The Indian media has been awash with Rishi Sunak tales, from many days before his successful bid for the premiership.
Mr Sunak’s religion, ethnicity and ties with India, were the highlights of many lead articles, which only incidentally mentioned that Mr Sunak was born in Britain, to parents who were British citizens. For the record, both sets of Mr Sunak’s grandparents had migrated from West Punjab in British India to East Africa in the 1930s and taking advantage of free movement within the British Commonwealth, Mr Sunak’s parents had migrated to Britain in the 1960s. Incidentally, most, if not all, other Indian-origin Conservative politicians like Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, have a similar story to tell ~ migration from British India to Great Britain, via East Africa.
Consequently, their worldview is very different from those of Indian migrants whose parents had immigrated to the West from India after Independence. Indian media felt outraged when Ms Braverman made some insensitive comments about Indian migrants and deported some illegal immigrants to Rwanda. Though not expressed as stridently, Mr Sunak shares similar views on illegal immigration.
This is understandable because all three view themselves as children of the British Empire rather than of India. Similar euphoria was on show when Kamala Harris became Vice-President of the US a couple of years ago, with some sharing the thought that she may ascend to Presidency soon, should Biden become incapacitated by old age. However, jubilation over Ms Harris’s vice-presidency dissolved soon enough ~ when Ms Harris started parroting her boss’s views on India’s human rights and such other prickly topics.
The dilemma for Indian-origin politicians in the Western world is real ~ they run the risk of antagonising their constituents if they are seen to be favouring India or the Indian Government. An extreme example is that of Bobby Jindal, a two-time Governor of Louisiana and the only Indian-American Republican to have served in the US Congress. When Jindal was elected as the first Indian-American governor in US history, residents of his ancestral village danced in the streets, distributed sweets and set off firecrackers; many of them had prayed at the local temple for his victory.
But while making a bid for US Presidency in 2016, Jindal disavowed his Indian roots totally, saying: “We are not Indian-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, rich Americans, or poor Americans. We are all Americans.” Such statements lost him the support of the Indian community both in the US and India, drying up his funding from rich Indian Americans, and forcing him to drop out of the Presidential race. Most other Indian-origin leaders, like Sunak, tread a fine line, emphasising their immigrant status but at the same time, swearing allegiance to their adopted country and thanking it for the opportunities provided to them.
Currently, a number of countries, apart from Indian-majority nations like Mauritius, have Indians in prominent positions. The Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, Finance Minister João Leão and Planning Minister Nelson de Souza all have Goan roots. Leo Varadkar, presently a Minister in the Irish Government, has served as Prime Minister of Ireland. It is particularly heartening for Indians that Indian-origin persons are ruling over countries that had once colonised India. That said, it would be counter-intuitive to expect any abnormal gains for India, from Indian-origin politicians.
The rise of Mr Sunak is the ultimate immigrant success story. Son of middle-class migrants, Mr Sunak rose to prominence and wealth by dint of his intelligence and industry. Like a good Indian son, in his boyhood, he kept books for his mother’s pharmacy business. Like good Indian parents, his parents saved and scrounged to send him to Winchester College, an exclusive private school that has produced six chancellors of the Exchequer and later to Lincoln College, Oxford. Rishi justified his family’s sacrifices in ample measure, by becoming the head boy, and editor of the school’s newspaper.
After obtaining a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford University in 2001, Mr Sunak became an analyst for Goldman Sachs. Later, during 2004-06, Mr Sunak studied for an MBA degree at Stanford University, on a Fulbright scholarship, where he met his future wife, Akshata Murthy, daughter of Narayana Murthy. Akshata and Rishi Sunak had a fairy-tale wedding in Bangalore in 2009. Returning to the United Kingdom in 2006, Mr Sunak had stints with a couple of hedge funds.
By virtue of his success in business, and his wife’s 0.91 per cent stake in Infosys, the couple has an estimated fortune of about $877 million. In a delicious irony, the net worth of the two is more than double that of the British monarch. Mr Sunak had a meteoric rise in the Conservative Party, soon after he started working for it in 2010. Allotted a safe Conservative seat, he became an MP in 2015 and was re-elected with commanding majorities in 2017 and 2019. Mr Sunak was appointed Under-Secretary of State (junior minister) in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January 2018, and Chief Secretary to the Treasury in July 2019.
When Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid resigned in February 2020, Mr Sunak became Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the age of 39. Instantly, Mr Sunak was faced with the manifold challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. He successfully offset most of the economic and human damage of the pandemic with his broad-based economic-support programme that provided $400 billion for funding business and salary subsidies for workers, aimed at job retention and easing the burden of the lockdown for individuals and companies. Later, Mr Sunak launched the popular “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, to support restaurants and pubs with government-subsidized food and drinks.
These measures proved extremely popular, and Mr Sunak became the face of the Government at daily press conferences. The pandemic brought him great prominence; he acquired the image of a super-slick, social media savvy, immaculately dressed, handsome, but a down-to-earth politician. “Dishy Rishi” was named “Britain’s sexiest MP” in 2020. There have been some minor blips in Mr Sunak’s upward trajectory. A video from 2001 has Sunak saying that he had no working-class friends.
In another leaked video, Mr Sunak is seen boasting to Conservative party members that he took public money out of “deprived urban areas” to help wealthy towns. During a PR shoot to mark a cut in petrol prices, Sunak was filmed filling petrol in an ordinary red Kia car. Afterwards, it was revealed that the car belonged, not to him, but to an employee of the service station. More seriously, Mr Sunak’s patriotism was brought into question when it was revealed that he had a green card for US residency until October 2021. It did not help that his wife had claimed a tax status that allowed her to avoid paying UK taxes of $24 million, in a seven-and-a-half-year period.
Along with PM Boris Johnson and other cabinet colleagues, Mr Sunak was fined by the police in the Partygate scandal. The challenges, both internal and external, before Mr Sunak are enormous. The approval ratings for the Conservative party are at a historic low of 22 per cent, despite its landslide victory in the 2019 General Elections. Even within the Conservative party, the majority may not root for Mr Sunak, as demonstrated in his face-off with Liz Truss, a couple of months ago.
Clearly, Conservative MPs have selected him for the specific task of reviving the British economy. However, that is easier said than done. Post-Brexit, the British economy is on a downward spiral with its GDP in negative territory, quarter after quarter. Years after Brexit, much-needed trade agreements with the US and other leading economies, have not been finalised. The Covid aftermath and an energy crisis, in wake of the Ukraine war, are extracting a terrible price on the British economy.
Only time would tell if the British public would digest the bitter medicine proposed by Mr Sunak. Rishi Sunak is the youngest Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in more than two hundred years, after William Pitt the Younger, its first Prime Minister (the country was officially known as Great Britain, prior to 1801). Historians have called Pitt, the Younger, one of the greatest Prime Ministers of the UK “if on no other ground than that he enabled the country to pass from the old order to the new without any violent upheaval … He understood the new Britain.” A similar task awaits Rishi Sunak.