Indian-descent Rishi Sunak becomes UK PM

The race had an ethnically diverse list of candidates -- British Pakistani ministers Sajid Javid and Rehman Chishti, Sunak's Iraqi Kurd-born successor Nadhim Zahawi, Attorney General Suella Braverman, whose family's roots are in Goa, and Nigerian-origin former minister Kemi Badenoch.
Rishi Sunak
Rishi SunakFile Photo

London, Oct 24: More than democracy's diversity, it is colonialism's reverse sweep. The United Kingdom's Conservative Party, once intricately intertwined with the Empire, imperialism, and British national identity had contenders from former colonies in Asia and Africa fight to lead it after Boris Johnson stepped down. And after an abortive first try, the son of Indian-descent immigrants from British East Africa finally made it to its top, to become the country's first Asian Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak, UK's former Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Finance Minister, whose sudden resignation set in motion the circumstances that forced an intransigent Johnson to finally bow out earlier this year, was initially leading in the race to be his successor.

The race had an ethnically diverse list of candidates -- British Pakistani ministers Sajid Javid and Rehman Chishti, Sunak's Iraqi Kurd-born successor Nadhim Zahawi, Attorney General Suella Braverman, whose family's roots are in Goa, and Nigerian-origin former minister Kemi Badenoch.

Sunak and Braverman's fellow Indian-origin Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, chose to sit it out.

Javid and Chishti failed to get enough traction to even figure in the race, Zahawi bowed out after the first round, and Braverman after the second, leaving Sunak and Badenoch to contend against Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and Tom Tugendhat, the backbench MP, who happens to be half-French.

Ultimately, Sunak and Truss were the final contenders and she won after the race went to Conservative members across the country.

However, the Truss government soon imploded - and immigrants were behind it.

After she removed Chancellor of Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng (born to Ghanaian immigrants), Home Secretary Braverman subsequently resigned, with an excoriating - though half-veiled - an attack on the Prime Minister. Truss chose to call it quits and while Johnson was seriously contending to run again, he refrained and Sunak, who was the earliest contender, rode it through to emerge triumphant finally.

A comparative newcomer - he only became an MP in 2015, Sunak has emphasised that the identity of a person born in the UK but with origins elsewhere matters to him.

Suave, efficient, but also controversy-ridden, the former US-based investment banker, hedge fund operator, and three-time MP has become the first non-ethnic Briton to become Prime Minister.

This, though, will not be entirely unusual -- for such staunch British PMs as Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan happened to be half-American (on their mothers' side) and Johnson himself was born in the US, becoming the first non-UK-born Prime Minister since Andrew Bonar Law nearly a century ago (Bonar Law, however, was born in Canada, which was a part of the Empire.)

Born in Southampton on May 12, 1980, Sunak is the son of (the then British) Kenya-born Yashvir Sunak and his wife, Tanganyika-born Usha, whose grandparents were born in the Punjab Province of British India, and migrated to East Africa, and from there to the UK in the 1960s.

"My parents emigrated here, so you've got this generation of people who are born here, their parents were not born here, and they've come to this country to make a life," he said in an interview with the BBC in 2019.

"In terms of cultural upbringing, I'd be at the temple at the weekend -- I'm a Hindu -- but I'd also be at (Southampton Football Club) the Saints game as well on a Saturday -- you do everything, you do both," he said, also revealing that he was fortunate not to have endured a lot of racism growing up, save for one incident, when he was with his younger siblings.

With his father a general practitioner, and his mother, a pharmacist, he had an easy childhood. He studied at a prep school in Hampshire, and then he was at the prestigious Winchester College, where he was head boy and editor of the school paper; during vacations, he worked at a local curry restaurant.

Oxford was the next stop and he graduated in 2001. The same year, he was interviewed along with his parents for the BBC documentary "Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl". He was an analyst at investment bank Goldman Sachs till 2004, and then at a hedge fund management firm till 2009, when he left to join former colleagues at a new hedge fund launched in October 2010.

In 2009, he married Akshata, daughter of Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy and writer Sudha Murthy, who's also the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. Sunak and Akshata have two daughters.

Engaged with the Conservative Party since his Oxford days, Sunak got into politics full-time in 2014 when was selected for the Richmond seat in north Yorkshire -- one of the safest Conservative seats, which has been held by the party for more than a century -- and won it in the 2015 elections by nearly 20,000 votes.

He retained it in 2017, and 2019 elections, with increased majorities. His predecessor as Richmond MP was William Hague, now Baron Hague of Richmond, who held important cabinet positions including Foreign Secretary and was Leader of the House of Commons,

A staunch proponent of "Leave" in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and subsequent parliamentary votes, Sunak's first government job was as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government (2018-19) in the Theresa May government and then as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (2019-20) in the government of Johnson, whose leadership bid he had supported.

