offered precisely the reassurance of an economic leadership that Britain desperately needed at this time. He was the man to turn to in a crisis.
The Conservative MPs realised it was either going to have to be him or a general election. They chose him because he was the best available option in the current circumstances.
Finally, Prime Minister Sunak embodies the extraordinary potential of immigration and cosmopolitanism in an era of increasing nationalism and protectionism. His serving as Britain’s Prime Minister expands the very meaning of the term “Western”, which most had assumed was synonymous with “White”.
What India Can Learn From the British Example
It no longer is. The presence of people of colour in the highest echelons of Western democracies is a tribute to a half-century of more welcoming immigration policies, the willingness of the West to embrace talent wherever it comes from, and to give ability the recognition and reward it deserves.
There are of course substantial numbers of white Britons who don’t share this attitude such as a radio caller who launched into a diatribe on Sunak, describing him as “not even British”, acquired some social media notoriety in recent days— but a majority of Conservative Party MPs did not hesitate to put his competence above his colour.
This is worth noting at a time when so many countries are throwing up barriers to immigration and indulging in various forms of xenophobia, equating patriotism with “authenticity” and “rootedness” in the traditional beliefs, practices and prejudices of the timeless past. Immigration reflects the kind of self-assurance that democracies need and that only the United States, a land made up of immigrants, was known to possess.
This offers a lesson for us too. When the news was about to break, I asked on social media: Can it happen here? Let us not forget the furore that arose when an “immigrant”, Sonia Gandhi, was offered the premiership by her victorious coalition.
There were public fulminations about a “foreigner” ruling a billion Indians and one prominent politician threatened to shave her head and conduct a dharna outside Parliament in protest. She chose to decline. True, Manmohan Singh belongs to a “visible minority”, but most Hindus do not see Sikhs as particularly “different” from themselves. Can we imagine the day, in our increasingly majoritarian politics, when someone who is not Hindu, Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist can head our national government? That would be the day, India would truly have matured as a democracy.
Meanwhile, here’s to Rishi Sunak. May he succeed in his challenging new position, and may all of us in India look beyond our nativist pride in his ascent to reflect on the extraordinary lessons it can teach us all.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)