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Diwali Cheer For Rishi Sunak: Has the Shadow of Empire Been Erased in UK?

Is he Britain's Obama? Whatever one says about Rishi Sunak, it’s hard to see him as embodying an oppressed minority.

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Rishi Sunak has become the UK's next Prime Minister in succession to Liz Truss. Sunak was confirmed as the new leader of Britain’s Conservative Party—he was the only candidate after his only rival, Penny Mordaunt, withdrew.

It’s almost like a fairy tale. On Diwali, as thousands of lights pierce the enveloping gloom, embattled Britain get its first Hindu Prime Minister. Indeed, the first person of colour to take the top political job and first of Indian origin to lead a G7 nation—a moment of history. 

Rishi Sunak has triumphed because his party, the Conservatives, see him as a reliable steward of the economy who can help guide the country through a cost of living crisis, a looming recession and a collapse in market confidence. They hope he can make politics dull again. Given the profound problems facing the country, and the acute political turbulence, there’s not much chance of that! 

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Sunak's Stellar Comeback

It’s quite a comeback. As recently as July, Sunak resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer (or finance minister), pulling the rug from under his boss, Boris Johnson. In the contest to succeed Johnson, which concluded just last month, Sunak got most support among Conservative MPs, but lost out decisively in a ballot of Conservative Party members to a right-winger, Liz Truss. Since then he’s kept a very low profile, looking on silently as Truss bled political authority and support, prompting her dramatic resignation just four days ago, 20 October, after not quite seven weeks as Prime Minister. 

He inherits a divided and demoralised party. Boris Johnson, mired as ever in controversy, couldn’t muster enough support to make a return to the top job. His supporters nurse a deep sense of resentment against Sunak for striking the blow that led to their hero’s downfall. One of the new Prime Minister’s most pressing tasks will be how to deal with ‘the Boris problem’. 

Over the next few months, Sunak will be required to make painful decisions about public spending cuts and tax increases which will stretch the goodwill of his party and the country. Conservatives will be looking to their new leader to give them at least a chance of winning the next general election in about two years time. The outlook for the Conservatives seems bleak. The political chaos of the past few months has helped the opposition Labour Party to a commanding lead in the opinion polls. Even some Conservatives fear that the next election is already lost.

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Is This Britain's 'Obama' Moment?

It’s a little cruel to say this on his day of triumph but the best Rishi Sunak can really expect is two years in Ten Downing Street. It would take political genius, economic good fortune and a huge amount of fairy dust for Sunak to lead the Conservatives to a fifth successive election victory in 2024. 

Some have suggested that this is Britain’s Obama moment. Not quite. Britain was deeply complicit in the slave trade, but it hasn’t endured plantation slavery or fought a bitter civil war in which slavery was the most contested issue. And whatever you can say about Rishi Sunak, it’s hard to see him as embodying an oppressed minority. 

The combined assets of Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy make him Britain’s wealthiest Member of Parliament by far. He’s richer than King Charles. While not quite a billionaire, he’s not far off. And although Sunak doesn’t come across as spoilt and entitled in the way that some of the super-rich do, his lifestyle—owning several very smart houses, equipping them with luxury fitness centres and swimming pools and dressing expensively—is a world away from that of most Conservative MPs never mind ordinary voters.

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Britain's Indian Community Gets Stronger, But Has Racism Gone Away?

Sunak’s success points to the growing political influence of Britain’s Indian community, which numbers one-and-a-half million people making it the country’s largest ethnic minority. And it underlines the community’s gradual shift to the right, reflecting Indians’ prominence in business, retail and the professions. 

And this is a landmark in British politics. A country which became a world power based on the plunder and assumed racial superiority of Empire now has as its head of government someone whose heritage rests with the colonised not the colonisers. That’s big!

“Whatever your politics, let’s all celebrate the first British Asian becoming PM and be proud of our country where this can happen”, tweeted George Osborne, a big figure within the Conservative Party. 

It doesn’t mean that the shadow of Empire has been erased, or that racism has been banished in Britain. But it feels like we might slowly be getting there. 

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Powerful Statement of Inclusivity

Again, it’s the right-of-centre Conservatives—which brought this country its first three women Prime Ministers—that has delivered this powerful statement of inclusivity. It should be a matter of shame to the opposition Labour Party, which claims to embrace social justice and empowerment of the disadvantaged, that all its leaders have been white men. 

Now it’s Rishi Sunak’s task to ensure that he’s remembered for more than being Britain’s first non-white Prime Minister.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent and also reported on British politics for the BBC. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Rishi Sunak   UK PM Rishi Sunak 

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