He replaced his boss Javid as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020, and while he mostly earned plaudits for steering the government's economic response to the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown, he also became the first Chancellor to be found to have broken the law while in office by breaching lockdown norms.

His wife's non-domicile status, which let her save huge amounts of taxes in the country, had also become a major controversy.

However, these will be seen as minor hiccups on his path to the top.

AT 42, SUNAK YOUNGEST TO TAKE UK PM OFFICE IN OVER 200 YEARS

Sunak would become the first Hindu and the first person of colour to become Britain's Prime Minister. At the age of 42, he is also the youngest person to take the office in more than 200 years.

The result of Monday's contest caps a spectacularly rapid rise to the pinnacle of British politics, CNN reported.

Sunak was first elected as an MP in 2015 and spent two years on the backbenches, during which Brexit dominated the political agenda. Sunak supported leaving the EU during the 2016 referendum.

He subsequently became a junior minister in former Prime Minister Theresa May's government.

It was another former Prime Minister Boris Johnson who gave Sunak his first major government role when he first appointed him as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2019, and as the Chancellor in 2020.

Sunak won popularity during the early weeks of the pandemic when he unveiled an extensive support plan for those unable to work during the lockdown.

But the "Partygate" scandal that took down Boris Johnson also tarnished his reputation, and he became archrival with Johnson after quitting his government earlier this year.

Sunak has remained tight-lipped on his policy plan in the last few days but he was widely seen as the more moderate of the two candidates in the last leadership contest over the summer. Compared to Liz Truss, he took a softer line on matters like Brexit and the economy, CNN reported.

'HUMBLED' SUNAK WARNS UK FACES 'PROFOUND' ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Sunak said that he was "humbled and honoured" to be elected leader of the Conservative Party with the support of his fellow MPs but stressed there are major economic challenges ahead.

Sunak was on Monday chosen leader of the party, and the Prime Minister, as his only challenger Penny Mordaunt dropped out of the race shortly before the deadline for nominations, due to lack of necessary support (the backing of 100 MPs). Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is considering a second stab at the job, on Sunday evening announced that he had decided not to run again.

In brief remarks as he reached the Conservative party office here to a warm welcome, Sunak, 42, who will be the first Asian-origin and non-White Prime Minister of the country, he said: "It is the greatest privilege of my life to be able to serve the party I love and give back to the country I owe so much to."

He said that the UK is a great country but faces "profound" economic challenges, and called for stability and unity.

Sunak also paid tribute to outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss, who had beaten him in the August-September contest to succeed Johnson but saw her government implode in just a month and a half, for her "dignified" leadership "under difficult circumstances abroad and at home".

PM MODI EXTENDS FELICITATIONS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders across the political spectrum congratulated Rishi Sunak, who is set to take over as the first Indian-descent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

"Warmest congratulations @RishiSunak! As you become UK PM, I look forward to working closely together on global issues and implementing Roadmap 2030. Special Diwali wishes to the 'living bridge' of UK Indians, as we transform our historic ties into a modern partnership," Modi said in a tweet.

"Congratulations and good wishes @RishiSunak on becoming UK PM," tweeted Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

"Great News. Indians setting their mark all over the globe. My best wishes to Mr @RishiSunak on becoming the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Wishing him wisdom and strength to lead the country successfully", Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a tweet.

"Truth is always stranger than fiction. #Sunak, is the only one ever 2lose #PM contest & then become PM in 90 days. First Indian origin #PM of #UK. Reverse imperialism of the nicest kind. First ever Indian 2head a foreign govt on #Deepawali!!" tweeted leader Congress Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

TDP leader and former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu posted: "Absolutely delighted that @RishiSunak is all set to become UK's new Prime Minister! I extend my best wishes to him as he prepares to steer his country ahead as its first Indian heritage PM. This is indeed a joyous moment for Indians across the globe."

"India scored a glorious hat trick this Diwali week! After Aman Sehrawat's wrestling Gold and Virat Kohli's heroic knock, now it's Rishi Sunak's turn to bring glory to India! Congratulations to @RishiSunak who is set to become the first Indian-origin Prime Minister of the UK", wrote Congress General Secretary K.C. Venugopal.

Congress' Karnataka unit President D.K. Shivakumar tweeted: "Congratulations to Mr. @RishiSunak on becoming the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The first ever Indian-origin man to occupy the chair of PM in the UK.

"Hope that your tenure will mark a new beginning for India-UK ties which will bring prosperity to both nations.

However, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, tweeting before Sunak's win was announced, said: "If this does happen, I think all of us will have to acknowledge that the Brits have done something very rare in the world, to place a member of a visible minority in the most powerful office. As we Indians celebrate the ascent of @RishiSunak, let's honestly ask: can it happen here?"

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