“Bharat Mata ki Jai. Now the UK finally has a new Viceroy as its Prime Minister from the Mother Country,” tweeted Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps India’s most popular and biggest film star in the past 50 years.
Bachchan was most likely pasting one of the many WhatsApp forwards currently circulating within the depths of the Indian social media space. But he is not the only one celebrating the appointment of Rishi Sunak as the prime minister of the United Kingdom.
In fact, many Indians feel Sunak's rise to be history’s full circle on colonialism and a sign of India’s soft power on the world stage. And the latter is true in some sense as Indians have been strongly involved in the politics of countries where the Indian diaspora has a strong presence.
Mauritius has had multiple executive heads of Indian origin, Ireland currently has an Indian-origin prime minister, and Canada has several high-ranking politicians.
Much water has passed under the Thames since Dadabhai Naoroji – an Indian nationalist – became the first Indian to be a Member of the House of Commons, winning from London’s Finsbury Central seat in the 1892 general elections under the Liberal Party banner.
Sunak, on the other hand, is a member of the Conservative Party – a sign of British multiculturalism or shifting politics of Indians in the UK.
It was the 1987 General elections, considered a watershed in some sense, when four ethnic minority MPs were elected into the House of Commons, which happened to align with the rising population of non-white British people.
The House of Commons’ ethnic diversity in politics and public life data from 15 November 2021 reveals that 14% of the population in the United Kingdom are not ‘ethnic’ white. This also means that there is a growth in the political representation of non-White minority groups in the UK.
The Conservative Party, in the 2019 general elections, won a landslide victory gaining 43.6% of the popular votes.
This was also the year that 65, or 10% of the total members of the House of Commons were from ethnic minority backgrounds – with 41 of them from the Labour Party, 22 from the ruling Conservatives Party, and two from the Liberal Democrat group.
For many, Sunak’s rise is thus no blip but an imminent eventuality that was set to pass. For before becoming the prime minister, he was one of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) ministers in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.
For some, as Avinash Paliwal, in his Indian Express article, astutely points out, it took economic turmoil and the resignation of two prime ministers in quick succession for Sunak and for multiculturalism to succeed.
The lack of a popular vote behind his position as PM dents the enigma around him and begs the question: would he have been elected as PM if he was the Tory party candidate in the 2019 general elections? The answer should reveal itself in the support he gets from his Conservative Party members in the coming days.
But what explains the jubilation in India for a British Prime Minister of Indian origin? The source of this joy can be attributed to him being a ‘Brown Man’ and his Hindu faith – which, for some, automatically makes him of Indian origin - even though his parents were born in Africa and his family hails from a part of South Asia which is now in Pakistan.
Many Indians associate with him as a symbol of the success of Indians around the world in various fields. This association of success makes many Indians realise the enormity of their demographic potential and cultural soft power.
And while his supporters would claim that Sunak has broken the glass ceiling of race, his detractors rightfully point out that despite being ‘Brown’, Sunak does not give positive affirmation to minority groups in Britain, essentially because of his association with the Tory Party, an organisation, which even Sunak would be aware of, has a history of racism and bias against minority groups.
A rude realisation of that was when a Conservative Party member called on to Sangita Myska’s show and stated that Sunak “isn’t even British.”
While Sunak has a task ahead to win over the supposedly biased members of the Tory party, he also has to prove himself and his “Britishness” to the British working-class voters, many of whom despise his enormous wealth.
For Indians like me, he is just another British who will follow his State and party policy and would not make much of a difference to India.
This is evident from the return of Suella Braverman as home secretary, who courted controversy for her comments against migrants, claiming that “the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”
So, when Indians celebrate Sunak’s rise, they should consider looking inwards as his success has created more questions about the Indian political future.
Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor mentioned how in 2004, there was opposition to Italian-born Sonia Gandhi as prime minister in India, despite her party winning a mandate under her leadership. Unlike Sunak, Gandhi actually won through popular support.
Beyond the presence of Gandhi in politics, what Indians do not realise is that unlike the minority groups in the UK, there has been a substantial decline in the representation of Muslims in Indian politics, despite them being the largest minority group.
According to Pew Research Centre’s September 2021 data on India’s religious composition, Muslims in India account for 14.2 % of the population – a share much higher than that of Asians in the UK. Yet while the UK has a ‘brown’ PM, Indian Muslims are losing political space.
While Adnan Farooqui points out that Muslim under-representation in Indian politics is not a recent phenomenon, the resignation of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi as Union Minority Affairs Minister on 6 July 2022 means that there is no Muslim representation in the Union Cabinet.
The end of Naqvi's term as the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) puts into perspective a situation where the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) now has no Muslim representation in both houses of the parliament.
In fact, the number of Muslims in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) has also come down to 27 from 49 legislators in 1980.
The current Muslim representation stands at a mere 4.42%, lower than their population share. Fear of the perception to be seen as a pro-Muslim party has made many political groups rethink and reconsider promoting Muslims as candidates for elections unless the constituencies are Muslim-majority.
As we head towards a possible future of more People of Colour vying for the British prime minister’s seat, inspired by Sunak, India is witnessing a situation where it is heading into a future with poor Muslim representation, with an absolute absence of them in the lead for the top spot.
Sunak's rise should be a matter of ideation within, rather than vacant jubilation.
(Ibrar is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in the UK. He is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where he studied South Asian Area Studies focusing on democracy, authoritarianism and culture of South Asia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)