It is scarcely believable that a person belonging to a family of Indian origin should make a strong and pushy bid to be Prime Minister of Britain. But that is exactly what is underway right now. Rishi Sunak who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Finance Minister, traditionally a position of great significance in British public life, is, as I write these lines, the frontrunner among the aspirants to take up the reins of the leadership of the Conservative Party in succession to Boris Johnson who decided to resign as party leader and consequently as Prime Minister. Indeed, Sunak was one of the leaders of the revolt against Johnson and announced his leaving the cabinet on July 5.
Sunak’s grandparents went from India to Africa. His father grew up in Kenya and his mother in Tanzania. From Africa, the parents went to Britain. They provided Rishi with a privileged education. He went to a leading public school, Winchester, and later to Oxford University. He also studied in the famous Stanford University in the United States where he met and married Akshata, the daughter of Narayan Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, the pioneering Indian tech multinational. Sunak worked in the financial sector and joined the Conservative party and became a Member of the House of Commons in 2015, at the age of 35. His rise in politics has been meteoric for in five short years he was appointed to one of the highest offices in Britain—Chancellor of the Exchequer—by Boris Johnson, the man he rebelled against. It is truly said that there are no permanent loyalties in politics.
Sunak is not the only person of Indian origin (PIO) who is aspiring to succeed Johnson. Suella Braverman who served as Attorney-General in Johnson’s cabinet and is of Indian origin is in current list of six hopefuls even if she is the last position among them; it is likely that she will be knocked out in the next round. Her parents too, like that of Sunak, migrated to Britain from Africa—the father from Kenya while the mother from Mauritius. Interestingly, among the other four, one more is non-Caucasian. She is of Nigerian descent. Thus, as I write this article, of the current six hopefuls, three contenders are non-white politicians running to be Prime Minister of Britain. This list of contenders will be shortened to two on July 21. One of them will be selected as Conservative Party leader on September 5. That person will be the next Prime Minister of Britain.
All this indicates how much the world has changed from what it was even towards the end of the last century which witnessed PIOs who were descendants of indentured labourers heading governments in erstwhile British colonies. The indentured system was pursued by the British after they abolished slavery in 1833. It continued till it was abolished in 1917. The demand for labour for the plantations in the British colonies was met by the ‘export’ of Indians under the indentured system. This led to the settlement of Indian populations in many British colonies which grew in time. After decolonisation these Indian communities became politically influential in some countries including Mauritius, Guyana, the Caribbean Islands countries, and Fiji. PIOs led the governments of each of these countries at one time or the other over the past five decades. In Mauritius, the Indian community became the major political force and the for the main part during this period a politician of Indian origin remained Prime Minister.
The rise of PIOs to the pinnacles of governments have not remained confined to these erstwhile British colonies. Ireland and Portugal too have seen PIOs heading governments. In the former Leo Varadkar, whose father was born in Mumbai, served as PM from June 2017 to June 2020 while in the latter Antonio Costa, who has been PM since 2015. Costa’s father was of Goan descent. The rise in politics of both Varadkar and Costa shows the social changes that have taken place in some European countries where there is space for persons who are not pure Caucasians to rise to the top. This could not be imagined even three decades ago. It also shows the drive and will of the PIOs to succeed in their chosen fields, including in politics, in their countries of birth.
A large number of PIOs have done well in the public life of Britain. The list of cabinet ministers in Johnson’s government consisted of not only Sunak and Braverman but also Priti Patel who continues to be Home Secretary. Interestingly, in Patel’s case too her family moved from Africa to Britain. The fact that these PIOs have succeeded in British politics and in the process have won elections shows that vast social change has come to Britain. This Britain seems far removed from that of the colonial period when the prevailing view among its governing classes was essentially racist. Now, while racism has not completely disappeared from British society colour consciousness seems to be much lower.
It is one thing for PIOs or other coloured Britishers to rise to cabinet positions but it would quite another for one of them to become Prime Minister. Is the Conservative Party ready for this? Of course, there may be opposition to Sunak’s candidature because of his policies, especially those relating to taxation, but the fact of his family’s origin will also be a factor though this would never be acknowledged. If Sunak makes it to the final two contestants on July 21 the six weeks from that date will be fascinating for observers of British politics.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.